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Workspace personalization


Are you lifejacket or security net?

Signed Marc Bertier, Workplace consulting at Colliers International France 


Who knows a project in which workspace personalisation isn’t a big topic? How to analyse the demands from stakeholders? Using the lifejacket versus security net metaphor, you can have an analysis tool and a way to provide the best solution.

Pictures, personal items, green plants or behaviours, like management routines or socialization habits, are some of the marks of individual and team workspace personalization. Various on-site observations let me identify three kinds of them. The first is focused on the workstation and its neighbourhood: the right to have our own stuffs and do whatever we want with them. The second is how we control our environment, it is about thresholds and limits. The third is the most theatrical and it’s a kind of self-staging. Those three kinds of personalization can be evidences as deep uneasiness as opportunities. Whereas personalization works more as a life jacket in the first case, it will be more a safety net in the second one.


1. Individual renewing : Would you willing to take the plane if there isn’t a lifejacket under your seat?

Even if air way is the safest, you might feel uncomfortable. As well, if you were a trapeze artist, you might be more inclined to surpass yourself if you have a net under you. Users’ behaviours and arguments study highlight the ambivalence of their link with personalization of space. Lifejackets situations are characterized by intense personalization demands. Verbatim are frequently about emotional survival issues. Space personalisation helps to roll with the punches, management pressure, political games… The lifejacket helps us to not dive in the deepest dark waters and stay alive. It’s a security something you can built up to overcome everyday events. The lifejacket personalization is a strategy against jealousy or low blows, a protected area against disdains and humiliations. In other cases, lifejacket can be perceived as useless or as an obstacle and then becomes a security net. This is often the case in organisations applying the New Ways Of Working, where management focus on autonomy, trust and responsibility. Security net is here important to foster innovation, risk taking or assume the right to make a mistake. The trapeze artist does the same when he asks for a security net when he wants to perform a new trick. At work, when you are taking risk, knowing that there is somewhere where you can cling can be reassuring. That does not necessarily mean to have a personal workstation, but more a place where to you are able to renew yourself.


2. Ergonomic design and privacy : Would you accept to sleep in a hostel room if the door doesn’t lock?

I’ve been once in this situation and must say that, whereas the hostel was very calm and I was exhausted due to a delayed arrival, I asked for another room even if I planned to stay one night. To be insecure about my environment was a barrier to a good night sleep. We’ve got quite the same cognitive situation in our everyday life at the office. We spend more and more time in collaborative activities, formals or not. Anne Laure Fayard studies ( explore factors that influence exchanges. They indicate that exchanges are more qualitative when people are mastering and trust their environment. In our everyday life, we prefer having the most personal or difficult conversation in comfortable places with a controlled access and acoustic protection. As well, always according to Anne-Laure Fayard, conversations in public places are poorest. Environment master and trust are also important in office daily practices. One of the best example is the doors of private offices. They often are open: workers want to feel a collective ambiance and be part of the group. In other cases, doors are closed and by this way workers indicate to others they are not available. Maybe they have a confidential call or they need to focus. The door is a very important personalization, letting know if we are available or not, giving the opportunity to have privacy… Moments outside the group are important to be better in it. As many says (and not only introverts): ‘’I need to feel comfortable to share my topics in public’’. For example, when you have to present a report to your big boss and you see him only once per year you prefer to be comfortable. Limits and thresholds let you the chance to master your environment and avoid bad experiences. These kinds of space personalization don’t mean you need to own your space, you only need an ergonomically designed space. This kind of space personalization is about uses and can be without space ownership, a well design usability can be a very good answer. Doors and walls give the feeling of privacy and foster open mind behaviours. But, as everybody knows, walls aren’t the best solution: they have ears. In spy thrillers, the brouhaha from a hall station is even preferred for a secret exchange. This is another illustration of the difference between the life jacket and the security net. Life jacket gives self-confidence, security net helps you to move forward.


3. Stage : Did you ever think about dress as cheerleader to go working?

In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek mentions a story about Southwest, an American airplane company. In the 1970s, Southwest leaders understood that most of applications to their jobs opportunities came from men and women who are cheerleaders. At that moment, the company’s uniform was influenced by the 70’s fashion: elephant-bottom pants and slim-fitted shirts. The first hypothesis has been: cheerleaders are used to wear this kind of clothes and, more than other people, they feel well with the uniform. Southwest leaders get further and also understood that these candidates have also a strong attention to customer experience and really want to make passengers happiest. Based on this finding, cheerleaders’ hiring has been foster. This little story highlights the importance of the costume as a way to be on stage. It’s a meaningful tool to reflect yourself. Advertising is also playing with this theatrical situation: buy me and you will be like this… At the office, this theatricality can be noticed at work. Space personalization is also an identity costume. During in-situ observations, some workers do not let us take picture of their desks arguing that their desks are in a mess today, what kind of image will it reflect about them? Others insist on well done work, with the concrete evidence of their desks. In collective perceptions, well-ordered and cleanness are marks of serious and rigorous work. Once, a manager explains me how he evaluates his team members’ productivity by their desks. Costume is also a tool for claim. It’s the proof that you respect (or not) the norms. Those who don’t respect them are judged or envied. But everyone doesn’t overpass the rules. And you won’t do it in each case. Desk personalization is a way to show its own singularity and itself as a group member. Some use objects, others sitting near someone or with a team. Lastly, the costume is like an identity anchor. In a complex work environment like project mode, where we are being asked to wear simultaneously different identities, costume can be a way to have a personal recognition. I’m wearing sneakers because I’m a creative person. I’m wearing a suit because I’m rigorous person. Fashion, as space personalization, is a way to have a quick recognition by others. On the plane, thanks to their uniform, we know who can help us. Personal recognition offer stability in a fast-paced workplace based on multi-skilling and reactivity.


Are you more lifejacket or security net?

It will depend on contexts and moments. Your emotional condition, cognitive state and your recognition strategy will have a strong impact on your needs and your types of workspace personalization. In some situations, you will need insurance. You will be more lifejacket and choose to go slowly but surely. In other situation, you will prefer to go faster and you will travel light. You will personalize your workspace with routines and habits. You will have a place where only the closest will know you are there. This secret place will be your security net. Your work environment drives you on one strategy. If workspace conception is incentive, organizational culture is major in your choice. If you want to change space personalization habits in your workplace, you need a good design but also a strong reflection about behaviours.