It’s time to get personal

It’s official, personal space is a thing

Recent research has found that the concept of personal space is universal, although the distance can vary with age, gender and by country. Here in the UK, on average, we like to keep a metre from a stranger, but just over 50cm is acceptable for an intimate or close friend. The Independent reported that one of the theories as to why personal space is a world-wide phenomenon is that it’s a defensive measure - we stand at a distance from people to protect ourselves from danger.

The newspaper also said how important it is to get the distance between people right, because if you make someone feel like their personal space is being invaded they’ll focus on that and not the interaction you’re having. Interesting. So, what does this mean for our offices? Especially those that have moved away from permanent individual desks towards shared bench-desking? And what about meetings in pods or on sofas? Are we simply too close to each other to be paying attention and to be productive?

There is probably little any employee can do about the way office space is moving towards flexible or agile working. Luckily, designers and facilities managers do recognise the need for ‘me time’ and in many offices you’ll now find spaces designed to help people temporarily escape their colleagues.

Not having that little part of the office that is just yours can sometimes make you feel like you’re not in full control, or at the very least, a little bit uncomfortable. I know sometimes when I’m working in an office that I don’t know well I can feel awkward and lack concentration for seemingly no good reason. Now I’m wondering if it’s because the folks around me are sitting at distances I’m not used to! But, another explanation could be that I don’t always know what to do with my ‘stuff’.

Here at Bisley, perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ve always considered storage integral to office design and therefore employee wellbeing. Back in December 2015, one of the conclusions our ‘Belong at Work’ panel made was that nomadic workers need to be well looked after; they must know where to put their coat and bag, where to charge their phone and so on. If businesses can help people feel quickly at home in an office, a sense of belonging within that organisation is likely to follow.

I was lucky enough to visit Salone del Mobile last month. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, especially the aspects focusing on workplace culture and wellbeing. Within the office section of the exhibition ‘A Joyful Sense at Work’ looked at how to breathe new life into the theory of office and workplace design by concentrating squarely on people, in terms of their needs, emotions and experiences. The Ikea warehouse hosted the Healing Hub which offered a vision of an optimal work environment. Both concepts had innovative health and wellbeing ideas in abundance; community working, mood-appropriate lighting, space to unwind, ways to find inspiration and even a healing carpet. But what was absent, for me, was storage.

These healthy workspaces will soon descend into chaos if there is nowhere to put anything! The beautiful aesthetic is going to look very different when bags and coats are strewn across the floor and chairs. Where will the stapler and printer paper live and how will it smell with all those gym trainers under desks? This may sound flippant, but storage shouldn’t be an afterthought. It may be practical and even boring, but workplaces just don’t function properly without it. Having somewhere to keep your personal things gives you peace of mind and a space you can control, one that is just yours. So important in this age of communal workspaces.

Let’s not forget, personal storage doesn’t just help create a sense of belonging and privacy, there is a security angle to it as well. A 2015 survey by retailer McArtherGlen found the cost of the contents of a women’s handbag is, on average, £521, but over £3000 in some cases. And Home Office crime figures state that one-third of ‘theft of personal property’ takes place at work; that’s over 200,000 thefts that took place at work last year.

Personal storage, much like personal space isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it’s essential. We all need it, no matter where we are in the world.