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Work Wednesday: Decorating Your Office Space

Dear Belle,

I just started a new job and I want to personalize my cubicle.  My older sister thinks that I should leave things bare, but I really want to feel at home in my office.  What is your position on employees decorating their cubes?  And do you have any suggestions for decor that isn’t unprofessional?

Love the blog, my sister and I read every day.  Sincerely, Camille

First off, your office is not your home, but I do understand wanting to feel comfortable in your cube or office.  You’ll be spending a lot of time there so it’s only natural that you want to decorate it to your taste.

That being said, I believe that everything you bring in needs to fit in one copier paper box.  Life is uncertain, and you may need or want to make a clean getaway.  It sounds morbid, but when your time in your office is over, you don’t want to spend days packing up.

Are there exceptions to the one box rule?  Sure.  Wall art doesn’t pack so well, neither do plants (succulents are nice).  I also make an exception for professionals who receive a budget to decorate.  But if you’re in a cube or a small office, less is better.

As for the type of decor, I like to keep it clean and elegant.  I think Cost Plus World Market has lovely office pieces.  Restoration Hardware sells some great storage boxes.  I also wouldn’t miss One Kings Lane or Poppin for office decor ideas.

Functional pieces  that are also decorative are a great idea.  My former coworker Virginia had a lovely wood block print calendar on her desk that was styled like this one from Etsy.  Other ideas include a decorative paperweight, some agate bookends, or a little tray for odds and ends.

Further, when you’re talking about personal items like photos or mementos, exercise restraint.  A few tasteful photos are fine (even recommended in some places), but too many can look unprofessional.  Also, take a good look at what is in the photos.  Pictures that include keg cups, people in swimwear, etc. are ill-advised.  I once had a front desk person who kept naked photos of her grandchildren on her desk, not cool.

Lastly, regardless of how you decorate your cube or office, you should make an effort to keep it clean.  On Friday before you leave, take twenty minutes to clear off any excess papers or clutter from your desk.  Arrange and organize the things you need.  Then, make a to-do list for the next week.  This simple task makes Monday mornings easier and helps end your week on a forward-thinking note.

So do you decorate your workspace?  If so, how?  And what is your opinion on how much decorating should be done?

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    21 comments

  1. rar says:

    I have zero decorations in my office. For me, decorating doesn’t add to my work life, so I don’t bother. I don’t get the point. There are, however, a few early 20-s paralegals and legal assistants in my office who have their cubes decked out with photos, color coordinated desk accessories, notes from friends, etc. – and I think it looks completely ridiculous. If it has to be done, my opinion is that it should stay minimal, understated and tasteful (although I completely recognize this could be different in a different work environment).

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  2. GoGoGo says:

    I made some small purchases for my office a few months ago and they’ve actually made a huge difference.

    I replaced my ugly coffee mug with a colorful mug with big flowers that makes me smile. I spend lots of quality time with that thing during my week! And since it comes along to meetings, it’s as much of a professional accessory as my purse, so I’m glad it looks more adult than the last one.

    I got a lamp for my desk with a plain square shade from Target. When I’m working late, I turn the overhead lights off and feel like I’m really burning the midnight oil and I must be super dedicated. It’s like a b-roll shot in a campaign commercial, or something from the West Wing.

    On my desk, I have a little succulent, a pretty little bowl for my keys, and an hourglass paperweight from Target. The hourglass runs for three minutes, and use it a lot the day. (For example, I’m cutting myself from writing more on this comment, because my three minutes are up!)

    But yeah, small cheap things, big boost to my personal morale.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  3. Dallas says:

    I would say it depends in large part about the office culture. What do the other cubes look like? My nonprofit literally has a line in the employee handbook about how the company culture is to go all out decking cubbies — garlands, photos, posters, etc. It’d be super weird to have a barren cubby here. So, the important thing is to note what other cubbies – and particularly those of the next couple of positions above you — look like. I’d imagine it also depends on if you’re an outward facing employee or not – do you expect to have clients or customers in or near your cubicle?

