The science of why we personalise our surroundings

The personalisation of the workspace improves morale, productivity, employee retention and wellbeing.

Territoriality in the workplace gets a bid of a bad rap these days. Partly this is down to an association with the behaviour of animals who will mark their territory in one way or another, then guard it aggressively. Partly it is down to a business culture that promotes sharing and interaction and thereby suggests in some way that personal workspace, and its connotations of status and the hoarding of information, might be a secondary concern to the greater good of the organisation.

While there are certain parallels between animal and human territoriality they don’t go very deep, according to researchers. For example, Julian Edney, a psychologist at Arizona State University, argues that while all animals will guard territory to protect resources, access to mates, status and so on, there are limits to how we can ascribe this to individual behaviour in humans. Corner offices may be desirable for such base reasons, but things are more complex than that when it comes to people.

In a 1974 report called Human Territoriality, Edney writes: ‘It does not follow from the gross similarities between the territorial behaviour of some animals and man that the underlying mechanisms are the same in both, nor that they are genetic. To assume so, incidentally, has an interesting political consequence: It relieves man of the moral responsibility for his territorially aggressive acts and invites the rationalization of human territorial warfare as simple fulfilment of man’s genetic predispositions.’

So human territory is not necessarily defended aggressively, serves sophisticated needs in individuals, can consist of several spaces, and is open to invitations from others.

The complexity of this is evident in the academic research that has been carried out to look at exactly why, and how, we personalise the places in which we work. From the point of view of a company like our own, the office doesn’t really come to life until it has people in it - with all their mugs, bags, pictures, plants, painting, awards and toys.

The research backs up our instincts. A 2000 paper published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology by M M Wells found that the personalisation of the workspace is psychologically important as a way of affirming personal identity and so improves morale, productivity and increases employee retention and wellbeing.

And if you think this is all tied in to how much personal clutter people are allowed to bring to work you’d be wrong! The same research shows that it is equally important that employees are able to adapt the functional elements in their surroundings including furniture, shelves, pinboards and other practical accessories. Flexibility and modularity are essential characteristics of these products and explain why they can be so important as a way of increasing levels of satisfaction with the physical environment as well as overall job satisfaction, motivation, productivity and wellbeing.

Category: Blog