The sparring mitt, yellow stitches spelling “SLUGGER” casually lying on the desk. The Mathlete trophy on a high shelf. A Ganesha statue, slightly chipped. Why do people bring these kinds of personal objects into the workplace?
Researchers Kris Byron and Gregory Laurence found answers by consulting 28 people in a range of jobs and workplaces. They used the “grounded theory” approach, starting with a clutch of more open-ended interviews and then pursuing the lines of inquiry that emerged, in every case inventorying the person’s workspace and exploring the significance of each object.
The conventional understanding is that personal objects are territorial markers used to communicate who we are to co-workers. And indeed many interviewees emphasised this function, a “unique fingerprint” that expresses difference. This might be an indicator of character – I’m a happy-go-lucky person – but participants also used objects to emphasise their organisational roles. A framed MBA certificate reminds others that this cubicle bunny is made of management material, thank you, whereas doodles show that the person is part of the creative class. An event planner explained that the thank-you notes pinned to their board were to reassure others of her reliability – a core requirement in her role.
As well as showing differences, personalisation can also affirm shared identity. Star Wars memorabilia across multiple desks shows that “a lot of us have, you know, that techie background”. Similarly, some items were inside jokes, with meaning only apparent to those sharing in its history. And although personalisation could emphasise status – think of that MBA certificate – some managers attempted to de-emphasise status differences by presenting everyday objects that made themselves more approachable.
Interviewees raised another reason for personalisation: to build relationships. These items were seen as icebreakers or ways to find “common ground”, whether through the contents of a bookshelf, or a photo denoting parenthood. Byron and Laurence photographed every desk-setup from the perspective of an outside visitor, and found that 75 per cent of such conversation-starters were positioned to be clearly visible from that view. Many participants felt that these personalisation functions were vital and companies prevent them at their peril: “They want to have such strong relationships with customers but they’re taking away the personal elements that I think can lend towards building those types of relationships with clients.”
In contrast, a certain proportion of personalisation objects – about a third in all – were positioned to only be visible to the owner themselves. These exemplify a final function of personalisation – not to communicate to others, but to remind ourselves of our identity.
This could be an aspirational symbol – the poster put up by a designer that showed “the kind of design I eventually want to do”, or the gift from an inspiring role model. Or it might be a way to put work into a larger context, so on the tough days, “you can look at your picture [of children] and realize this is only a job.”
Many objects had multiple functions – communicating difference, starting conversations, and reminding oneself of identity. Byron and Laurence conclude that “organizations would be unwise to put excessive limits on employees’ personalization of their workspaces,” as an innocuous paperweight may turn out to carry a lot inside.
Byron, K., & Laurence, G. (2015). Diplomas, Photos, and Tchotchkes as Symbolic Self-Representations: Understanding Employees’ Individual Use of Symbols Academy of Management Journal, 58 (1), 298-323 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0932
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