Do Clean Desks = Work Productivity?


The days might be numbered for the leaning towers of files and wallpaper-esque coating of Post-its in your cubicle. Yes, sadly, more companies are issuing clean desk policies to force messy employees into tidying up.

BHP Billiton, an Australian-based mining company, recently issued a memo to employees on “office environment standards” that includes rules like:

  • Employees must remove all Post-it notes from monitors and keyboards at the end of the day
  • Work partitions can’t be decorated or customized in any way – the only signage that can be displayed is workstation identification and first aid or fire warden signage.
  • Clothing may not be slung over chairs or furniture.

While the rules might seem a little draconian, many companies are adopting similar policies as their office environments change. Companies don’t want employees to become too settled into one workstation, leaving their personal stamp on it, according to an article on Instead, in order to save on overhead and encourage more interactivity among employees, offices are creating collective or “club” space, where individuals who don’t have assigned desks move around the office working at shared spaces.

Other companies enforce clean desk policies as a security measure – to protect potentially sensitive information from leaving the office. And, of course, all companies want their offices to look clean and professional.

But does a perfectly organized desk really equal increased productivity?

Experts are at odds over the issue. The old argument that a messy desk is a sign of a creative person is promptly countered by the suggestion that a messy desk is a sign of a disorganized shlub who probably spends more time looking for lost files than doing actual work

One advocate of messy desks is former British prime minister Winston Churchill, who never tidied his desk. Not only did he not see the benefit of a clean desk (filing something away would have meant he’d spend more time looking for it when he needed it), but he also didn’t work a traditional work day. The long hours of one day spilled into the next: When would it have been appropriate to tidy up at the end of the day?

On the other end of the spectrum is, who says: “A clean desk equals clean work.” The blogger says that anyone who makes excuses for a messy desk is fooling himself into accepting less than optimal conditions to increase his productivity and success.

One thing these desk analyzers do agree on is that regardless of whether a messy desk affects productivity, it definitely has an affect on someone’s image.

“When people have a clean desk it looks like they get things done and they are productive,” career coach Kelly Crescenti said in a blog post.

So, while some people might link your toppling piles of paper and three-day-old coffee with the sign of an artistic spirit, they will more likely assume you don’t get a lot done during the day.

No matter where you fall on the clean workspace spectrum – neat freak to total slob – the best plan is to find a system that works for you (and hope that the office overlords accept your system).

The truth is, some people can function perfectly well with a little extra clutter, according to an article on on management. As long as you’re able to efficiently locate anything you (or your co-workers or boss) might need to do your job, messiness isn’t necessarily a problem – although it probably wouldn’t hurt to tidy up periodically.

Unless your company has a specific need to create such a policy – shared workspaces or security, for example – then it’s probably OK to let that cardigan stay on your chair and to keep a photo of your grandkids next to your computer.

Photo courtesy of teaksato on Stock.Xchng