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Personal space

In this blog I want to talk about personal space.

This is prompted first by what happened during COVID, where the notion of personal space and the notion of workspace became a real issue for many people. But it’s also because I will be moving from a small space (an office in an apartment), to a house, and we’ve had to rethink how we’re using our space.

Personal space of the physical kind, a room for example, such as the office I have created in my apartment, is a fixed space. It is what the architect designed and I can’t change it. The same applies to office spaces in organisations, with their corporate design.

I can change some aspects of the space however such as colour, smell, furniture and so on.

So the question I would like to reflect on to start with is this: how do you design your personal space to be at your best to be at your happiest and to be creative?

For me, it is all about being minimalist. My ‘bubble’ is white and smells good because I use aromatherapy, and it has simple furniture.

This works for me, as it is calming, and as a leader, I am more effective when calm. My direct reports used to say that coming into my office for a conversation was like going to a spa. My design wasn’t just good for me, it was also good for them, with calmness all round.

You could of course, as some leaders do, have heavy imposing furniture to make it clear who is the boss. It’s what I would see as ‘loud’ leadership. A ‘quiet’ leader would have comfy chairs so as to put visitors at their ease, especially if the conversation might be a tricky one.

That brings me to my second question: when is personal space no longer personal? As a leader you want your colleagues to feel comfortable. It’s all about persuasion. The large desk and captain’s chair for you and uncomfortable hard chairs for them is more likely to make them feel uncomfortable and potentially leads them to resist.

The kind of virtual space that we have had to accept as the default for professionals during Covid is more like the ‘loud’ office space: there are obvious barriers, starting with the fact that attendees are in scattered spaces, with their own personal room smell and design, cut off from each other and you as the leader. There is no sense of presence, no sense of a shared space.

The other important thing about online space is that you end up looking at yourself in ways that never happen in a shared space. It’s a distraction. As a leader, it’s much more difficult to read the room and to understand whether your message is being received. In a shared meeting space, you would be noticing gestures, mannerisms, eye movements and so on, which would help you modify the way you shape your message. And you wouldn’t be staring at yourself.

‘My’ bubble is a bit like my space in a virtual meeting. It cuts me off from other people. As a leader, I have to accept, as I said earlier, that ‘my’ space is always a space with others in mind.

‘My’ space is rarely ‘personal’, it’s almost always interpersonal. The best I can do is find a way to make both myself and my visitors comfortable. Great ideas, innovation, creativity can come from pressure and adversity. But I would like to think that a calm mind in a calm space is more open to opportunities.