Empowering your employees to be themselves.
The need to personalize one’s space — at home or at work — is not only about self-expression. It meets a basic human need to want to be known by others, according to Sam Gosling, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin.
“Research has shown that we are happier when other people see us like we see ourselves,” Gosling says. “One of the ways we do that in the workplace is by personalizing our workspaces.” Considering that employees can spend more than 2,000 hours per year, or one-fourth of their lives, at work, it’s only natural for them to want to decorate their workspaces. Yet corporations may resist, more concerned that their offices project and protect their brand.
Kelley L. Moore, a Seattle-based lifestyle and entertaining expert and author of Cube Chic: Take Your Office Space From Drab to Fab! (Quirk Books), feels it’s important for businesses to allow employees to express their personalities in the workplace.
“Life is all about relationship-building,” Moore says. “If an employee’s desk has a photo of a family ski trip and a new client or colleague comes in, that could be a starting point for getting to know one another.”
Gosling contends that not only does an employee’s ability to personalize a workspace send signals to others about personality type, it also helps regulate stress. “The happier and more relaxed you are, the more productive you will be,” Gosling says.
According to a 2006 article in The Wall Street Journal, when J.C. Penney Company’s CEO Myron E. Ullman III assumed his post in 2004, he realized that the company’s formal corporate culture — employees called managers “Mr.” and “Ms.,” formal business clothing was required and employees were kept from expressing their individuality in their workspaces by the “office police” — was causing high employee turnover and discouraging talented people from joining the company.
Ullman recruited a human resources officer to institute changes. In addition to loosening the dress code, the company began to allow employees to decorate their workspaces.
Gosling urges managers to allow employees to create an environment that makes them happy while being consistent with the company’s identity.
At Google’s Ann Arbor, Mich., office, the online media company sponsored a competition, dividing the employees into teams and asking them to decorate their pod areas with a theme. “Our mindset is that we don’t want a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to our offices,” says Tracy Weaver, a facility manager for Google. “We want each one to be unique.”
Weaver believes the freedom Google gives its employees makes them happier. “It all boils down to people,” Weaver adds. “They’re more productive and have a sense of ownership and pride in their space.”
Everyone responds differently to their environments, says Nancy Kwallek, Ph.D., who studies psychological effects of color in interior office environments and is a professor and the director of the interior design program at the University of Texas-Austin. Her research has found there are “screeners” who can block out “visual noise” and be very productive at tasks such as filing, proofreading or answering telephones when surrounded by bold colors like red. However, “nonscreeners,” who cannot block out color, work best in softer, muted tones.
“Companies today are looking to develop creative thinkers that are problem solvers with out-of-the-box solutions that differentiate them from their competitors. That kind of stuff needs a very special stimulating environment,” says Leslie Harrington, who has helped organizations such as Crayola and Pottery Barn make color choices to best reach their goals and is president of LH Color, based in Old Greenwich, Conn.
Which colors support that type of environment is still unknown because research done to date was based upon color’s effect on completing office tasks, rather than creativity.
“Getting immersed in a company and understanding what it is and what it needs to achieve is probably the most critical thing to making good color decisions,” Harrington says. “I think an issue in the office environment is that you have so many constituents that you’re trying to please.”
Harrington notes that at Yahoo!, the company has a strong “color voice” that speaks to its identity, culture and vision, so the purple and yellow colors used in the office space are ones that everybody embraces. “These are colors that normally people would not want, but the meaning of these colors for Yahoo! is so positive that they work,” Harrington says. “If you have a strong story to tell and it’s based on a certain set of colors, people will see how authentic it is and it’ll look great.”
As more companies use the nonverbal language of color to support their brands, and as cubicles and private offices disappear in favor of open workspaces, there will be fewer opportunities for employees to select their own office colors, Harrington says.
Gosling, from the University of Texas-Austin, suggests employers build in opportunities for employees to express themselves. “If you don’t want employees placing photographs on the walls of their workspaces, supply them with another outlet to display photos that can be placed away from where clients might see them,” he says. “If you can provide an outlet for that psychological need, employees can express themselves in a way more consistent with the image the company wants to convey.”
Many of the themed office designs in Moore’s Cube Chic offer wild ideas for cube personalization, such as a Zen paradise cube with bamboo accents and a miniature sand garden. Moore also offers simple suggestions that allow for personalization but won’t impinge on the company image:
Add digital art: Don’t forget screen savers, which offer a quick shot of color and personality.
Bring in the outdoors: A desktop water fountain has an added benefit of helping dampen the ambient noise in the next cube. Plants, fresh flowers and greenery are a nice touch.
Create privacy: For those without a door, a trifold screen is movable and portable.
At Google, “we’re living proof that there can be a balance between having a corporate environment and still allowing employees to express their individuality,” Weaver says. “If we give them enough freedom, they don’t feel like they need to push it.”