The Messy Desk Files

I’ve been ruminating on this Blog post for some time. But only now have I been afforded a brief window of opportunity in which to realise its potential.

Right now, the boss is out of the office. She’s lying on a beach in Thailand taking a well-earned break. The coast is clear, therefore, to explore the office space directly to my left. Somewhere there, beneath a pile of paper clutter, coffee cups, cosmetics tubes, vitamins jars and God knows what else, lies her desk.

That’s it there in the photo you can see at the top.

Don’t get me wrong – the boss is a savvy operator. We’ve had a big year with lots of major projects, and she’s been nailing some big wins. And what’s more, the only reason my own chaotic workstation avoids similar scrutiny from bemused co-workers is that I’m conveniently situated, for comparison, next to hers.

The reactions of our colleagues to the mess certainly vary: amusement, disbelief, tut-tutting, and barely contained irritation. Then there’s our Building Manager: the poor bloke wanders through our department, literally shedding tears and hair as he considers the OHS issues her desk might represent, and bemoans the fact that the cleaners can’t get anywhere near it.

It’s not an uncommon complaint. According to a survey conducted by the recruitment agency Adecco, 57% of workers admit to judging their co-workers by the state of their workspace. Further Adecco research has reported that almost a third of workers nominate the untidy desks of workmates as their number one workplace annoyance.

Even more seriously, 38% of 2,662 hiring managers in a Career Builder survey reported that piles of paper negatively impacted their perception of an employee – with 28% saying they were less likely to promote someone with a disorganised workspace.

So, in preparation for the boss’s return, should my colleagues and I be planning an intervention to rescue her from her own mounting trash and treasure?

There is definitely evidence to suggest that too much clutter can impede your ability to focus and concentrate. In researching this Blog, I was intrigued to discover the existence of an American Organisation that calls itself the Institute for Challenging Disorganisation. Not surprisingly, its President is a firm believer that workplace clutter is “a tremendous waste of productivity”.

(If you have a moment, feel free to avail yourself of the Institute’s self-diagnosis tool for ‘chronic disorganisation’).

More empirically sound evidence has been provided by two professors of marketing in a paper published last year in the Harvard Business Review. They exposed more than 100 undergraduates to either an uncluttered space or to a work area where papers, folders and cups we’re scattered in abundance across the desk and throughout the room.

When challenged with a difficult puzzle to solve (which, in fact, could not be solved), the students in the neat environment stuck with the task almost twice as long as those in the messy space before giving up. Other experiments apparently produced similar results.

The conclusion of the authors was that “people sitting at messy desks are less efficient, less persistent and more frustrated and weary than those at neat desks”. Little wonder, it seems, that my boss was so badly in need of a holiday…

But out of the clutter, confusion and condemnation, there is some good news. A widely reported study from researchers at the University of Minnesota has found that “being in a messy room (leads) to something that firms, industries and societies want more of: creativity”.

While their research demonstrated a number of positive outcomes from exposure to tidy workspaces, most of these reflected an adherence to convention and “playing it safe” – whereas “disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights”.

For example, in one experiment, the authors asked 48 participants to come up with up to 10 new marketable uses for a ping-pong ball, with half allocated a messy room to work in and half a neat room. While each group of participants came up with the same number of ideas, an independent panel rated those from the messy room as significantly more creative.

So why might this be the case? According to Eric Abrahamson, the author of a weighty tome entitled A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, “creativity is spurred when things that we tend not to organise in the same category come together. When you allow messiness into a system, new combinations can result.”

In fact, Abrahamson goes so far as to say that a messy desk could actually be a “highly effective prioritising and accessing system” that quickly sorts items according to their importance – in other words, the more vital stuff tends to stay near the top…

What’s more, he says, order has “opportunity costs”. If you spend all your time organising, you won’t get anything done. But in a classic cost-benefit analysis, the opposite can also be true: if you don’t spend any time getting organised, the resulting mess is likely to bury you completely.

The answer, therefore, seems to be a happy medium – and one that is decidedly individual in its determination. We all need to find our own ideal level of clutter that provides just enough stimulation of our creative instincts, without bogging us down in the confusion and weariness that clutter can cause.

It seems, perhaps, that I should just leave the boss alone. No doubt she’ll return from her holiday refreshed, happy to continue wallowing creatively in a familiar state of ‘organised chaos’.

So what’s your happy medium? How do you organise yourself to get the most out of your workspace? And how heavily do the haphazard habits of your colleagues impact on your own daily brainspace? Leave a comment below and start a conversation.

The following two tabs change content below.
Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.

1 Comment

  1. Nola McAuliffe

    The Messy Desk can certainly be frustrating to the not so messy person, particularly in open plan areas.
    We implemented some time ago the 5S process to our office areas – we had been using it for several years within the manufacturing environment.
    We have monthly inspections to keep people on track and it’s working well.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.