If you spend a lot of time at a desk, personalizing the space makes sense — whether it's a private corner office or a shared cubicle. But just as your clothes and body language make an impression on others, your workspace gives coworkers and clients a distinct impression about you. Plants, books, artwork — even your name plaque — transmit clues about your efficiency, sociability and competence, experts say. "Everything in your office sends a message, whether you want it to or not," says Lisa Marie Luccioni, an adjunct professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati. So what might they be thinking when they see your space?
You'd rather be fishing (or skiing or skydiving or building birdhouses)
Evidence: Pictures and artifacts from your hobby on every surface.
There's a delicate balance between sharing your interests and giving the impression that you're daydreaming all day about jumping out of planes or skiing, according to Barbara Pachter, business etiquette expert and the author of New Rules at Work. "Pictures of your hobby are good conversation starters, but if you have too many of them, it makes people wonder whether you're really daydreaming about fly-fishing," she says.
They can hang around
Evidence: A full candy dish, aspirin in the drawer, well-tended plants, pictures of children and babies.
"Things like an open door, candy, a comfortable guest chair and photos of people — but not pictures of objects — signal an extroverted workspace that people will feel free to linger in," says Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.
They shouldn't hang around
Evidence: Flimsy guest chair, guest chair covered in files or no guest chair. Your desk faces away from guests. Minimal or no decoration.
"Even if your office has photos or artwork, but they're images of things and not people, [people] can make an assumption you're more introverted and might not want them to linger," Gosling says.
You demand respect
Evidence: Multiple degrees on the wall, awards on the shelf, pictures of you and important people, magazines featuring articles about you. The plaque on your desk says your full name and title and lists your advanced degrees.
"Name plaques form a strong impression," Luccioni says. "If it says just your first name, people assume you're friendly and approachable. If it has a formal title, they think you want to be respected for your rank."
You've just been hired, you've just been fired or you'd like to leave soon. Or you'd rather be temping.
Evidence: Files in boxes, no decorations, no books, no plants, no pictures and no name plaque.
They should avoid doing business with you
Evidence: Messy piles of papers on every surface. Half-eaten doughnuts atop teetering stacks of binders. Carpet stains.
Experts agree that a messy office can seriously damage your reputation as a conscientious person. "It's hard to function in a messy office, and people assume your office chaos will spill over to their project and their files will be lost in your mess," Pachter says.
Gosling pointed to research that shows people read much more than they should into a messy office. "People think that someone with a messy office is less agreeable, which may not be accurate," he says. "My guess is, people assume a mess is inconsiderate."
You don't take the whole "work thing" too seriously
Evidence: Humorous posters, ironic bumper stickers, whimsical images and toys.