According to the philosophy of “lean space management”, a minimalist workspace shorn of clutter is distraction-free and ideal for productivity. But this philosophy turns out to have slim empirical foundations, and as promoting a sense of identity at work, including personalising the work space, generally leads to better outcomes, there’s reason to expect richer, characterful workplaces to be more beneficial. A new article in the Journal of Personnel Psychology builds on this past work, showing that rich and meaningful workplace decor produces better team performance than lean spaces, even in surprising contexts.
Katherine Greenaway and her colleagues asked 54 students (45 women) to form teams of three or four members. The researchers then explained to each team that there were Red teams and Blue teams and that theirs was a Red team. This was a ruse because in reality all teams were told that theirs was a Red team. To stoke a sense of competition, the researchers added that the participants’ team performance and that of other Red teams would be compared against the rival Blue teams. The participants then had a chance to get to know their team-mates and to personalise their own team room with a poster that they made together and with red decorations.
But the teams couldn’t enjoy this for long, as a contrived double booking meant they were cast out from their room into a new work environment that they were told had recently housed another team. Some teams were rehoused in a lean, undecorated room; others in a room that had clearly been used by a Red team; and the remainder in a room that was dressed up as Blue territory.
In this new environment, the teams had to complete a task: finding words in a grid, and then using them to construct sentences. The researchers found that teams moved to a friendly Red room or an unfriendly Blue room performed better than those placed in a lean room.
Remember, the decorations were based on the arbitrary, colour-themed team allocation process, so their specifics couldn’t have been profoundly inspiring. Nor could they represent a shared and personal endeavour: in all cases, the teams’ own poster that they made and their decorative decisions were out of sight in another room.
In the case of those teams rehoused in a different Red room, some insight into their better performance comes from an attitude survey the participants took after the word task. They tended to give higher ratings to items like “I identify with the group that was in this room before us”. It seems the room triggered or sustained a general feeling of “Reds together” and the data suggested this identification drove their better performance.
What about the finding of superior team performance in a Blue-room? The researchers had predicted that being in enemy territory might spark competitive feelings that would boost performance, at least in the short-term. The teams placed in a Blue room did indeed feel more competitive but there was no sign in the data that this was linked with superior performance, so there’s still a question mark over this part of the study.
All in all, the research suggests that workspaces with a rich character are more supportive of team performance than those built for anonymity. As the authors conclude: meaning beats leaning.
Greenaway, K., Thai, H., Haslam, S., & Murphy, S. (2016). Spaces That Signal Identity Improve Workplace Productivity Journal of Personnel Psychology, 15 (1), 35-43 DOI: 10.1027/1866-5888/a000148
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