6 Ways to Hack Your Workspace and Find More Joy at Work

6 Ways to Hack Your Workspace and Find More Joy at Work

Transform your work environment to increase joy and bring out your most productive, collaborative, creative self
Ingrid Fetell Lee
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As a designer who studies joy for a living, one of the questions I am asked most frequently is: How can I find more joy at work? We spend at least a third of our waking hours at the office, and some of us much more than that. Yet most workspaces, with their beige carpets and rows of cubicles, aren’t exactly designed to delight.

That’s a shame, because research shows that feeling joy at work not only increases our wellbeing, but also our performance across the spectrum. Joy increases our working memory and cognitive flexibility, which in turn leads to better problem-solving. Take doctors, for example: Those who have been primed to feel joyful make a correct diagnosis earlier than those in a neutral mindset. Joyful businesspeople consider a wider range of scenarios and make more accurate decisions. Joyful negotiators are more likely to achieve win-win agreements. And it turns out it’s infectious: Joyful leaders spread positivity to their teams, increasing rates of effort and cooperation; and when salespeople exhibit joy, customers respond by spending more time in a store, giving higher satisfaction ratings, and expressing a greater likelihood to return.

Have I convinced you yet? Ok, then. Here are six ways you can transform your work environment to increase joy, and bring out your most productive, collaborative, and creative self.

1. Add a pop of color and light

Research with nearly a thousand office workers across four continents shows that people in more colorful workspaces are more joyful and alert than those in drab spaces. They’re also more confident and friendly. Bright colors reflect more light, which acts like a stimulant, a shot of caffeine for the eyes. If you can’t paint your whole office, try adding an item with a strong pop of color to your desk, like a vibrant piece of art or a yellow mug, to brighten up your space—and your spirits!

For even more joyful energy at work, go toward the light. There’s a reason most people prefer a desk near a sunny window. Light helps regulate our Circadian rhythms, leading to higher energy levels and mood. Research shows that workers who get more light exposure in their offices are more physically active during the day and sleep better at night. Among nurses working on acute care wards, more sunlight exposure correlates to an increase in spontaneous laughter. If you are slow to get going in the morning, see if you can find a spot near a window. Or fight the afternoon slump by taking your meetings outside.

2. Buy a plant

When you’re working in a high pressure situation, make sure to introduce some greenery to your workspace. Exposure to nature helps restore our attention and can mitigate the effects of stress on our bodies and minds—making it less likely that we’ll snap at our teammates. Psychologists believe that looking at nature refreshes our ability to concentrate because it is passive, but also stimulating. In many offices, nature views are a perk reserved for management. But the good news is that studies show even a few plants can improve attention, reduce blood pressure, and even prompt more generous behavior toward others.

3. Keep it cute

One of my most memorable days at IDEO was when one of my coworkers surprised us by arranging for fifteen puppies to visit our office. As people moved from one meeting to another, they couldn’t resist spending a few minutes sitting on the floor cooing and cuddling. It might sound like a distraction, but researchers in Japan have found that looking at pictures of cute things, such as baby animals, may actually help increase concentration. One theory is that cuteness elicits a nurturing impulse that requires focus and care, priming the mind to zoom in and tune out distractions. So, go ahead, share the latest otter video on Slack, peep the We Rate Dogs Twitter feed on your lunch break, and keep those photos of your adorable nieces and nephews on your wall. These joyful bursts of cuteness might just help you when you’re doing work that requires careful thought and attention to detail.

4. Get some air

When you need to zoom out and get perspective on a work challenge, seek out the joy of elevation. Our emotions often seem to lie along a vertical axis: we’re in high spirits or light-hearted when happy, we feel low or heavy-hearted when sad. By moving ourselves physically upward in space—ascending to a roof deck or even just climbing a set of stairs, we not only find a joyful lightness, but also a shift to more big-picture thinking. Psychologists have tested this by intercepting people who have just walked up or down a flight of stairs and asking them to think about people’s behavior. When participants are told that someone is painting a room, those who have just walked down a flight of stairs are more likely to think about the specific actions involved (“applying brush strokes,”) while those who have just walked up the stairs are more likely to think about the broader purpose behind the actions (“making the room look fresh”). Ever have a flash of insight on an airplane? When we need to make big decisions or solve intractable problems, elevation can help us literally “see the forest for the trees” and avoid getting caught in the weeds.

5. Keep the ball rolling

To cultivate a creative mindset, keep a ball or frisbee at your desk. Research shows the kinds of fluid, curving motions we make when we play can help unlock a more flexible thought pattern, which in turn heightens creativity. In one study, participants who made curving motions with their arms came up with more ideas for uses of a newspaper than those who made angular motions. And the ideas they came up with were more original. This might explain why you often find ping pong tables at startups, and suggests that taking time to play might be the perfect warmup for creative work.

6. Turn up the tunes

When you want to help your team find its groove, give them an actual groove. That can produce a phenomenon that scientists call synchrony—when we sing or move in the same rhythm with others. When people experience synchrony, either by tapping out a beat or a rocking in chairs at the same tempo, they display greater generosity and perform better on a cooperative task. Some researchers have speculated that this may have originated when humans first began to coordinate their efforts to achieve complex goals. By noticing the rhythms created through repetitive manual tasks, people could better synchronize their efforts, and perhaps this led to an unconscious sense of unity. If it’s not too distracting, one way to harness this effect may be to play music with a strong beat in your workspace. People will naturally begin to tap or nod along with the music, creating a synchronicity that helps you find your flow.

To learn more about Ingrid’s research on how to design for joy, check out her new book Joyful.

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Ingrid Fetell Lee
Ingrid studies the feeling of joy and its relationship to the physical world. She is a former Design Director at IDEO, founder of the blog The Aesthetics of Joy and the author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.
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