Nesting at Work: What Does Your Office Say About You?

Mary Tyler Moore: good. Taxidermist’s workshop: bad. Some thoughts on personalized work environments.

Recently, a friend forwarded me an e-mail exchange that had kicked off a brief, surreal dustup at Natural Resource Group, a small environmental consulting company in Minneapolis. Here's how it began:

"Rich, I noticed that there is a deer head in the office next to you. Is it yours? If not, do you know whose it is? If it is yours, I will need you to keep the light off in that office and close the door as we have auditors touring the offices today. Also, if it is yours, you will be taking it home with you tonight, correct?"

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Intrigued, I called Stephanie Schlichting, office manager at Natural Resource Group and author of that initial query. Schlichting explained she was concerned about the trophy's effect not just on outside visitors but also on the sensibilities of some members of the staff. Her reaction to Rich (a pseudonym, of course) was both responsible and wholly understandable. Personally, I prefer my deer unstuffed and frolicking in the forest.

Still, I sympathize with Rich. Most people want to express themselves—at least a little—in their office décor. And though such expression often means no more than family photos and kids' Rembrandts, it is sometimes delightfully elaborate. Years ago a colleague of mine at TV Guide constructed an entire theme park out of paper on top of the file cabinet outside her cubicle and maintained it lovingly for months. In the '90s I reported an article on Tambrands, the maker of Tampax, and was impressed by the imaginative sculptures one employee had crafted from the company's versatile products.

Some offices are shrines to their occupants' hobbies. My favorite of these belonged to a horror-movie fan who had surrounded himself with dozens of handmade models of people being guillotined, attacked by werewolves, or morphing into Hyde-like alter egos. Another common approach to personalization is what I call the Mary Tyler Moore office, because it conveys the warm, cozy atmosphere of the fictional Mary Richards's apartment. The women who occupy these offices (as far as I can tell they are all women) brighten their workspaces with area rugs, framed pictures, and soft lighting. The flowers are often fresh. The candy jar is always full.

Employers exhibit varying levels of tolerance with such displays, and some furnishings—coffins, inflatable women, taxidermy—are problematic in most instances. (By contrast, few gripe about the Mary offices.) In general, though, I think bosses should treat employees' decorative flourishes as a good thing. Personalizing one's office is a sign of nesting: It suggests the intention of long hours and the expectation of permanence. More significantly, employees who surround themselves with objects of their passions or wax whimsical or creative in their décor make no distinction between their office selves and their real selves. They are telling you who they are. Knowing that, you can motivate and reward them in truly meaningful ways.

As for the impression on outsiders—that matters of course. But is professionalism chiefly about appearances? Or is it about actions?

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