Working: Personalizing desks

By Vickie Elmer
Monday, January 17, 2011

Kathleen Smith's desk has the usual items on it and two extraordinary ones that coax and inspire her.

The first inspiration comes from a clear glass paperweight engraved with her grandfather's initials.

"It's simple. It's elegant, like he was," said Smith, chief marketing officer for in Falls Church. It recalls lessons from her grandfather's life and career: Anything is possible, and giving back is important. The second piece, a tiny wooden statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, calls to mind her yoga instruction.

"It's just a good reminder -- that there are things I need to do to take care of myself," Smith said.

Welcome to the world of desktop rituals and relics where workers place small shrines, good luck charms, crystals or affirmations. Some use family heirlooms or religious emblems; others choose their own symbols or pick them up in their travels.

While many workplaces still favor a clean tailored desk free of papers and personality, others are open to creative influences and personal tokens alongside more practical pens, mouse and to do lists. Some 3,587 Flickr members and counting have posted "my desk" photos -- some showing flowers blooming, or a stuffed or even live kitty perched by the laptop. Plants, postcards and playthings seem to be regulars -- finger puppets, "Star Wars" figures and Max from "Where the Wild Things Are."

"It recharges us and puts us in a pleasant mood," said Joyce E.A. Russell, a University of Maryland professor of management and organization who writes the Career Coach column for Capital Business. Seeing something special may relax the brain and put it in a more creative frame.

Russell's university desk has plenty of gifts from students, items they've brought from their travels or native countries. Her office at home, however, is filled with "tokens my daughter has made" -- pictures, three-dimensional art objects and more from Julia, 9, who sometimes works on her creative projects near her mom.

Kacy Paide, a professional organizer and owner of the Inspired Office, needs plants on her desk, a k a her dining room table, so she rotates one or two there. "I'm a crazy plant lady," she said. She uses a candle and a simple hourglass to sit and focus her attention.

When she's helping people clear and organize their desks, she'll ask questions about the items to find out which have meaning. For people who want to keep a variety of "junky and sentimental" items nearby -- old concert tickets, buttons from a convention, shells -- she suggests they acquire a jar or bowl to bring them all together in one place.

Sometimes photographs serve as a personal token or charm. Smith's photo shows her dog, which died recently. She appreciates seeing photographs when she visits the defense contractors and other companies that are clients of ClearedJobs. "You realize they're human, not cogs," she said.

Yet her own most revered item is her grandfather's paperweight. He started as a salesman for Yellow Pages straight out of high school and ended up as chief executive of its parent company.

"He never said he would be CEO. He said, 'I'm going to be successful,' " she recalled. "I saw some of the sacrifices he had to endure" to achieve so much. So she tells herself: Don't push too hard. Remember that success can take time.

Have a photo of your desk? Send it to Please include your name, where you work and a number where we can contact you.

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