The Desk of Albert Einstein — Photo Treatment: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Perfect Workspace (According to Science)

The spaces we occupy shape who we are and how we behave. This has serious consequences for our psychological well-being and creative performance. Given that many of us spend years working in the same room, or even at the same desk, it makes sense to organize and optimize that space in the most beneficial ways possible.

When it comes to building your workspace you can aim for the trendy look and flick through some interior design mags, or you can let science guide the way. Based on recent psychology and neuroscience findings, here are some simple and effective steps you can take once to improve your productivity for years:

 Take ownership of your workspace 

The simple act of making your own decisions about how to organize your workspace has an empowering effect and has been linked with improved productivity.

Craig Knight, Director of the Identity Realization workplace consultancy, showed this in a 2010 study with Alex Haslam involving 47 office workers in London. Those workers given the opportunity to arrange a small office with as many or few plants and pictures as they wanted were up to 32 percent more productive than others not given this control. They also identified more with their employer, a sign of increased commitment to the team effort and increased efficiency.

If you are an office manager this suggests you should give your staff as much input into the design of their office and immediate workspace as possible. Many companies even give their employees a small amount of money to furnish their space. Alternatively, if you’re a creative in an open-plan office, try to find ways to make your mark on your immediate environment. Even the simple use of a pin-board to post your own pictures and messages could help you feel that the space is yours with consequent benefits for your work.

Choose rounded furniture and arrange it wisely

If you have the luxury of designing your own workspace, consider choosing a layout and furniture that is curved and rounded rather than sharp and straight-edged. Creating this environment has been linked with positive emotions, which is known to be beneficial for creativity and productivity (added bonus: there’s also less chance of knocking an elbow or knee on a sharp corner).

In a 2011 study, hundreds of undergrads looked at computer-generated pictures of room interiors and rated those filled with curvilinear (rounded), as opposed to rectilinear, furniture as more pleasing and inviting. Another study out this year found that people rated curvy, rounded environments as more beautiful than straight-edged rectilinear environments and that the rounded spaces triggered more activity in brain regions associated with reward and aesthetic appreciation.

This contrast between straight edges and curves also extends to the way we arrange our furniture. Apparently, King Arthur was on to something: sitting in circles provokes a collective mindset, whereas sitting in straight lines triggers feelings of individuality – something worth thinking about at your next meeting if you want to encourage team cohesion.

Apparently, King Arthur was on to something: sitting in circles provokes a collective mindset.

Take advantage of color, light and space

Choosing the right color and lighting scheme for your office is one of the simplest ways your environment can enhance your performance. Different colors and light levels have different psychological effects, so the ideal situation is to install a lighting system that allows you to alter the hue and brightness of your room to suit the kind of work that you’re engaged in.

For instance, exposure to both blue and green has been shown to enhance performance on tasks that require generating new ideas. However, the color red has been linked with superior performance on tasks involving attention to detail. Another study out this year showed that a dimmer environment fostered superior creativity in terms of idea generation, probably because it encourages a feeling of freedom. On the other hand, brighter light levels were more conducive to analytical and evaluative thinking.

Not as easy to modify, but ceiling height has also been shown to have psychological effects. A 2007 study found that a higher ceiling was associated with feelings of freedom, together with a more abstract and relational thinking style that helped participants see the commonalities between objects and concepts.

Make use of plants and windows

If you only do one thing to optimize your workspace, invest in a green plant or two. Research has repeatedly shown that the presence of office plants has a range of benefits including helping workers recover from demanding activities and lowering stress levels. As a bonus, there’s also evidence that plants can reduce office pollution levels.

Another feature of an optimized office is a window with a view, preferably of a natural landscape. This is because a glance at the hills or a lake recharges your mind. Obviously a view of nature isn’t possible for many people who work in cities, but even in an urban situation, a view of trees or intricate architecture have both been linked with restorative benefits. If you can’t negotiate a desk with a view, another plan is to choose an office in your building that’s the shortest stroll from an urban park. A visit here will revitalize your mind and compensate for your lack of a view.

If you only do one thing to optimize your workspace, invest in a green plant or two.

The benefits of a messy desk

There’s a lot of pressure these days to be organized. How are you supposed to get your work done if you can’t even find a clear space on your desk to roll a mouse or place a plant? But new research suggests Einstein may have been onto something when he opined: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota found that participants tested in a messy room at a desk covered with paper came up with more imaginative uses for a ping pong ball than participants tested in a tidy room. This matches the views of consultant Craig Knight who has argued against the modern trend for “lean” workspaces. “We don’t understand psychologically why putting someone in an impoverished space should work, when it doesn’t work for any other animal on the planet,” he said recently.

