You may not realise it, but your desk might say a lot more about you than you’d think.
Without ever meeting me, environmental psychologist Lily Bernheimer looked at my desk and taught me a few things about myself.
Bernheimer, the cofounder and director of Space Works Consulting, a UK-based environmental psychology consultancy, holds an MS in Environmental Psychology from the University of Surrey and a BA from Brown University. Her job at Space Works is to make workspaces and urban environments work for the people and purpose they serve. She is currently writing a book on the psychology of everyday spaces, “The Shaping of Us,” to be published in 2017.
A few weeks ago, I sent Bernheimer images of my desk and a few of my colleagues’. She analysed the images and sent back her observations and assessments via email.
I showed my coworkers what Bernheimer had to say, and asked them for reactions.
Turns out, some of us found the assessment to be accurate, while others did not.
Here’s what Bernheimer concluded about me and four of my coworkers — Emmie, Libby, Amanda, and Sara — along with their responses:
Bernheimer says: 'This is the classic desk of a highly conscientious person: orderly, disciplined, and cautious. The books are perfectly stacked, there's no clutter, and everything is in its proper place. But beyond being extremely tidy, we also see signs of organisation: to-do lists, sticky notes, and perfectly placed pen and paper, poised for planning. Besides being hard working, reliable, focused, and achievement-oriented conscientious people like to make plans and follow routines.'
Emmie's response: 'The assessment seems pretty accurate. I'm all about being organised and having a plan to tackle my work. I like routine and knowing exactly what I'm going to do each day. I try to make a to-do list for the next day every afternoon before I leave. I try to work hard and be a reliable team member, so I hope that comes across to my coworkers as well.'
Bernheimer says: 'Cluttered, chaotic, colourful: this is the desk of an extrovert. Extroverts are excitement seekers and get easily bored without stimulation so they like to surround themselves with bright lights, materials, knicknacks related to their many activities, and warm, saturated colours like red.
'The phone is also placed within easy reach, whereas some of Libby's colleagues have pushed their phones out of the way or off the desk all together. But with their days so busy, extroverts often don't have enough time to tidy up! I would expect Libby to be assertive, cheerful, and above all friendly.'
Libby's response: 'I'm actually a textbook introvert. I just don't have anywhere else to keep my books or phone! I do recognise myself in that last sentence, though. A friendly introvert -- that's me.'
Bernheimer says: 'This looks like the desk of an introvert. At the other end of the spectrum from extroverts, introverts are overwhelmed by too much stimulation, and draw their energy from solitary pursuits. Amanda seems to have built a fortress for herself, with books, hardware, and even hats piled high, creating a secure position of refuge. A greater need for personal space is linked to introversion and higher rates of anxiety.
'Sitting on the periphery can also be a sign that you are low in agreeableness: the tendency to be helpful, cooperative, and sympathetic. There is also a generally grey and cool colour-scheme to this desk, aligning with introverted colour preferences. But introverts shouldn't get a bad rap: They are often highly creative and productive types who need their own fortress to flourish.'
Amanda's response: 'Gosh, is she right? I thought the items on my desk said I'm an extrovert. I took it as, 'look at all these things on my desk you can ask me about!''
Bernheimer says: 'From this desk, I would guess that Sara is not a highly open person. While this desk is messy, the clutter takes a different form than Libby's desk, which seems to display a variety of books and reading materials, communicating curiosity, and openness.
'While Emmie's desk also features a number of books, you'll notice that they demonstrate a narrow range of interest, in line with her conscientious nature. Amanda's book collection similarly betrays her focused interest in political and military topics. But Sara's desk contains almost no signs of personalisation -- other than a taste for Diet Coke! A distinctive, stylish, and unusual workspace tells people that you are curious, artistic, and imaginative. I would wager that Sara is more of a traditional person and concrete thinker.'
Sara's response: 'This makes me feel like I better change my work environment to better reflect my personality!'
Bernheimer says: 'This is an interesting one. Jacquelyn has laid out her desk in a way that feels quite spatially open and inviting. It shows a moderate level of personalisation through a single stack of books, personal items like sunglasses, and the mug displaying a portrait-style photo -- surprisingly the only one on any desk. From these signs I would guess that Jacquelyn is extroverted and conscientious. A controlled amount of clutter is actually more inviting than either a sparse space or an overstuffed one, and invitingness is a key sign of extroversion.
'At the same time, Jacquelyn has her planning notepad handy -- hallmark of the highly conscientious. Recent research has found that while media work is perceived as creative, much daily work can be quite routine and demanding, which we see reflected in higher than average levels of conscientiousness. Realistically, employees of a business-savvy media outlet like Business Insider are likely to have higher rates of conscientiousness overall than the general population.'
My response: I've always considered myself an introvert, but the personality tests have yielded mixed responses. At work, though, I do try to appear more extroverted. I'm happy to hear my desk is sending my coworkers that message! I also agree that I'm fairly conscientious -- or at least I try to be.
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