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Use your physical surroundings to shape your work life

4 research-driven ways to customize the physical landscape of your workspaces to help you become your best work self

Illustration of woman rearranging office
January 02, 2024

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Harvard Business Review and appeared in the winter 2024 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

All work occurs in a place, and today, workers are making more conscious choices about where to place themselves. This is for a good reason: Research shows that where you do your work makes a difference because places anchor your career and shape your sense of self.

In our workplace identification research, which integrates research on environmental psychology, organizational behavior and workplace design, we’ve discovered powerful ways you can adapt or create spaces to do your best work.

1. Personalize your workplace 

By personalizing your workplace, you can make space for yourself in your organization.

For example, you might shape your workplace with inspirational identity markers like awards, diplomas or items that bring back warm feelings of nostalgia, such as a treasured photo of your team or a note from a colleague. These markers can help you to feel more integrated and seen at work and inspire you toward your best work self.

In addition, look for opportunities to build upon your identities. If part of your identity is “nature lover,” you may feel most aligned where you can see or interact with greenery, even in pictures.

2. Alter your use of your space

If you’re stuck on a problem or feeling uninspired, you may need to work in a different place for a few hours. Our research suggests that subtle environmental shifts, such as ceiling height or natural elements, often stimulate another kind of thinking and influence your well-being.

Sometimes, you need more than one place to address the needs of the multiple hats you wear at work. For example, you could move to a different part of the building to trigger another part of yourself. 

Perhaps you prefer a place that allows solitude for tasks that require precise thinking and calculations, whereas a more energized, communal environment feels better for jobs that require creative thinking. You may find that expanding your sense of your workplace by routinely rotating spaces helps you complete different tasks more effectively.

3. Find connection through your workspace

Maybe working from home has left you feeling isolated. While you might enjoy the quiet, focused time, you can satisfy your need to feel a sense of belonging by spending one or more days each week at the office, working in a busy coffee shop for a few hours, or even enjoying lunch with a colleague.

You can also consider how you can craft the social landscape of your work by changing when and how you interact with others. Who do you engage with when you’re taking your morning coffee? How do you connect with colleagues when you have a question, “big idea” or need advice on a tricky problem? Have you signaled your accessibility by leaving your office door open, if you have one, and periodically wandering around to visit others?

4. Architect your boundaries

In the 24/7 workplace, we sometimes feel pressured to always be “on.” Our physical landscape and how we use it offers us the opportunity to create, reinforce and manage desired psychological boundaries between our roles — like being a parent, worker or member of a rock band.

Boundaries between places that house your various selves can help you recharge and be your best at work. For example, is there a place you can shape where you have no access to your work so that you can shed that work self and allow another valued part of yourself to flourish? This type of physical boundary setting can be vital for recovery from — and future engagement in — your work.

Putting it to work for you

More than ever, it’s clear that our workplaces both shape and reflect important parts of ourselves, impacting our performance and well-being. 

While there are limits to the places we have available for work — and our agency in making them “ours” — there are always at least some opportunities to engage in placemaking. Take time to consider whether your workplaces are working for you and how you might improve where and how you do your work.

Checklist for auditing your workplaces

Working with the following questions can set down the path of more intentionally shaping your places of work.

What is your overall sense of this workplace? For example, does it bring you a sense of calm? Does it energize you? Distract you? Focus you?

How does your workplace influence task completion? Are you functioning efficiently and effectively? Are there physical or social barriers to your task completion? Does it facilitate how you change tasks as you move through your day?

How does your workplace impact relationships? Do you feel connected and respected? Isolated?

Does your workplace reflect your professional journey? Does it remind you of where you’ve been and the progress you’ve made? Does it allow you to picture your future goals?

Written by Blake E. Ashforth, Regents Professor of management and entrepreneurship at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business; Brianna Barker Caza; associate professor of management in the Bryan School of Business and Economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Alyson Meister, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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