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.

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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 blog editor at the design collaboration platform InvisionApp.comcontributor to WIRED, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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