OfficePRO magazine, August/September 2004
Your office environment conveys much about competence, organization, and credibility
BY LILLIAN H. CHANEY
Just as a person's appearance and behavior convey positive and negative impressions, so, too, do various aspects of the office environment. Your office environment provides clues to your personality and indicates the extent of formality or informality desired in certain situations. Elements of the office environment can also indicate professionalism, competence, organizational skills, and credibility. Professionals often will display items in their office without regard to the impressions they give visitors, col-leagues, and supervisors.
Give your office decor, furniture selection and arrangement, and office tidiness and cleanliness careful attention to ensure that you convey a positive impression of yourself and the organization you represent.
Office decor can suggest to others that you are a well-organized professional who selects tasteful accessories consistent with the overall impression your organization wishes to portray. In some offices, such as those supported by public funds, appropriate decor would be practical, inexpensive, and conventional. In offices where an impression of affluence is appropriate, such as waiting rooms of physicians specializing in elective surgery or offices at private law firms that deal with prestigious clients, the office decor would be opulent, including the display of antiques and artwork of substantial monetary value.
Research on office decor reveals some interesting findings. For example, the presence of aesthetic objects, such as wall hangings and art objects, appears to have a positive impact on visitors. Aesthetic objects also convey favorable impressions of a person’s interpersonal skills.
Some office decorators suggest prints of modern paintings that emphasize design and color rather than subject matter. Other objects in the office should reflect the image you wish to project. Plants, aquariums, and living things seem to make visitors feel more comfortable and give the impression that the person is friendly.
Research on the impact of displaying framed credentials, such as university degrees or professional certification documents, has revealed mixed results. While doctors, attorneys, and other professionals display their credentials to enhance their credibility, in other types of offices such displays should be used with discretion. When certificates and awards are job-related, such as CPS/CAP certification, they imply to visitors that the person is competent and experienced and has received recognition for exceptional performance. However, visitors view less positively displays of achievements that are not job related, such as a president of the PTA certificate.
There’s some debate over whether framed family photographs are appropriate in the office. Research suggests that the display of family photographs by medical doctors specializing in family practice and by CEOs of organizations is considered acceptable. However, such displays are not recommended in other types of offices. Perhaps the basis for this research finding is the common belief that one’s personal life should be kept separate from one’s business life.
Other aspects of office decor include color and lighting. Research has shown that dark blue is considered a powerful color; yellow is viewed as weak. Red is perceived as a bit frightening, and beige is too neutral. Openness, freedom, and cleanliness are associated with white, so white is often seen in doctors’ offices and hospitals. In one study, the most effective colors for office decor were found to be white and dark blue, with touches of red to instill a bit of fear and control. Other research indicated a preference for shades of blue in reception areas and waiting rooms because blue tends to have a soothing, calming effect. The consensus of those who have researched the use of color in offices is that color should be used sparingly; they recommend the use of more subdued colors to convey a friendly, professional environment.
Though little research has been con-ducted about lighting’s role in creating office impressions, some evidence exists that the amount and type of lighting, such as task or overhead lighting, influences visitors’ impressions. More light will make you seem more energetic, while a dark office will give the impression that you are somewhat sedate and reserved. Rooms with peripheral wall lighting convey friendliness and spaciousness to a greater extent than rooms that use over-head diffused lighting.
Furniture Selection and Arrangement
In most large corporations, your position determines the size of your office area and desk, and little can be done to change this. However, those who do have a choice should remember that when selecting a desk, bigger is usually better (but the size should be compatible with the overall size of the office) and wood is preferable to other materials.
The desk’s location in relation to the office entrance is also important. Professionals who have an assistant in the same office should arrange the desks to indicate the person with higher rank. Usually the person with higher rank is located farthest from the door. Those who do not have an assistant would want to locate their desks near and facing the door to greet visitors, give eye contact, and initi-ate a greeting. No one feels welcome when they pass an office and see only the back of a person’s head. When office lay-out permits, your computer desk should be located to the side of the desk, rather than behind it, so that you are always aware of visitors.
Your chair should be compatible with your body size: a chair that is too large will be overwhelming, and a chair that is too small will detract from your importance. A general guideline to follow is that the chair back should extend no more than an inch or so above a person’s shoulders. A padded chair with arms adds to one’s sense of presence and authority.
Visitors’ chairs should be located near the office entrance along with a small table on which appropriate reading material is available. It’s also important to provide coat racks and umbrella receptacles for visitors. Place filing cabinets so that they are not physical barriers to communication. Wood lateral files to match your desk and other furniture give a more professional appearance.
Office Tidiness and Cleanliness
Offices in disarray or that appear to be dirty and disorganized give off-putting impressions. Visitors form negative views about an office with numerous stacks of journals and dirty cups strewn about. This clutter may actually distract visitors to the extent that they are unable to give full attention to the business to be conducted. Research indicates that visitors do not feel as comfortable and welcome in a messy, cluttered office as they do in an “organized stacks” setting. The “organized stacks” setting conveys that an employee has good interpersonal skills, is a high achiever, and is interested in other people. The office that is too tidy, while preferable to the cluttered office, also is viewed less positively than an “organized stacks” setting, perhaps because the office that is too clean makes visitors wonder if the person has enough work to do.
Office cleanliness includes air that is fresh and free from odors. Offices emit-ting unpleasant, inappropriate odors give a negative impression.
If eating and drinking at desks is permitted, employees should close their office doors and immediately discard the remains of lunch, preferably in a container outside the office.
In addition to inappropriate food smells, unpleasant odors may emanate from employees’ poor personal hygiene or smoking habits, including bad breath and body odor. Such odors overshadow everything else—even impeccable dress— and will contaminate and, in some cases, negate other positive impressions. Most people are not comfortable addressing such sensitive topics with colleagues and subordinates, yet the importance of good hygiene to personal success and to the company’s image must be brought to the offending person’s attention, preferably by a supervisor of the same gender.
An additional problem is employees who wear strong-smelling perfume or cologne. Some people are allergic to certain fragrances (and others may find the strong scent nauseating, overwhelming, or annoying). In companies where this has been a problem, wearing fragrance to work has been banned.
Through careful attention to all aspects of an office environment, you can project a positive image of yourself and the organization you represent.
Dr. Lillian H. Chaney is IAAP Distinguished Professor of Office Management and professor of management at The University of Memphis. Reach her at 901/678-4638.
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