How You Organize Your Office Can Change How You Work

It's science.

Photographed by Nicki Sebastian.

Do you notice that when you work in different environments you're more productive? Well it's not just coincidence — it's science. Environmental psychologists have conducted countless studies and have pinpointed that there are actually particular conditions that are good for (and really bad for) doing the best and most efficient work possible. So when you're choosing the setting, decor, or even layout of your office, it actually determines how well you'll be able to do your job.

Since we are definitely not experts (unless you count our ongoing project of adding and editing out decor pieces and plants on our desks), we called on Lily Bernheimer, director of Space Works Consulting and author of The Shaping Of Us, for some help. With a background in environmental psychology research and creating human-centered design projects, Bernheimer knows her stuff. From cleanliness to open-plans, get ready to be schooled on how to re-arrange your space to reach #girlboss levels.

Lonny: Is there an ideal way to organize your desk at work?

How You Organize Your Office Can Change How You Work
Photographed by Tom Rauner.

Lily Bernheimer: I would say there’s not one ideal way to organize your desk for productivity because it really depends on the nature of your work, your workspace, and the personality of the person in question. There’s been lots of studies done on the issue of organized desks versus messy desks, and whether an organized desk makes you more productive. What we found is that organized desks make you better at doing some things like making decisions about your health like choosing to eat an apple instead of a candy bar. So if your work requires you to really be all about punctuality, a super organized desk would be great.

But then we find when people are required to do tasks that require them to be more creative and imaginative, they actually perform better when they have a messy desk. So it really depends. If you’re an accountant, a super organized desk can be great. But if you’re some sort of creative person that might not actually be the best thing for your work.

Is personalizing your desk with design elements, plants, or family photos a good thing?

LB: I think personalization is always a good thing in the workspace given that it doesn’t intrude your other coworkers by making the space too much your own. But I would definitely support having things like a task lighting. Finding a lamp you really like brings some sort of design element into your workspace but also gives you some sort of control over the lighting at your desk. Quality of light is important for productivity and wellbeing. It’s also about control and being able to change the lighting quality depending on what time of day it is or what type of work your doing.

Plants people talk about a lot. There is really good evidence showing biophilic elements in the workplace have positive effects on wellbeing, helping you to focus and lower stress levels. Personal items like family photos can also be great for this as well.

How You Organize Your Office Can Change How You Work
Photographed by Amy Bartlam.

If you’re styling a home office, is it good to have your desk facing a window?

LB: That is a tricky one and can depend on your personality. If you’re an extroverted person or someone who is very open to new experiences, then you may need that stimulation of being able to look out the window to keep yourself having the right energy level to be able to do your work. If you’re introverted, that may not being really important to you. You may be easily distracted by the the presence of people, cars, or things outside of windows. That could depend a little bit.

We know that having a good view out of a window — particularly a view of trees — is something that’s linked to all sorts of health benefits like reduced stress levels. So if you deal with lots of stress at work, I would highly recommend that. That said, professional interior designers will often not place desks to be directly facing windows because you can often get the problem of the glare of the screen if sun is coming in. Orienting yourself so you can look up and glance out the window though is a good thing.

Should we keep art in our offices?

LB: Absolutely yes. Artwork can bring the same sorts of biophilic benefits that we see from plants if it features natural scenes or even if it’s a painting of people, who are part of nature as well. So that can all have positive benefits.

What we find is that most contemporary environments — especially offices and hospitals — compared to the natural environments we evolved in as a species are so different. Now we sit in these very dull, bland colorless spaces, and that’s very taxing for us psychologically. It feels like something is off or we are missing some information we should be perceiving. Bringing artwork into a space can be very helpful.

How can you optimize your productivity when working in an open-plan office?

LB: Open-plan offices are a big issue that people are always asking about these days. Unfortunately overall, the research shows that they are not very good for productivity. There’s this idea that they are better for collaboration and communication, but that hasn’t necessarily been held up by research.

How You Organize Your Office Can Change How You Work
Photographed by Nicki Sebastian.

When it comes to open plan offices, it can be hard for people to make these changes themselves. You really need to get the office manager involved and make sure there’s an adequate amount of space in the office for people to have phone calls and be able to have meetings away from their desks so that they’re not constantly disturbing people with noise. Noise-cancelling headphones are a good idea. What we find is that people’s productivity is suffering primarily due to noise interferences in open plan offices.

While we find a lot of the disturbance is from noise, some of it is from people having a sense of not having visual privacy as well. There’s this concept that people tend to prefer to have spaces where you can have your back to a wall. It’s hypothesized that evolutionarily we would have been able to survive better if you can see any potential threats or opportunities that could be coming towards you, and you would know that nothing would be coming to attack you from behind. So today nothing is going to attack you in the office, hopefully. But still a lot of people find it harder to focus if they have this lingering fear that someone can be walking up from behind and they can’t see them and they’ll be looking at what’s on their screen. So laying out an office that maximizes these relationships so people can have their backs to the wall is good.

A lot of the time you could easily come in and just arrange the desks a different way that would leave people in much better positions. You can also use things like bookshelves with plants on top of them to divide up a space and create a feeling of different zones within an open-plan office.

Is there anything else we should keep in mind when styling our office spaces?

LB: Just generally for people to think about what they can be doing in their office whether it’s at home, a co-working space, or an open plan, I have a checklist I call the balance checklist that combines all the different elements that are important to think about. It’s an acronym. So it incorporates biophilia, atmospheric conditions like lighting quality, layout, amenities, like supporting eating away from your desk and an active lifestyle, noise, and then design elements and how the shape and color of materials and furniture affect us psychologically.

I am Lonny's Senior Associate Editor. You can find me writing about interior tips, scouting out the coolest new spots, and rallying behind amazing female entrepreneurs. You can reach me at shelby.wax@livingly.com or on Instagram @shelbywax.
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