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Tidy desk, tidy mind?

Remember the big clean-up before the holidays? Neither do we. Old habits tend to resume upon the return to the office, those desks left gleaming and untouched over Christmas soon revert back to the cluttered jumble of stationery, paper and Secret Santa desk toys!

But is that necessarily a bad thing? People keeping unorganised workspaces often claim they have a ‘system’. Could this be true or are they simply avoiding a clean-up? The HR Dept has, for ‘National Clean your Desk Day’, looked into whether strict policies on desk tidiness are always necessary, especially in the digital age…

There’s no doubt that a tidy desk is more aesthetically pleasing than an untidy one. Keeping up appearances is important if you want your business to present a professional image to your customers. Visitors’ brand judgements will be affected – beware as untidiness could be construed as laziness. Keeping tidy will prevent that and also prevent confidential documents from entering the wrong hands.

Tidiness also plays an important role in maintaining a harmonious working environment. Ever been frustrated at another employee’s messiness before? This is especially important when practicing hot desking, nobody wants to arrive at work and immediately clear up somebody else’s mess. These tensions are avoided by blanket policies requiring all to keep the office in ship shape.

You may employ a cleaning company to pop in on the weekend. Their limited time is better utilised in a tidier office as less effort is spent shuffling clutter to one side. This could affect desk hygiene. You’d be amazed (or disgusted) at the amount of germs you could find on office essentials such as a keyboard. In this test 33 keyboards were swabbed, of them four were regarded as potential health hazards!

Health and Safety, as an essential, shouldn’t be forgotten. Considering what’s under and around the desk is important. Floor-running cables could present a trip hazard for example, and a fire exit route could be impeded. DSE assessments should be reviewed annually and/or whenever anything changes. This should bring to light any dangers before they cause any real health or safety issues.

But what about the case for keeping things untidy? Is there one? You may be surprised. Past research supports the idea that workspace tidiness has a direct effect on the way in which we think and thus work. Disorder stimulated participants’ creative sides, order was found to stifle it. If you employ in creative industries, harmonious disorder may be just the ticket. Remember, Alexander Fleming only discovered Penicillin when he forgot to clean his petri-dishes!

The presence of clutter has also been found to surprisingly boost problem solving skills and task focus in some cases. The rationale being that mess forces you to think and focus on the job in hand, by blocking out other visual cues. Seems counter-intuitive, but it’s certainly interesting. Read more about it here.

What is intuitive is the following formula: the less time you have to complete your tasks, the messier you’re likely to be. When pushed for time, filing paperwork and having a tidy aren’t always jobs at the top of your list. This disorder could be more efficient time-wise, as less time is spent looking for items that you need on your desk than filing and tidying.

Whatever attitude you take towards desk tidiness, you must ensure this is reflected in your policies. But be careful how far you take it, some employees could resent rules restricting them from putting pictures of family on their desk or from personalising their workspace. The HR Dept can help you to achieve the right balance. Enforcing those policies could also mean carrying out some tricky conversations. Make sure you seek advice from The HR Dept before going down that road.