Does a clean desk help you work?

A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, the saying goes — which may explain why Australian company BHP Billiton’s rule book, leaked to the Australian Financial Review, made a big deal about employee desks. According to the publication, employees “have to clean their desks every day of all but eight objects – their monitors, keyboards, mouse, mouse pad, telephone handset and headset, one A5 photo frame and, should they need it, a footstool, gel wrist pad or other ergonomic equipment.”

The theory is that a “Clear desk enables … others to use our desk when we’re not there,” BHP Billiton’s policy says. The policy should also help keep information confidential and would encourage people to file things digitally. I guess people’s desks would also look snappy in photos. Iconic images of a leader at his desk always features vast expanses of wood with nothing piled on top.

But do draconian clean-desk policies really boost productivity? Personally, I’ve always liked to “nest” at my desks — piling up papers I’m still thinking about, and posting notes for myself in different places. While I like the idea of being able to work anywhere at any time (which universal clean desk policies would in theory promote), if you do expect employees to show up in an office on a regular basis, it’s nice to give them a home base. Let’s put it this way: if your employees can work from home 3 days a week, sure, keep the desks clean. If not? You’re asking for trouble by forbidding the installment of more than one picture frame. It’s like taunting not only can we keep you away from your family for 40-50 hours a week, we won’t let you display each of your children’s school pictures separately either!

Personally, I think a clean desk is a sign of nothing other than the fact that you took the time to organize and clean it. That’s a neutral statement. If you cleaned it instead of goofing around on the internet, great. If you cleaned it to procrastinate calling a supplier whose quality problems have now become a major embarrassment for your employer? Well, that’s not such a great sign.

Obviously, if you’re leaving food on a messy desk and it’s rotting, that produces negative externalities (odors and vermin). But a mere mess? That’s easily solved with a cubicle door — a product whose existence confirms for me what an awful idea cubicles were in the first place.

Do you need a clean desk to work? Or do you keep top of mind items top of desk as well?

In other news: The audio book fun continues! What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast is currently on the business bestseller list at Audible. Thanks for checking out the book — I really appreciate it.

Photo: My office looked like this, once, for approximately 15 minutes.

10 thoughts on “Does a clean desk help you work?

  1. Complete desk disaster. But all in related piles (calls I can’t do now, waiting for call back, extremely not important (they go on the desk behind me actually), etc). So many things my boss gives me to do can wait until later or can’t be accomplished right now. They sit on/near/under my desk.

    After a time, it weighs on me to have all these files around and I go through and clean up what I can. By then time has passed and some things aren’t relevant anymore (and don’t need to be done) and other things can be accomplished more easily than when they first appeared.

    The boss goes away regularly enough (for 3-5 days) and I take time then to really clear things off.

    I love the idea of a clean desk, but it really doesn’t work for me. Never going to happen!

    (And thanks for not making me feel guilty about it!)

  2. Clutter stresses me out, so yeah, I work better with a clean desk. But I would HATE to have a *rule* about it.

    Unless of course it was one of those temporary “touchdown spaces” where remote workers can grab a desk for a day or whatnot. Obviously then they should clean it off when they’re done for the day.

  3. I can’t imagine working some place with a rule like that. I spend my days organizing things (information into databases, projects into plans…) but my desk is generally chaos. And that works well for me, until it doesn’t, and then I clean it.

    1. Ha ha! Exactly what I was going to say—“it works well for me, until it doesn’t”. I clean periodically…usually after a big project (grant, paper, or similar) is finished & I need mindless tasks. To be forced to clean every day would be really infantalizing (sp?) and annoying.

  4. I love your term “nesting” applied to what you do at your desk. I do the same thing, and it sounds so nice and cozy! I tend to let my desk pile up until it reaches the point at which it’s no longer cozy and comforting, but detrimental to my work. Then I clean it up. And speaking of cleaning up…I think it’s time!

  5. I have the conviction, likely based on distorted thinking, that I must have everything at hand. It’s too much hassle to open a drawer, or go to a cabinet to get an item I need, so everything is all over…but within reach.
    I admit that I am uncertain this adds to efficiency…but I can’t seem to let go of this conviction. 🙂 And therefore, I have a very messy desk…

  6. Oh wow, what’s the name of that company again, because I could never, ever work there. My desk looks like my life vomited on it. I just pretend like I’m some sort of nutty professor or misunderstood genius.

  7. There were people at my previous employer that were obssessed with my messy desk. But then again (without running the risk of bragging), I was much better at my job than they were (this would include some in a supervisory role). Wait, a minute, I am bragging 🙂 Anyway, I think that people fixate on that to avoid doing actual work, and the cleaning gave them a temporary fix. Then I would watch them trying to do their jobs and they were completely inefficient. So I think the “cluttered desk, cluttered mind” thing is just not right.

  8. What is a mouse pad? Since the mice should be optical, you could forgo the mouse pad and have something else on the desk..:) Seriously, that policy may perhaps cause people to spend to much time taking things off, and putting them on their desk, contributing to non productive work…

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