It also fits with the advice from Eric Abrahamson – co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – who says people with highly ordered desks often struggle to find things because their filing systems are so complicated. He also points out a key advantage to a mess – you can find things in it that you didn’t expect. Discovering that ground-breaking idea you scribbled on a piece of paper two years ago could be just the spark to get your next project off the ground.

***

It’s easy to neglect the importance of your workspace, especially if you’re under pressure of deadlines and not so into interior design. But hopefully this review has convinced you that the spaces we occupy really can affect us psychologically. It’s vital that you choose an office space that you feel happy and comfortable in. If your freedom is restricted, shape the space as much as you can to make it your own. Get your surroundings in order and the rest is sure to follow.

More insights on: Office Dynamics

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to New York, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
load comments (43)
  • Darius

    Thank you for this article!

    I recently began to shape the space of my workspace and it really worked miracles!

    To me it is very important to clean up my desk before I begin with a new project, it’s never totally empty though. As for the rounded furniture: I’ve never worked on a table with roundings before, maybe it is worth a try!

  • http://horizon2020consulting.com/ Scott Wagers

    Nice post on a nice topic. Wonder if there is any relationship between the number of empty coffee cups on your desk and productivity. My desk is the most cluttered when I am the most busy and in some sense the most productive. Could it be that we just associate cluttered desks with being productive.

    • gabi

      The “reason” it gets cluttered is BECAUSE we’ve been and are productive. loll, if we weren’t, there’d be nothing on them.

  • theirmind

    Learned a lot.

  • certifyD

    I really nice read. I want a few plants in my desk even more now.

    • gabi

      LOL, I don’t know how the plants would feel about that. ;-)

  • http://www.chashutch.com/ Charles Hutchinson

    Great information. The rounded corners idea really speaks to me. Something about taking the “edge” off of my working environment.

  • http://www.gladstonehotel.com/ Gladstone Hotel

    Nice! The plant notes remind me of Attention Restoration Theory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_restoration_theory

  • Boop

    I know what kind of plant I want to grow 8D

    • gabi

      LOLL

  • Braintail

    This is a very interesting article, thank you for all the references of the studies! It’s funny; I always have to clean up every little thing before I start working at my desk and it ends in being fully cluttered. I always thought of it as if I had to clean up the whole place to make room for the ‘clutter’ in my mind and the end result is just that. :)

  • Andrew

    I enjoyed the article. Can I take a leap here and say that holiday decor around the office or in the lobby also benefits the employees. A festive and fun environment can enhance team building and lead to unity and solidarity in the workforce. Decorations can act as a reward and make the employee feel valued for their hard work and contribution to the company.

    • cpeila

      I hope you have a sense of humor and this is you making a joke.

  • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

    hi everyone, thanks for your great comments. Just wanted to let you know about a brand new article just out that provides even more evidence that personalising your space is good idea, especially for reducing burn out in open plan offices: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000534

    • gabi

      I would rather subsist on tree bark than to work within a cubicle or “open-plan” office. I think it would literally kill me… or I would HOPE and pray it would.

  • Joel Fried

    What’s interesting is that a lot of these ideas fit perfectly with feng shui principles.

    Now before you guys start rolling your eyes, I’ve always thought that feng shui was created at a time when people didn’t really know of psychology and science, so they simply attributed it to mysticism.

    But the principles were created through observation so at least it’s something to consider.

    For example, one workplace principle is that your back shouldn’t be towards a door. The idea is that anyone could just “sneak up on you” and it can disrupt your concentration.

    And I bet if people actually tested this idea, that people are more productive (and can concentrate better), if they don’t feel exposed with people constantly walking behind them.

  • RichieOnix

    Great article! I didn’t know that blue and green are better colors to help generate ideas. Now I know why I love the color green!

  • gabi

    The many “researchers” could have saved a lot of time and money by simply asking 100 artists of whom 95-97 would have easily come up with these exact answers.

    When 400 documents are within reach, you know where to look… and you remember the approximate area of each document… even within 1-2 foot-high piles. When “organizing” them, you spend half your time finding places to put them and the other half trying to remember where those places were. (Every time I’ve put something important away in an “appropriate” place, I have literally never found it again. I’ve been searching for my passport for 4 years [It’s expired now.]… and haven’t seen hide nor hair of a few antique heirlooms in 15.)

    One always “needs” green… and green always needs red… and a tiny touch of periwinkle blue can be exhilarating. But the blue must be subtly introduced… you don’t want to find yourself desperately searching for the “off” switch.

