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Updated Oct 23, 2023

What a Messy (or Neat) Desk Reveals About You

Whether your desk is cluttered or clean, you've got specific skills to offer. Here's what the state of your desk says about you.

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Written By: Adam UzialkoBusiness Strategy Insider and Senior Editor
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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We’ve all likely heard the old adage “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” In an age of decluttering and the success of books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, it may seem that workplace neatness is crucial for professional success. 

However, having a messy desk isn’t necessarily a sign of a cluttered mind. In fact, research shows that clean and messy desks reflect different personality types, and both bring benefits to the workplace.  

What does your desk’s condition say about you?

Got a messy desk? Don’t worry; it may mean you’re creative and full of new ideas. In contrast, clean desks have been connected to generosity and conventionality. Either way, there’s room for both kinds of desks – and people – in the office. 

According to an often-cited University of Minnesota study, workers with desks in varying states of organization and cleanliness may have specific skills to offer employers and co-workers.

“[A] clean setting leads people to do good things: not engage in crime, not litter and show more generosity,” said Kathleen Vohs, a University of Minnesota psychological scientist who participated in conducting the study. “We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.”

Did You Know?Did you know
While some people may thrive amid clutter, experts say tidying a desk and surrounding area is a way to create a workspace that improves productivity.

What are the benefits of a clean environment?

The study explored the effects of clean and messy environments. In the first of several experiments, participants were asked to fill out some questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one, where papers were strewn about and office supplies cluttered the area.

Afterward, the participants were presented with the opportunity to donate to a charity and were allowed to take a snack of chocolate or an apple on their way out.

The results showed a surprising effect of a clean environment: Participants seemed to adhere more to societal expectations of good behavior. For example, they donated more of their money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple instead of chocolate as their snack.

Consider using business contact-management iPhone apps to streamline networking and stay organized.

What are the benefits of messiness? 

However, cleanliness wasn’t a clear-cut environmental winner. Researchers hypothesized that messiness might also have virtues and upsides, and they found several.

Messiness led to more creativity.

In another experiment, participants were asked to devise new uses for ping-pong balls. Overall, the messy-room participants generated the same number of ideas as their clean-room counterparts. However, their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges. “Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries and societies want more of: creativity,” Vohs noted.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
While research shows creativity can be learned, it's probably not a good idea to encourage messy desks to boost your organization's creativity level.

Messiness led to fresh insights. 

When participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, messy-room dwellers were more likely to prefer the new one, signaling that a disorderly environment may stimulate a release from conventionality. 

In contrast, the tidy-room participants preferred the established product to the new one. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” Vohs said. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

Surprisingly, the specific physical location didn’t seem to matter. “We used six different locations in our paper; the specifics of the rooms were not important,” Vohs said. “Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a whopping difference in people’s behavior.”

What about a messy virtual environment?

A virtual environment may not be the place to experiment with messiness. According to Stanford web credibility research, 75% of users judge a business’s credibility based on website design. Website clutter, poor site navigation and slow page-load speeds can all affect consumer behavior and discourage them from purchasing. 

In contrast, website landing pages that are clean and uncluttered are more likely to generate sales. Generally, good website design inspires confidence, gives an excellent first impression of your business, and makes it easy for your audience to grasp the products or services your business provides. 

When it comes to creating a virtual environment for your business, it may be best to stick with a streamlined look and save the messiness for your private desk. 

>> Learn More: Ways to Improve Your Office’s Work Environment

What does a messy desk say about a person? 

A messy desk may communicate several different things, including that someone has a lack of organization skills, is in the middle of a busy project, or they’re simply lazy and don’t want to clean up after themselves. While having a messy desk isn’t always negative, it’s important to understand that it may be perceived by others in this way, even if the reason for it is valid. 

“A messy desk can be a sign of laziness, or it can be a sign that you’re busy working on something very important,” Kimberly Tyler-Smith, an executive at career tech platform Resume Worded said.”Either way, it’s important to manage your employees’ desks in a way that benefits the entire team.”

If an employee’s desk becomes overly messy, it could impede their work or even their colleagues. A clean desk (or at least a reasonably uncluttered one) allows for space to move and operate, as well as place useful tools like needed hardware, tools, and lighting. Always consider what an employee is working on in the moment before admonishing them for having a messy desk, though.

“If your employee is working on something that requires them to have their hands full and their head buried in their work, then they need the freedom to leave their desk messy,” she said. “On the other hand, if your employee seems like they’re just putting off work by being lazy and leaving their desk messy, then it’s probably time for some discipline. You may need to remind them of how unprofessional it looks when they don’t take care of their workspace.”

Did You Know?Did you know
Industrial-organizational psychology focuses on individual behaviors and needs in the workplace to help businesses get the most from their teams.

What are the pros and cons of a messy-desk employee?

There are downsides and advantages to employees with messy and clean desks. The key is knowing how to manage your team and help them be as productive as possible. 

Some advantages of messy-desk employees include the following: 

  • Messy desks may spur creativity. Companies that do creative work may want to embrace some messy-desk employees. Creative geniuses, including Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, were all said to have messy desks.  
  • Messy desks can signal work in progress. Individuals have unique work processes. Someone’s messy desk may signal that they’re deeply involved in a project and are surrounded by moving pieces and piles. If temporary clutter signals a productive employee’s process, there’s no need to worry. 

There are also some downsides to messy desks: 

  • Co-workers may resent their messy-desk colleagues. A messy desk may lead to workplace conflicts and few friends at work. People who share an office may prefer clean-desk employees and be annoyed by a co-worker’s clutter. They may resent their messy-desk colleague for the physical space their clutter takes up and avoid collaborating with them. 
  • Clients may be put off by messy-desk employees. While messy desk employees may be creative and full of good ideas, you probably don’t want their stacks of papers displayed in front of clients. If client interactions are crucial to a position, a messy desk may prevent the employee from getting a promotion. Additionally, in an open-office environment where various clients and vendors come and go, someone’s messy desk may prove embarrassing and distracting. 
Keeping a clean workspace is one of the tenets of open-office etiquette.

Messy-desk employees have value

Don’t judge messy-desk employees too harshly. Their creativity and unique working process may bring innovation, insights and originality to your organization. The challenge for managers is understanding and respecting individual preferences and processes and learning how to channel everyone’s unique talents to benefit the organization. 

Alex Halperin contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. 

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Written By: Adam UzialkoBusiness Strategy Insider and Senior Editor
Adam Uzialko, senior editor of Business News Daily, is not just a professional writer and editor — he’s also an entrepreneur who knows firsthand what it’s like building a business from scratch. His experience as co-founder and managing editor of a digital marketing company imbues his work at Business News Daily with a perspective grounded in the realities of running a small business. Since 2015, Adam has reviewed hundreds of small business products and services, including contact center solutions, email marketing software and text message marketing software. Adam uses the products, interviews users and talks directly to the companies that make the products and services he covers. He specializes in digital marketing topics, with a focus on content marketing, editorial strategy and managing a team.
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