What’s Better, A Messy or A Clean Desk?


What’s Better, A Messy or A Clean Desk?

There is so much debate, frustration and friction every day in workplaces about the state of people’s desks; to the point where I have seen many polite and not so polite versions of ‘clean up your desk’ signs plastered across offices walls, desks and doors – even on the backs of chairs.

And yet we know that Steve Jobs, Mark Twain and Albert Einstein – all visionaries of their time – shared one common trait:  a messy desk – and through what appeared to be messy chaos… emerged order, innovation and creativity. Einstein even went on to say, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

So wouldn’t that mean a messy desk is the ideal?

The answer to this riddle is yes and no.  It is true for many people with a messy desk that it is this way because they do not have single-minded focus and believe multitasking is their best asset; and thus keep jumping from task to task, pile to pile in the hope that lots of activity will result in the desired outcome.

There is also the opposite spectrum that a clean desk with basically nothing on it gives the perception of order and completion when it can be cleverly disguising boredom and complacency. I think there is a need for somewhere in the middle as both a messy and clean desk can provide optimal outcomes, depending on how best people work.

To maintain a harmonious workplace, I believe it’s important to understand how each person works best and build on those strengths, rather than continually ‘forcing’ people to be something they are not.  For example, I work best with music on whereas others need silence to perform at their best. So if you make me work in silence, I’m not as creative as I usually am and I’m easily distracted because I jump at the slightest noise rather than it simply blending in the background.

The same principle applies to the state of one’s desk.  It would be rare to convert someone from a very messy desk to than one that is completely stark at the end of each day or vice versa.  So accept that everyone is different and has a right to be their own person with their own ideal working style.  As long as each staff member is highly productive in their own way, should it really matter what anyone’s desk looks like?  It shouldn’t but unfortunately, it does.

So here’s 5 suggestions to help those ‘messy desk’ people find a middle ground so everyone else in the workplace can ‘cope’ with what they see:

Suggestion 1: There’s another way

If a clean desk person says the obvious ‘clean up your desk’ to a messy desk person, it is often dismissed or ignored because they have tried system after system but none of them have worked.  Like people who have tried every weight loss program to no avail, unless you show someone a different way that would actually work for them, it is bound to fail.  So talk to the person, find out why they keep their desk in a certain way and between the two of you, maybe you can come up with a viable solution.

Suggestion 2: First Impressions

Whether we like it or not, first impressions count and unfortunately the impression a client or a staff member gains from a messy desk is disorganisation and a lack of care and respect for people and property.  Translation:  poor client service, things will get missed, not a team player, lack of attention to detail etc.  So have a conversation about these real or perceived impressions to see if there is a change of attitude and behaviour.

Suggestion 3: Privacy and Confidentiality

In many positions, staff are processing paperwork which contains a client or employee’s private and confidential information eg bank details, personal contact information, results of training.  However, this paperwork is often left on desks, in plain sight, for anyone to look at either during or after business hours.  This information should be treated with the highest respect and therefore should be placed in folders and then locked away at night in filing cabinets/drawers to ensure the information is protected.

Suggestion 4: Systems save time

Time can be lost looking for paperwork on a messy desk.  If you implement even these 3 simple systems, you’ll be amazed at how productivity increases and frustration reduces:

  • 1-31 Expanding File (Bring Up Folder) to store paperwork which is due on a certain day in the month.  Each day, look at what’s in the folder to see what needs to be actioned that day eg invoices to be paid, phone calls to be made, clients to follow up.
  • Colour Coded Folders/Post It Notes to provide a visual reminder of what needs to be done, different categories eg green finances, purple clients.
  • Labelled In Trays/Pigeon Holes where items can be quickly filed eg a tray for each day of the week where work for that day can be filed, Receipts to be entered, Website, Partnerships, Projects, Jobs for this week.

Suggestion 5: Less clutter increases energy

By decluttering at the end of each day or at least every week, your energy will increase because instead of being overwhelmed by the constant sight of never ending paperwork and tasks, you will see the light of satisfaction and accomplishment of what ‘has been done’ rather than your previous focus on ‘what’s not done’.

I know it can be hard for clean desk people and messy desk people to work harmoniously together because each side ‘doesn’t get how they can work like that’.  But if there’s more acceptance and understanding to gain a happy balance rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach, your workplace will see a rise in productivity and profitability, and a reduction in friction which ultimately is what every business desires. So as I believe the Frozen movie states:  “Let the state of the desk go a bit and instead focus on what’s really important:  getting the best out of every team member in your business.”

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