Understanding Your Messy-Desk Employee

We all have employees whose desks are perpetually messy and who seem quite comfortable with that arrangement – excuse the pun. Since 1997, the average space allotted per office worker has dropped as much as 21 percent, according to the International Facility Management Association in Houston, Texas. Gone are the days of the J.R. Ewing corner offices and large private workspaces with solid doors. With more employees working in open-plan offices and shared workspaces, the messy-desk employee is more visible. All of these piles of papers, files and “stuff” can cause tension between the messy and the seemingly organized employee, distract both from their work and could even hurt performance.

But is forcing your messy-desker to change his or her ways the best answer? Not necessarily.

A Messy-Desk Confession

“If there were a 12-step program for a messy-desker, I’d probably need to join… and my colleagues would need their own support group for my messy desk. However, the first step in resolving a problem is admitting there is a problem… and well – it’s not really a problem for me. If someone doesn’t like the way my desk looks – don’t look. My desk is incredibly cluttered (my brain generally is as well). I can usually find on my desk (and in my brain) what I need when I need it. A clean, tidy desk stresses me out. I’m not neat and tidy by nature (even my apartment is pretty messy). I’m not dirty, just messy. It’s entirely too much effort for me to be tidy and having to keep it that way adds entirely too much stress.” M.M.

Does a Cluttered Desk Inspire Creativity?

It’s believed that Albert Einstein once said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” He was notorious for his messy desk. Was Albert on to something? Does clutter inspire creativity?
A study conducted in 2013 at the University of Minnesota revealed that people working in a messy room came up with more creative ideas than those in a tidy room. “Being creative is breaking away from tradition, order and convention, and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that,” says the study, published in Psychological Science. In contrast, orderly environments were said to encourage convention and playing it safe.

This isn’t the first time messy desks have received a positive check for creativity. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that a cluttered workspace is actually good for problem-solving abilities. Researchers stated that disorder can even promote creativity: “Messy desks may not be as detrimental as they appear to be, as the problem-solving approaches they seem to cause can boost work efficiency or enhance employees’ creativity in problem solving.”

So, before forcing a messy-desker to clean up, here are two questions to ask yourself:

1. Is your messy-desker productive and successful?

A desk has to be a place where you can be productive and comfortable. Sometimes this means it’s cluttered and messy. Dr. Jay Brand, a psychology professor, argues that a squeaky clean desk doesn’t always equate with a productive employee. In fact, he believes it can actually hinder productivity and efficiency because a person’s desk is an extension of his/her mind. They need a place to dump some of the information from their working memory into the environment—their desk.

Yet, according to a 2011 CareerBuilder survey of 2,662 hiring managers, 28% said they’re less likely to promote someone with a cluttered or disorganized workspace. Are they missing out on great talent?

In the article, “See What The Desks Of 39 Successful People Look Like” the author presents a list chocked full of innovative and successful (and rule breaking!) messy-deskers. Under their heap of papers, magazines, and various desk junk, there is a sense of organization only the owner of the desk can operate through. Our environments have historically played a major factor in how creative our minds are. But it is important to understand that unkempt doesn’t necessarily mean dirty. We are talking clutter—piles of stuff and maybe a few empty coffee cups or soda cans—not rotten bananas or last week’s lunch.
What good can come from having a messy desk? Perhaps more than you might think.

2. Is your messy-desker organized?

As you walk by the stacks of paper, binders, reminders, and assorted business cards that have accumulated on her desk for at least six months you think to yourself, “How can she function in her job?” Sure, her desk is organized in some particular fashion, known only to her interpretation. She tells you that she knows right where everything is and a neat desk just isn’t her “style”. You have labeled her desk a wreck. In your mind, she is not organized. But is she? There may well be a method to her madness: under the mass of papers, sticky notes, and various unidentifiable objects, there could be a sense of organization that enables her to flow seamlessly through her work. Instead of trying to change her, you might consider educating her on the perception you have drawn because of her messy desk. Understand her “style” without forcing her to be the “clutter-free” employee that she might never be.

According to Kelly Lynn Anders in her book, [linkto: http://www.theorganizedlawyer.com/TOL/ ] The Organized Lawyer, “Not everyone prioritizes about what the eye needs to feel relaxed. Some ideas work for some and not for others. That’s why it’s important to know your organizer type.” She goes on to identify four types of organizers:

  1. Stackers organize by topic in stacks. They are visual and tactile and like to give the appearance of order. The busier these people are, the more stacks they have.
  2. Spreaders are visual like stackers, but must be able to see everything they’re working on.
  3. Free Spirits keep very few personal belongings around the work area. They like new ideas and keep reports, books, articles and magazines near.
  4. Pack Rats have emotional ties to things. They like the feeling of fullness and history around them and like to tell stories about what’s in their office.

Where do you fit in?

Perhaps mom had it all wrong. All our lives, we’ve been told to be organized: “Clean up your room; pick up your toys”, etc. Can you remember your teachers singing that oh so irritating song, “Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up, everybody everywhere, everybody do your share…?” For those of us who bought into the concept at an early age that organized means neat, clean, and uncluttered, maybe we can learn some things from the messy-desk employee. Perhaps if we were to trash our desk with piles of paper, paint it with multi-color sticky notes, and sling paper clips and pens into the drawers, a lightning bolt of over-the-top creativity would strike us. But perhaps not. We do, however, need to develop a better understanding of and have deeper respect for our messy-desk cohorts.

(Image source: Shutterstock)


President and Owner, Ellis Partners in Mystery Shopping

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Joanna Ellis is CEO and Owner of Ellis Partners in Management Solutions (EPMS) and Co-owner of Renter’s Voice. Under her direction, Ellis has established itself as the premier apartment mystery shopping company in the nation, as well as a respected provider of multi-touch point resident surveys, as part of their retention-focused customer experience program. Current clients include most major apartment developers, management companies, and REITs. Through Renter’s Voice, Ellis helps clients promote and respond to authentic and objective apartment reviews. Having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business from Texas A&M, Ms. Ellis has spent more than 25 years in the multifamily industry, and she now holds both the Certified Apartment Manager (CAM) and Certified Apartment Property Supervisor (CAPS). She is also a licensed Texas Real Estate Agent. In honor of EPMS’ reputation for integrity, the Dallas Chapter of the Society of Financial Service Professionals awarded Joanna, on behalf of the company, the 2008 Greater Dallas Business Ethics Award for mid-size companies.

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