What Is Better, A Messy Desk or A Clean Desk?

The study of ergonomics in the HR field is often about trying to figure out how to achieve a balance between happy workers and productive workers. Ideally, a happy worker IS a productive worker.

One contentious point of debate about office productivity centers around the tidiness of worker’s office spaces.

We’ve always been told that keeping our work areas clear of clutter will help us relax and focus on our work. Then why is it a losing downhill battle for some of us to achieve a clear workspace? Does the neat freak in the cubicle next to you really work better? Some would say yes, some would say no:

Excerpts from HRZone article:

HR manager Lynn Hebb says, “Overall I think a tidy office is better for everyone and it creates an impression for visitors that the company has got things under control,” adds Hebb. “However, unless there is a strong and friendly culture, such a sterile environment I would imagine could mean that staff are more inclined to leave to go home early and spend less time in the office working.”

clean desk

HR director Sue Morrison agrees about the importance of striking a balance between a barren desk and an avalanche of paper threatening to collapse and crush you: “I don’t think it is fair to treat all employees like robots, denying them any individuality.”

HR manager Karen Bailey argues, “The issue of a tidy desk is more than just a case of being messy – it’s about your personality and how you work. Being tidy and organised is not everyone’s skill in life and forcing them to be something they are not will actually impact upon their productivity. I am a very untidy worker (but I am very creative!) and when I was forced to work with a clear desk policy I found it caused me stress as I spent more time filing and tidying than I did working. The funny thing is I am perceived as being highly organised by those around me!

messy desk

Training consultant Nik Kellingley argues that productivity is directly affected by your ability to file and retrieve documents easily: “I think tidy desks are probably more conducive for most people’s sanity and if you work in a job where bits of paper are really important (they aren’t in mine) then they can end up impacting on performance hugely. If you spend ten minutes a day searching for something that was “just here a moment ago” then by the end of the year you’ll have wasted a couple of working days looking for stuff.”

It seems as though there is no right answer. I think I have better piece of mind when my desk is free of clutter. On the other hand, when I do file away papers, I am less likely to deal with them (out of sight, out of mind). Office orderliness seems to be more about keeping up appearances for others than it is about actual individual productivity. Something can be said for “tidy messes” as well. There is definitely a big difference between a totally disorganized workspace where it is impossible to find anything, and a workspace covered with paperwork that is in fact stacks of highly organized, prioritized piles.