You don’t have to look too far to find critics of the office cubicle: Google “cubicles are awful” and you’ll find hundreds of articles decrying these hated workspaces. And most of the data on work environments seems to support these claims. Cubicle-bound workers report exceptionally low levels of satisfaction with their work stations. They’re less productive than their peers in open-plan offices. Meanwhile, most cube workers get absolutely no daytime exposure to natural light, which wrecks sleeping patterns and skews cognitive ability.
However, cubicles are cheap and easy to set up, and so they persist.
Thus, as so many philosophies have advised throughout the years, it’s better to accept the things you can’t change than try to fight against them. While you might never be able to convince your boss to get on board with a treehouse meeting room, you can work to make your own little patch of office space that much more welcoming to positive energy. Enter feng shui.
The case for Feng Shui in the office
The practice of feng shui, which dates back to the second or third century, may seem a little new-agey for a modern office, but at its core are some tenants that health-conscious designers and architects practice everyday. Take, for instance, the emphasis on spaces that feel comfortable. Interior designers—and mental health researchers—now recognize that built environments play a huge role in our overall comfort and our cognitive processes, as well.
Contemporary studies support the practice’s claim that the natural elements soothe and calm—initial reports by the National Institutes of Health seem to indicate that exposure to nature throughout the day helps workers feel less stressed and anxious.
Ditto the placement of office desks. Feng shui in the office holds that you should never organize your space so that your back is to the door, and that goes right along with psychologists’ hypothesis that having your back exposed increases tension, since it runs counter to our evolutionary instincts for protection.
And you can definitely practice feng shui in the office without breaking out the incense and crystals. Here’s how.
Get a little wild
Concrete walls and industrial carpeting don’t exactly make for the most energizing environment. In fact, a little nature can help you feel better about your job. In studies, employees who were exposed to natural elements like potted plants reported higher job satisfaction and a more positive overall outlook in their work.
Draw the outdoors into your space with a healthy dose of houseplants—choose species that thrive in low light, like Boston ferns, Pothos, or my personal favorite, the Peace Lily, which purifies the air while adding a soothing touch of nature to your surroundings.
Soften up your seating
Does your office make you feel “on edge”? Recent research has proved what designers have known for ages: humans vastly prefer curved shapes and structures over hard edges. Experts believe there may be a tie between this preference and our emotions; sharp edges feel cold and unwelcoming.
Unfortunately, rounded furniture isn’t always the easiest to manufacture, especially where price is a concern, which is why you get the the tough plastic seats and tables we often see in modern offices. To soften things up a bit, swap out your standard office chair for one with a softly curved back and a slimmer profile. Not only will you find the visuals more pleasing—you’ll likely have a more ergonomic experience, as well.
Get thoughtful about your cube’s lighting
We can’t all have the corner office next to your building’s huge new windows, but that daylight comes with a huge advantage. Studies show that exposure to natural light boosts performance. Daylight regulates our circadian rhythms, so we’re able to sleep—and, by extension, focus—much better than we are when we spend our days under artificial light.
Since you can’t exactly pick up and move your cube anywhere you want, try incorporating some desk lamps with blue-tinted light bulbs. They should give you a burst of energy in the morning. Switch them off toward the afternoon to slow your system down for the evening to come.
Clear out clutter to make room for Chi
Before there was the KonMari method, there was feng shui, which also places a premium on decluttering. Feng shui is all about making space for a room’s energy—or “chi,” as it’s known to devotees. Clutter blocks chi, probably because it forces your brain to focus on competing stimuli, making it much harder to concentrate. And while some researchers argue that a messy desk can stimulate creativity, it can also rob you of focus when it gets out of hand.
Set a goal to clean up your desk at the end of each day. And ditch the filing cabinets in place of some welcoming open shelves—you’ll definitely keep fewer unnecessary papers around.
Setting up your wealth corner
One of the well-known tenets of feng shui holds that a space is best divided into nine regions, each of which governs a different aspect of life. For instance, there’s wisdom and self-knowledge in the bottom left-hand corner; creativity and inspiration in the middle right.
Whether you ascribe to this philosophy or not, if you want to dive headfirst into feng shui, you’ll want to decorate your desk according to the bagua map.
Pay particular attention to your wealth corner in the upper left hand corner—not only does this spot influence whether or not you get that coveted raise, it also influences your career advancement, so try placing a potted plant or other symbol of growth in this area. It just may land you your dream job.