desk setup with decorations
Various studies show that personalized workspaces comes with multiple benefits for employees and employers, from increased engagement to reducing expense fraud. — Getty Images/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

As employees return to work amid a time of significant stress, employers at companies large and small would be wise to let them set up and decorate their own work spaces with family photos, kids’ drawings and other personal effects, which can increase engagement and communication and foster positive attitudes and a greater connection to the company.

Personalized workstations might even cut down on unethical behavior, a new study suggests.

In a case study of one large company, researchers found that when employees feel a work area aligns with their self-image and improves their sense of belonging, they feel more comfortable in the space, more collaborative with others, and more enthusiastic about their work.

“While as leaders, we may perceive that making all the decisions about a new workspace might expedite the design and implementation process, our data suggest otherwise,” said study co-author Brandi Pearce, PhD, a lecturer on organizational management at the University of California, Berkeley. “Specifically, we found that providing workers with a high-level vision, engaging them in the design, and then giving them agency to adapt and personalize their new office space once they move in has the potential to mitigate resistance. In our study, this translated to workers feeling a greater connection to the new physical space as well as enhanced engagement in their work.”

When employees had input, their workspaces tended to be more colorful and have more personal artifacts, including photos and drawings and even playful elements like kites hanging from the ceiling. There’s no reason to think the findings wouldn’t apply to small businesses and to any sort of workspace, whether cubicles, open offices or a factory floor, the researchers say.

In our study, this translated to workers feeling a greater connection to the new physical space as well as enhanced engagement in their work.

Brandi Pearce, PhD

“While our study took place in an organization that was implementing an open-office design, the actions leaders took to support the development of place identity could easily be transported to other types of physical environments and office spaces,” Pearce told CO—.

“Most of our findings are about how people related to their work and their space, so there is every expectation that this would also apply to smaller companies or offices,” said Pearce’s co-author, Pamela Hinds, PhD, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.

In a recent study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers split people into two groups and had them fill out expense reports that averaged $42.50. One group, looking at photos of family or friends during the experiment, on average claimed $8 less than the other group.

In a separate survey for the study, employees were asked about the photos they had in their offices, then supervisors assessed the employees’ actual expense reports. “Those with family photos had significantly lower ratings of expense fraud than did those without family photos,” said study leader Ashley Hardin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The type of unethical behavior that we investigate happens in all sorts of organizations, even those that are small,” Hardin told CO—. “One way to combat this behavior is through encouraging individuals to bring photographs of loved ones into their workspace. Instead of encouraging employees to have a more sterile workspace, encouraging and modeling the display of family photos may go a long way in combating instances of employee theft.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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