    You can “breath” and “see” with high ceilings… low ceilings limit the soul and any hope of freedom… limited vision and freedom reduce all human potential.

    Round is “friendly” and “warm”… straight-edges produce corners… corners “hurt.”

    Light alters color drastically… color alters mood… mood alters life. (I don’t want my carefully-chosen celadon walls to shriek “bright light green!!!” at me when the sun shines directly on them or when I turn on the overhead.)

    Having “control” elicits feelings of “control” and “power”… being denied control elicits feelings of helplessness and impotence… helplessness and impotence can foster neither creativity nor productivity.

    Our eyes must be constantly aroused… and they must always have a place to “land” and rest. All of the above makes this possible. :D

    Now, figuring out how we might manage to have a cleaning person come in once (or
    twice) weekly would be something worth the cost and effort of multiple studies!… projects for which this artist would like to thank MIT in advance.

    • http://horizon2020consulting.com/ Scott Wagers

      When you think about it a cluttered desk is the best ‘Working on’ file system. It just probably gets out of hand when it also becomes you archiving system.

  • Nay

    Have scientists ever heard of Feng Shui? hehe same same.

  • cpeila

    Great article and, like anything, balance between squeaky clean and mess can do the trick. I have 13 friends of all ilk who live on a messy messy old ship they are fixing up but I always love going there because I find such amazingly wonderful things set about – it becomes a social event. If you could just tell the control freaks to stop making the messy people maintain “clean” space it would make the world more opperative.

  • gabi

    I meant the plants that you wanted “IN” your desk. :-)

    • certifyD

      Haha right right. I meant “on”

  • Adelina

    If you work in an open plan office full of n*bs, no amount of Feng Shui will correct that.

  • Adam Garlinger

    How about the science of…. what works for me. There’s a breakthrough.

  • Kate

    I myself can’t do anything without the mess: I cannot cook without mess on the kitchen table and cannot design without mess on my working table! I’ve been like these since my early years when I used to do my homework with 3-4 open books, 2-3 notebooks and lots of writing instruments varying in colour! If I tidy up I feel lost. Other points from the article that I keep and are a success: high sealing, room with a view (garden with trees, flowers, spice herbs).

  • http://officespace-ideas.blogspot.in/ Ramesh Narang

    its very important that your work space is well interior design so you work hard. Thanks for sharing nice article Christian.

  • Ruben FG

    Insightful and remarkable advice, thanks for sharing.

    I would also add another article by Leo Babauta that could mix in “good” with this: http://zenhabits.net/zen-clutter/

    Regards

  • Guest

    Einstein didn’t actually say this. Just sayin’.
    http://quotingeinstein.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/a-cluttered-desk.html

  • Evan85

    Einstein never actually said that quote. Just sayin’.
    http://quotingeinstein.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/a-cluttered-desk.html

  • OKD

    Mr. “I know everything” … OMG

  • sketchgrrl

    It’s precisely because of an experience I once had in which a boss did not want me putting anything on the bulletin board over my desk that I love working from home nowadays, where I can design my own environment. Thanks for a wonderful article. I love my home office, messy desk and all! :-)

  • http://www.dagracey.com/ David Decks

    Thank you for acknowledging the view. Many people forget that landscaping outside is not for just driving up to the building, or using the back of the building’s facilities, but also the view outside the window!
    http://www.dagracey.com

  • FueledByPepsi

    Very interesting read on a too often neglected area of the business world. The office I work in is particularly sterile which is a shock given that we are a print and design company. At least we have something of a view. We’re also constantly hounded about keeping desks tidy. I’ve exclaimed before that if my desk is uncluttered it usually means I’m not working. I refer to a number of documents and am constantly taking notes so what would be the point in storing those in a filing cabinet or a draw to root through every day. I’ve heard stories of another office where people were not even allowed to keep photos of their kids and partners on their desks. I really wonder how this could ever foster a healthy working environment.

  • JohnAtl

    I use a temporal organization method, which I strive to apply at all times. This system is tried and true, and works for millions of people. If you’d like to try it, you won’t need a reference manual or tutorials, or even a consultant. Here it is: new stuff on top. The longer ago you used something, the farther down the pile it is.

  • Nate Davis

    Helpful article, especially distinguishing between things most of us can’t control (ceiling height, furniture choices) and those we can (desk plants, organization). What stuck out to me is how IDEO, masters of organizational design and consulting, apply many of these principles in their SF and Palo Alto headquarters–except for allowing employees to personalize their desks, because they have rotating ones.

  • JordiB

    When is this article published? I need to know for a school assignment!

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