Workstation design: creative or unprofessional?

I’m quoted in the Alabama Press-Register in an article by Kaija Wilkinson called "Express Yourself," discussing productivity in office cublicles or "workstations" as they are called today.  She discusses how neat they should be, configuration, use of personal items, and design.  Pretty good article.  I come across as a bit of a neat freak, so I wanted to provide some additional commentary on why I think it’s a good idea to maintain a neat workstation.

Order is your ability to sort, filter, and process information effectively. It’s also your ability to FIND what you want, when you want it. It’s how tidy your work areas look, inside and out.

I believe a messy office is a career detriment. I can’t tell you how many negative comments I hear, such as, “Joan’s office and her work are so sloppy.” People equate messy desks with messy work. Not fair, I know, but perception is reality. My HR clients have flat-out told me: “I’d promote someone with a tidy office over someone with a messy office any day.”

A seminar participant wrote, “My time management abilities are fair but could certainly be better. I interface with several agencies and outside individuals on a daily basis, which tends to keep me moving from issue-to-issue. With a little more organization, I could be more productive.”

Some people try to justify their disorganization by appearing as if they are disorganized on purpose. They say things like, “I have a great system. I just let things go and if it’s really important, someone will call about it.” Others tell me they have no choice but to be disorganized. One woman told me in defense, “But I’m CREATIVE, you see. Creative people are naturally disorganized.” I wouldn’t necessarily agree. I’ve known many creative, right-brained people who were highly organized; they simply had to learn different systems. You don’t have to be creative and disorganized, if you are willing to learn and the pain is bad enough.

Let’s make another important distinction: “Neat” does not necessarily equal “organized.” Let’s say, for example, that someone you care about is coming to your home or office, and your desk or dining room table is so full (and has been for so long) that you don’t even remember what the surface looks like. You sweep your arm across the surface, dumping all the contents into a container, throwing it under the bed or in the closet. You have “neat,” yes, but do you have “organized”? Of course not. You could be a neat, disorganized person. Or you can be organized and not neat, but you will experience several problems.

An organized office:

·        Saves time. In my experience, the average professional spends at least 30 minutes a day just looking for things. Many people work longer hours to compensate for this wasted time.

·        Allows you to focus. When you are surrounded by clutter, it’s difficult to concentrate on the task before you. Most people have 1-2 weeks of work on their desks right now, assuming they didn’t get anything else to do today.

Allows others to find things in your office. It’s frustrating for coworkers to locate items in your office when you go on vacation or stay home sick.

·        Lowers your stress levels. People with a cluttered office report having anxiety, and being overwhelmed and frustrated. Your environment directly affects your moods, attitudes, and emotions. Stress-related illnesses cost the U.S. $300 billion per year.

·        Distills the important from the unimportant. Without a system, you will deal with large amounts of extraneous material. Just as we only wear a small percentage of our clothes, we only use a small percentage of information that crosses our desks.

·        Could possibly help in career progression. I hear many negative comments about messy desks.  People tend to equate sloppy desks with sloppy work. Not entirely fair, I know, but that’s the reality. My HR clients have flat-out told me: “I’d promote someone with a tidy office over someone with a messy office any day.”

An organized desk sends this important message to other people: I’ve got it together. Visualize your desk in your mind. What does it “say” to others? That you are overwhelmed by work? That you are disorganized and therefore not too competent? That you obviously have trouble making decisions, since you can’t decide what to do with anything? The next time someone walks over to your cluttered desk and makes a “joke” about the mess, you might want to listen. Regardless of what excuses you offer, your desk says a great deal. Your newly organized desk will now say that you are professional, competent, decisive, efficient, productive, and in control. No matter what you’ve seen on coffee cups, a clean desk is NOT the sign of an empty mind.



  1. Daily Report, Mar 21

    Team Collaboration CalConnect Roundtable … The next CalConnect Interoperability Test Event is on May 7-9 in Seattle WA at The Boeing Company. CalConnect Interwoven Update … Interwoven released a new version of its Collaborative Document Management …

  2. I so couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks for saying what to me was always obvious. I don’t see how people who have very messy desks get anything done. I once worked for a government agency where the executive secretary of the director was so messey it was actually embarrasing. She did good work but she also worked a lot of overtime and seemed to be stressed-out all the time. Wonder if they were related….hmmm. Had she worked for me there would have been some significant changes. I also worked for another company, years ago (about 30), that actually had a clean desk policy; each night before leaving work you had to remove everything from the top of your desk and either file it or set it in a drawer. This seemed a bit juvinile at first but it did force you to be neater, organized, and focused. You don’t see too many employees like that any more. Makes you wonder…is it a sign of the times? Are people messier today then they once were? Are government employees messier than those in the private sector?