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Workspace Psychology 101: Boost Your Mood, Motivation, and Productivity

Even with the rapid growth of the freelancer economy and the increasing appeal of shared coworking spaces, the majority of us still work out of a single, personal workstation. It’s no secret that our surroundings — both indoor and outdoor — continually impact our psychological well-being and cognitive function. Everything from color design to your distance from the nearest window has a measurable effect on your mood and productivity.

Workspace Psychology Colorful Rocks

Not everyone can move to a corner office or ask their boss for a custom built ergonomic workstation. So, we rounded up a few scientifically proven ways you can optimize your workspace. That way, you can keep your spirits high and your output in peak form.

Take charge of your decor.

The extent to which different people can personalize their workspace certainly varies. For some, it may be limited to the addition of a few framed photos. While others may have control over their surrounding paint color, adjustable lighting, etc. Regardless, research shows that exercising your maximum degree of influence over your workspace design is beneficial for your motivation and productivity.

Multiple studies led by Craig Knight at the University of Exeter measured workers’ mood and efficiency in varying levels of personalized workspaces in several industries. Self-reported surveys found that the more control people were given over their surroundings, the more engaged they were with their job and the more they identified with their employer. Two additional studies compared workers’ abilities to complete tasks in workspaces categorized as lean (bare and functional), enriched (decorated with plants and photos), and empowered (individuals allowed to design their area). People working in enriched spaces were 17% more productive than those in lean spaces, while their empowered counterparts were a whopping 32% more productive.

Workspace Psychology Desk Plant

There’s no such thing as too much nature.

Indoor plants are perhaps the single best investment you can make in your workspace. Research overwhelmingly shows that office plants help workers recover from demanding activities, decrease stress, and even reduce office air pollution.

Here is a guide to desk plants that thrive in indoor office environments.

Here is a graphic of the best air-cleaning plants, according to NASA.

Curves are more relaxing than right angles.

There is a long history of scientific literature demonstrating the relationship between positive emotional responses and rounded shapes in design and architecture. More recent studies find this relationship extends to furniture and objects in our immediate surroundings.

A recent study led by Sibel Dazkir at Oregon State University looked at participants’ responses to four interior settings with varying degrees of rounded and hard-edged furniture. The two settings with a higher concentration of curves were significantly more inviting to participants and elicited higher amounts of pleasant-unarousing emotions (feeling relaxed, peaceful, and calm).

If possible, opt for a desk and chair that emphasize curves to foster tranquility in your workspace. If not, surround yourself with smaller objects that highlight fluid forms. For ideas, try adding a desk lamp, coffee mug, or potted plant.

Workspace Psychology Colored Pencils

Clutter promotes creativity.

Some appreciate the value of a tidy, organized desk. But others feel more at home amidst stacks of loose paper peppered with stray binder clips. Messy workspaces are strongly associated with enhanced creativity and more novel ideas.

This intriguing study led by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota confirmed the clutter-creativity connection. However, it also found  participants in tidier workspaces were more likely to choose healthy snack options. The study finds that people in more orderly workstations are more likely to do what was expected of them. These findings suggest that levels of workspace organization and disorder influence and might even optimize the efficiency of one’s job. For example, a business analyst will likely prefer a more robust organizational structure than the in-house graphic designer.

Color affects cognition.

All colors and light levels have different psychological effects, so choose your colors and desk lighting accordingly. In a 2009 study, Ravi Mehta and Rui Zhu used a series of six computer-based activities to evaluate how red and blue affect cognition. Red facilitates greater attention to detail. Blue encourages exploration and creativity. Green promotes idea generation. Discover what mode of cognition your job requires the most, or what mode of cognition you feel comes least naturally to you. Then, try to work the relevant cognition-boosting color into your workspace.

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