If you’re reading this article in your office, pause and take a look around you. What do you see? Is your desk cluttered or clean? Is your wall empty or full? If it’s full, what is there? – pictures of family, certificates of achievement, or both? And most importantly – what do you think all these things say about you? “It may be that you can’t tell a book by its cover. However, you can tell a lot about someone by going into his or her work space, office or cubicle,” says Karen Otazo, a global executive coach and author of The Truth About Managing Your Career (Pearson, 2006). “Every feature, right down to the placement of papers on the desk, sends a message about who you are and how you do things.”
As a manager, you likely want to be perceived as someone who is approachable and easy to talk to, someone who is organized, and someone who works hard. But how do you communicate that message through your work space? Here’s how, says Otazo:
1. Ditch the daffodils. You need to tread carefully in the area of décor. A family photo or two, judiciously placed, can subtly communicate that you are a family person. Too many photos will appear obsessive and could communicate that your focus isn’t on work. Likewise, cuddly toys, an excess of plants or a cutesy screensaver can detract from your professionalism. “It isn’t that self-expression is bad,” Otazo observes, “but in the small area of a work space, each item becomes more noticeable, taking on greater significance as a symbol of who you are.”
2. Incorporate a conversationstarter. Make sure there’s at least one item in your office designed to act as a conversation starter. A photo of you on the top of Mt. Everest sends the message that you’re a super-achiever and will draw the attention of someone passing by. A popular book, well placed, will draw people into conversation as well. “Think not only about what your chosen objects say about you, but what others might find to say about them,” says Otazo.
3. Pare down the paper. Messy piles of paper send the wrong message. First, those piles serve as a kind of background noise that is a distraction for you and others. Second, they are a physical barrier between you and any visitors to your office. Think about it: when you’re on one side of your desk and your visitor is on the other, piles of paper are an obstacle, regardless of how neatly you think you have them stacked. Otazo says she isn’t suggesting your desk be pristinely clean, but keep only one or two projects on your desk at one time to eliminate clutter and show you’re organized. Any ongoing projects you aren’t working on right at that moment should be organized in file boxes on a shelf near your desk. Turn the boxes so the messy side is inward and the effect will be a bit like looking at a row of books. That way, the papers aren’t so obvious but they’re easily accessible.
Once you’ve made the necessary changes, leave your office for a few minutes, and then walk back in. What does the new space communicate? Does it look neat and organized? Does it convey professionalism? Is there a well-placed item that invites questions and conversation? These are not trivial questions, says Otazo: “Paying attention to your work space is a simple way to show yourself off to your best advantage.”