This article is part of the Workplace Anthropology series.

A friend of mine works for a company that underwent a massive reorganization of its workspaces. The office moved from the traditional corporate structure of physical offices to an open floor plan. The move meant that senior staff were removed from their offices and were now “on the floor” with their reports. While many of them felt this shift somewhat personally—their offices had been earned with their titles—the biggest complaint to come out of this shift has been with regard to the loss of personalized spaces.

There's no argument that an employer owns (or rents) the office space they provide for their employees to work and can therefore dictate how that space is decorated and used. But buildings—office spaces—are not just places where people gather. The traditional American work week is 40 hours. That's considerable time spent in a space that's not your home but where you are expected to perform efficiently. State of mind matters in this context; it’s one of the reasons hiring managers emphasize the social and cultural fit of potential candidates. But state of mind is driven by more than just personality. Space and tools matter too. Usability has to account for the users' context. When change is viewed through the lens of the behavior it incites rather than just the use of objects and artifacts, the usability of work environments is revealed—and it's linked to the personalization that happens despite attempts to discourage this.

Open floor plans are marked by the lack of walls. The workspaces may consist of counter-style desks that place several employees in a row. They're designed to be interchangeable so that any employee can sit there, and easily reconfigurable so that if the company vacates the space it can be reorganized for a new corporate resident. This style is referred to as non-territorial space. As such the desktops are sparse; they may include some additional equipment such as a monitor or a phone but for the most part they're relatively bare—and employees are encouraged to keep and leave the desks they use clean and empty.

However, researchers have found that when employees are dropped into open floor plans, they take steps to challenge the idea of non-territoriality. First and foremost employees who may be visiting a workspace or who are otherwise not assigned a permanent seat in the space are inclined to claim the same desk whenever possible. And even when it was required that they leave the desk clean and empty at the end of the day, they demonstrate behaviors oriented toward a temporary personalization. For example, cleaning the desk and changing the position of any shared equipment are both a means of establishing personal boundaries and claiming the space for self. Leaving paperwork strewn about the desk over the course of the day is another example of temporary personalization. For regular employees with assigned seats, personalization manifests in the display of items, such as photographs of family and friends, artwork from children, coffee mugs, plants and other tokens. In both cases of visiting and regular employees, the repeated use of the same seats allows them to create a sense of community among their colleagues which challenges the sense of impermanence the absence of personal objects can impart.

Why do people persist in establishing personalized boundaries even against regulations? Humanizing the spaces we occupy is essential to our ability to function in them. Displays of tokens that help define who we are and actions that help us claim the space as our own enhance our feeling of comfort in that space. It decreases anonymity for both the individual, by establishing her as a member of that community, and for other seat-mates who come to know something about the individual through the items they display. In the absence of displayed items, the temporary reorganization of the workspace serves the same purpose: it establishes boundaries and offers some hints about the individual. It may seem like a small thing but it matters to the individual whether their monitor is on the right or left  Being comfortable in a space allows us to move about more freely and act with greater confidence. Being comfortable also increases personal satisfaction which is important to employee retention.

Short of hard enforcement employees will find a way to bring a piece of themselves into the workplace and their workspaces. Barring the display of offensive material, which is already prohibited and punishable, employers should ask themselves what they hope to accomplish with barren, open floor plans. Our larger social order greatly deemphasizes anonymity—people expect to be acknowledged as individuals and will look to establish the boundaries within which they can express themselves. 

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Brunia, Sandra & Gosselink, A.M.. (2009). "Personalization in non-territorial offices: A study of a human need." Journal of Corporate Real Estate. 11. 169-182. 10.1108/14630010910985922. 

Elsbach, Kimberly D. "Interpreting Workplace Identities: The Role of Office Décor." Journal of Organizational Behavior 25, no. 1 (2004): 99-128.

Tian, Kelly, Russell W. Belk, and [Dawn Iacobucci Served as Editor and Craig Thompson Served as Associate Editor for This Article.]. "Extended Self and Possessions in the Workplace." Journal of Consumer Research 32, no. 2 (2005): 297-310. doi:10.1086/432239.


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