Bless this mess?

Is cleanliness actually next to godliness? At work, at least, that seems to be the case.

Just Google “value of a clean workspace” and you’ll receive about 35.1 million results with titles such as “The Incredible Power of a Clean Workspace” and “Five Reasons Why Your Workplace Needs to Be Clean.”

New data from staffing firm OfficeTeam, a Robert Half company, backs up these claims. According to a recent survey, 54% of senior managers think that a co-worker’s sloppy or messy desk is distracting and annoying. Interestingly, however, 10% reported a desk that’s too clean can also raise a red flag. To paraphrase Tom Petty, it seems it’s good to be clean, if just for a while.

“For better or worse, your desk — because it’s your little corner of the world at work — can be viewed as a representation or extension of you,” says Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager for Robert Half in Madison. “As a result, whatever you choose to do with your desk, such as add special lighting, photos, or knickknacks, can show a bit of your personality. In the same vein, having a messy desk can leave an impression on your colleagues that you may be disorganized.”

With that said, any form of workplace conduct could have an effect on your reputation, Truckenbrod notes. An orderly desk won’t necessarily land you a promotion or propel your career, but having a messy one may cause colleagues to perceive you as careless, disorderly, and inefficient. A manager may think a worker is unorganized or unproductive if that person’s desk is out of control.

Making a mess

According to Truckenbrod, OfficeTeam’s survey notes that organizational mistakes noticed by managers included having food crumbs on your desk, as well as old coffee cups, used tissues, piles of papers, disorganized office supplies, and hoarding objects that hadn’t been touched for years and now just collect dust.

“Dirty dishes, food wrappers, too many distracting pictures, and collectables and toys were among several inappropriate desk items that impeded productivity at work,” says Truckenbrod. “When colleagues feel uncomfortable with your workspace, it can cause an avoidable dip in morale and slow down efficiency.”

Of course, what might be one employee’s mess might be another’s treasure. And there’s evidence to show a personalized workspace can actually increase productivity. One psychological study of workers in an open office setting indicated, “Employees who lack privacy may suffer from higher levels of emotional exhaustion compared to those who have an office with four opaque walls and a door.”

By allowing workers to bring items from home, such as children’s drawings and knickknacks, the results of the limited sample size study suggests, “Both employer and employee can benefit when workers are allowed to personalize their workspaces, especially in open-office settings.”

It presents an interesting dilemma about how much personalization or freedom to accumulate clutter is too much.

“While adorning your desk with fun décor and inspiring quotes can help you keep your creative juices flowing throughout the day, covering your desk with too many knickknacks can be an eyesore and may be distracting to colleagues,” advises Truckenbrod. “Items in your work area aren’t for your eyes only. Ditch the political posters, risqué photos, and anything that might be too controversial.”

Truckenbrod notes some companies have created clean desk policies, but cautions that employers who choose to do so should make sure guidelines are readily available and understood by all workers. She adds that making cleaning and organizational supplies available, employers can help workers keep their desks tidy.



Caution about clean

While reining in your mess is important, there was that 10% of managers who reported a desk that’s too clean isn’t good either.

A bare desk can make others wonder if you’re not working hard enough, notes Truckenbrod. “Employees may find that a good time to clean their workspace is when things are relatively quiet, but a desk that is too tidy may imply an abundance of downtime. Additionally, one that’s too clean can make those around you feel bad if their workspace isn’t quite as spotless.”

Use the following tips to keep your workspace clean, but not too clean:

  1. Throw out your garbage immediately.
  2. Don’t eat at your desk. But if you do, see the tip No. 1.
  3. Organize important documents. In the old days this meant keeping neat files in a filing cabinet. Today, this means cleaning up your computer desktop and organizing email into relevant folders or archiving it. No one needs to keep every email they’ve received in their inbox.
  4. Ditch sticky notes and go digital with your reminders. There are apps galore to help keep track of your to-dos.
  5. Limit your knickknacks and personal items to just a few. Two or three photos or personal items allow you to express your personality without overwhelming your workspace, especially when you work in an open office and everyone can see your stuff.
  6. Keep only what’s necessary to your work. Someone out there still has a hard copy of the Yellow Pages on their desk. Recycle it. Now.
  7. Invest in attractive organizing tools. It’s an easy way to inject a little bit of personality into objects you’d have on your desk anyway.

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