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  4. MCF says:

    The only decorations I have are ones that are relevant to my job: a map of the state, a scenic picture of the state, pictures that constituents have drawn, a photo of my boss at a bill signing, and a wall calendar. I also have a small, low-maintenance plant.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  5. Addie says:

    I have two framed photos, one of me and my 8 month old niece and one of my with my parents and brother. I also replaced the boring Dell mouse pad with one that’s a bit whimsical. That’s all, just a couple things that can make me smile on crazy days.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  6. Anna says:

    Definitely look to your colleagues and especially your direct superiors. And the closer you are to the front or the more likely visitors are to see your desk, the less personalized it should be. All of my decorations are little work keepsakes, something I picked up on a staffdel, a trinket from an organization I met with, that sort of stuff.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  7. Willfully Elegant says:

    My cubicle is usually decorated with birthday cards, knick-knacks and other collectibles, all from colleagues. Usually I have only a few personal items like photos of my parents, or some other small souvenirs which remind me of good memories..I usually keep only items that have a sense of humor, like you might find a giant red wig with two horns sitting somewhere int he cubicle which I wear every year on halloween! Hah..I think decorations should be to taste and as OK with the office environment..

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  8. Amy says:

    I’ve upgraded my office essentials, and that makes a big difference. I have a Lucite stapler and tape dispenser, a Tory Burch leather mouse pad, monogrammed post it notes etc. I feel like I have some personality in my office without going over the top.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  9. Joules says:

    My favorite way to spruce up a cubicle is actually flooring. I think a nice warm rug really can do wonders.

    Style by Joules

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  10. Lindsey says:

    Get a calendar! My Rifle Paper calendar makes my life happier and prettier every day. They are functional, so they won’t raise eyebrows even in the stodgiest work environment.

    Other things in my office: Agate coasters, a small lamp, small succulent, and a watercolor painting of the tiny courthouse from my hometown. The only questionable item in my office is a pennant banner, but I put it up during March Madness as a basketball joke and I don’t really want to take it down. I wouldn’t do personal photos on the wall/desk, but I do have one as my computer desktop.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  11. Carolyn says:

    I decorated, but it’s all very work related. Photos/paintings/etc that I’ve picked up over the years, and a few desk trinkets that are specific to my line of work. I do have a cute rifle paper co calendar, but I have it displayed out of the line of sight of visitors – it’s needed cuteness for me, not for the general public.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  12. MPLS says:

    I have to have a little color to brighten things up. I bought a tasteful calendar from Etsy (https://www.etsy.com/listing/156263216/pieces-and-patterns-illustrated-2014?ref=favs_view_6), a pale green vase to use as a pencil holder and I’ve been looking at a teacup from Anthropologie to use as a paperclip holder. I’ll probably put up a photo from my wedding when I finally get around to having them printed. I feel that if I’m spending 8 hours a day in my cube, I should be able to personalize it so I feel comfortable.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  13. Diana says:

    The accessories I keep on my desk are mostly functional: a water bottle (hydration), a NYC mug (COFFEE), tissues (for everything), and a plant (photosynthesis?). I also keep an emergency stash in my desk drawer (stockings, hand cream, face wipes, lip gloss, dry shampoo, gum, advil). Otherwise, I like a clean desk. Mine gets filled up with piles of papers, anyway!

    Diana
    dianatherese.com

    May 21, 2014/Reply
  14. Bernie says:

    I agree that you shouldn’t overdo it, but depending on your office culture I think tasteful decoration can actually boost your professional image. I have all the regular old stuff–diplomas on the wall, small family portrait in a nice frame, and whimsical paperweight. But I also have a little table by my door where I keep a bowl of candy and all my “school spirit” stuff–university logo mascot, little airplanes (I work on an air base) and a funny little “Law School in a Box.” I can’t tell you how many conversations from random passers by have started because of the things on that table, and I also get a lot of office talk and interesting projects from people who come by to raid my sugar stash.

    I once read you should not have food in your office, especially if you’re a woman, but like all sweeping office advice this can be ignored if you’re in the right environment. The men I work with have drawings by their children taped to their filing cabinets. An empty office here would draw jabs that the person isn’t planning to stay long.

    May 21, 2014/Reply
    • Anna says:

      I think there’s a difference between an actual office and a cubicle. I agree it would be odd to have a barren office, in almost any environment, but a cubicle is less personal and more open to passersby. It basically forms part of a common area. It’d be like an apartment dweller completely changing the exterior of their unit. A welcome mat and a wreath, great, but you can’t paint your door, change your windows, draw stuff on the walls.

