How to Give Employees Ownership of Their Workspace As They Return to the Office

Sloppy desks and appearances might simply reflect your employees’ “authentic selves,” but most employers still expect to see a certain degree of order and professionalism in both workspace and employee appearance. That’s probably never been more true than now, with social distancing requirements and other restrictions designed to help keep employees and the public safe.

This urge to follow a more staid, formal and impersonal aesthetic might even be heightened by an open-office arrangement.

These open plans can also intimidate the more introverted members of your team. Whereas extroverts are energized when surrounded by others, introverts feel sapped by this kind of work environment. They might find it difficult to do their best work there, especially without a little freedom to make the space their own.

For these reasons, allowing for a little bit of creative freedom with respect to workspaces is a good idea. It’s absolutely appropriate — not to mention prudent and safety-conscious — to insist on clean and orderly desks, free of crumbs and trash. However, instead of insisting on cold uniformity, it might be in everyone’s best interests to embrace a little mess and creativity in your workers and their workspaces.

1. Lighten up on the dress code.

Dress codes are common policies for most businesses. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with adopting guidelines for your employees’ appearance while they’re representing your company. However, it’s not unusual for dress codes to be overly rigid and consequently stifle personal expression to the point that it creates friction and resentment.

Start with a review of the legalities of dress codes with your business attorney. If you already have a code in place, identify the areas where more freedom can be allowed in appearance.

Consider reframing the existing rules as boundary-setting instead of a long list of suggestions. In other words, use the dress code rules to point out the lines that employee clothing and appearance should not cross. For example, your rules can simply be “no torn or ripped clothing” or “no shorts or jeans.”

Keep your dress code rules tied to specific reasons that have nothing to do with gender norms and expectations. Legitimate reasons for dress code limitations include safety and presenting a professional appearance to clients and customers.

Dress codes must apply evenly to all workers, regardless of sex or gender expression, and they cannot be discriminatory. Within those legitimate expectations, allow your workers to express their individuality and feel comfortable in their work clothes.

2. Make open workspaces more comfortable.

Common open-plan workspaces don’t have to be impersonal, “model office” areas with hard edges and uncomfortable chairs. Add warmth to these spaces with softer seating that pays attention to ergonomics as well as aesthetics. Use color schemes that add visual interest without being jarring or overwhelming. Embrace the use of homey touches, like colorful pillows or decorative decor that make the place feel less industrial and more collaborative and creative.

In addition, facilitate future changes instead of locking everything into place. Even something as simple as the installation of rolling casters on furniture to free up future change-ups can help your team achieve the perfect arrangement.

Finally, be wary of adopting a totally open workplace. In most cases, having at least one or two spaces that can host a team meeting in a more closed-room style will help increase employee acceptance of an open plan and lead to more effective meetings.

3. Allow employees to personalize the workspace.

You don’t have to try hard to find people who criticize open-office design for its tendency to hurt worker focus and productivity. However, if you give employees more ownership of the space, it might stop those issues to a degree.

A 2018 study by Stanford and UC Berkeley researchers looked at the open-office space rollout in an international company. They surveyed over 300 company workers in five different countries. The research revealed that employees who felt more personally aligned with the space’s design felt it was easier to collaborate in. Workers who felt connection to the space even found their open-office design to be more comfortable and flexible than the workers who lacked a connection to the space.

Letting your employees add their personal touch to their workspace seems to help them feel more “at home,” as it were. That feeling can help them do deeper and better work, as it’s more relaxing and supportive.

Workspaces may or may not have a finite, assigned space for each worker. If they do, allow them some control over the space, both for personalization and organization. If their approach delays work for themselves or someone else, have HR and their manager address the problem then.

If you have a truly collaborative space, where no one has an assigned work area and no physical demarcations such as cubicles or dividers, consider letting workers bring two or three small personal items with them and display in whatever space they’re working from that day.

4. Encourage teams to design their common space.

In both open and cubicle-style workspaces, consider empowering teams to design their own workspace, at least in the common spaces. Let the workers in a room decide what wall hangings, art, plants and other decorative touches they want to display.

Even if it’s something as simple as presenting three or four options to the group and allowing them to vote for the winning artwork, letting your workers have some ownership in the environmental space helps them feel simultaneously valued as individuals and part of the team.

Self-expression fosters better engagement

Although employee safety and wellbeing should always be paramount considerations, letting your employees have even a little bit of ownership over the appearance and design of their workspaces is a small concession that pays big dividends.

Your employees will feel more relaxed and valued in their work areas. That translates into better work and increased productivity, as well as deeper levels of employee engagement and reduced turnover as a result.

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