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

April 25, 2011 1 comment
messy desk

This messy desk could be costing corporate America billions.

One of the burning debates in the world of office efficiency is whether a messy desk or an orderly desk is best.  Although most office workers lie somewhere between the obsessively neat and the chronically slovenly, everyone has a dog in this hunt because everyone wants to believe that their system is best (or is a system at all).

It doesn’t help that the experts are also divided on the issue.  Eric Abrhamson and David H. Freedman in their book A Perfect Mess, The Hidden Benefits of Disorder come down squarely on the side of sloppiness.  They argue that keeping things neat and orderly takes time, time that might be better spent producing results for the company.

If the same amount of work can be done in the same amount of time by someone with a messy desk and someone with a clean desk, the person with the messy desk is actually ahead because they didn’t waste extra time cleaning things up.

Ah, but there’s more to it than that says Penelope Trunk, a career advice guru whose column runs in 200 newspapers.  “A messy desk undermines your career in subtle ways. If you are the owner of the company, you give the impression that you cannot handle your position. If you are in middle management, when someone is giving away a plumb assignment, she does not think of you because you give the impression that it will go into a pile and never come out.”

Maybe, but Penelope is perhaps a little biased on the issue.  In her column entitled “List of Things I Hate” she places people with messy desks at number two.  In her explanation of why people with messy desks are so irksome she says that people with messy desks wrote to her complaining about her position on messy desks and it annoyed her so now she hates people with messy desks even more.  Um, okay.

Penelope may be surprised to learn that a 2005 survey by office staffing firm Ajilon found that only 11% of people earning $75,000 a year or more describe themselves as being neat freaks when it comes to their desk.  Of those earning less than $35,000 a year, 66% describe themselves as such.  Apparently the folks earning the most money never got the memo telling them that having a sloppy desk undermines your career.

On the other hand, Penelope comes armed with a study of her own, a 2001 University of Texas study that found that “people with messy offices are less efficient, less organized and less imaginative then people with clean offices.”  What’s more, the study found that coworkers viewed messy workers as less efficient and unimaginative.  Ouch!  No one likes to be judged.

But the Ajilon study parses the issue of perception a little more carefully.  It found that given a random sample of three coworkers, one won’t give a hoot about your messiness, one will judge you negatively because of it, and one will say it depends on who you are.  Ah, that’s a little more like it.  We all understand that there are people like Penelope in the office who harbor a smoldering disgust for disorder, but as long as the other two-thirds of the staff are okay with it, we’re good.

Or are we?  What if our messiness causes us to lose things?  One survey conducted by GkF Roper North America and cited by CNBC determined that corporate America loses a whopping $177 billion a year in time spent searching for lost items around the office.  Goodness gracious!  We could use that money to balance the budget!

At the end of the day, we’re left with this.  According to the experts, if you have a messy desk you are likely to be more successful but less imaginative.  You will give a negative impression to about a third of your coworkers and your efficiency will be called into question but you will actually devote more time to your job than someone who wastes time keeping their desk clean.

Oh, and you will cost corporate America $177 billion a year.

But if you can live with that go ahead and continue your slovenly ways.  Just don’t write to Penelope about it.  ♦

Author and Client:  This article was written by Malcolm Logan for the Swingline blog 

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Image Credit:

Messy Desk, EUSocial
Note:  This blog post was written for the Swingline Division of Acco Brands and can be viewed at their website Swinglineblog.com

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