      May 22, 2014/Reply
  15. love it says:

    Agree with the general statement that your office decor is an extension of your personal brand in the workplace. Just like workplace fashion, that doesn’t mean it’s not also able to bring you joy and happiness. (But, it’s not just about making you comfortable or about your preferences.) Great topic for Cap Hill Style, actually!

    May 22, 2014/Reply
  16. jen says:

    The best tip I received regarding this was from an outgoing (retiring) exec: When the higher ups are considering who to promote, one of the factors they would include was organization/decor at the employees’ desks. Apparently during the process, at least one decision maker would do a drive-by to consider the office space appearance as part of the decision factors.

    I think it just ends up being an extension of the “dress for the job you want not the job you have” rule.

    May 22, 2014/Reply
  17. E says:

    I finally made it off the Hill into an office with a door, and by my second week, my coworkers (all of whom have been here for years, and tend to be older with families) were asking when I was going to decorate. The norm here is sports team pennants, kids’ artwork, and framed personal accomplishments, and my lack of decor seemed to give people the impression that I wasn’t excited to be there, or wasn’t planning to stick around long (not true!). I got some tasteful lamp, hung up some framed professional accomplishments, and added a spruced-up desk blotter that doubles as a mousepad (like https://www.alittletipsy.com/2013/02/custom-desk-pad.html, but a much quieter pattern – Paper Source is great for this). Not only do I blend in with the existing culture a little better, but it’s also made the space a lot more enjoyable to be in. I’m on the hunt for a good rug next, inspired by a former boss of mine whose tiny Hill office felt like a wood-paneled library from just a nice lamp and an oriental rug.

    Cubicles are a slightly different story, but I still think little things can help to both personalize the space and keep you feeling sane, especially on the Hill. A nicer mousepad (those Tory Burch ones are awesome), a coffee mug from your college or something similar, maybe a small plant or upgraded pencil cup. Love the Lucite stapler suggestion from another commenter (www.seejanework.com has some good pieces, although not all appropriate for all office cultures). Agree with the poster above that organization is key – clutter is never professional, personalized or not.

    May 22, 2014/Reply
  18. Monica says:

    I’ve been at the same technology company for over 9 years, most people have something in their cubes I would say. I think a cube or office looks awful without anything in it, like a cell. I agree that having nothing at all makes it look like you aren’t planning on staying long, at least it would at our company.

    I reserve a small corner of my cubicle and the wall behind it for personal photos, figurines and doodads. I keep an interesting mug, though it changes as I broke the last one, and have a small collection of technology ‘museum’ pieces that seem to end up on the ledge of one of my whiteboards. great conversation starters!

    I also have two chairs directly outside for people to sit in if they come to talk to me, for business or pleasure. When I returned from my maternity leave I was glad I had pictures of my daughter and a chair for them to sit in while we talked.

    I also have a collection of old IT related Dilbert cartoons, and because we are a company comprised mostly of engineers they are very culturally appropriate.

    Since most of my stuff is photos, I think I fit in the one box category!

    May 22, 2014/Reply
  19. SC says:

    I also agree that adding some tasteful decor is a great way to be happier at work and also make people feel more welcome if they come to your office. I have just a few minor things: a couple of photos, a nice lamp, and – one of my most important things I’ve ever brought to the office – a wall mirror.

    Not a mirror that is too ornate or too big, but something simple and elegant to hang on the wall. It reflects the window light in my office, making it seem more open and bright, and also adds a touch of personalization. Even more importantly, it lets me do a quick check on my appearance before heading off to a meeting. I used to just use my phone to do this, but it is great being able to see more detail (like checking my teeth) and making sure my overall look is professional before I step into a meeting. I HIGHLY recommend!

    May 23, 2014/Reply
  20. Liz says:

    I have a few things on my desk, thin represent who I am as a person. A little NASCAR car, a key chain with my name on it, and on my wall I have two New England Patriots things (a flag and a picture of the stadium). I look at the other offices around me, and they mostly have shelves that they decorate with little things…I just have my walls. But I will not make it look like a teenage girls wall!
    The Patriots décor brings laughs, jokes and friendly rivalry to my coworkers. I want to keep my décor to a minimum, but I want to represent who I am and where I come from!

    February 19, 2016/Reply