Don’t be sorry for the mess!
People often get apologetic when they show me around their office and it’s not picture perfect. “Sorry for the mess … We are actually thinking about implementing a clean desk policy”, I often hear. And to their great surprise, my usual response is, “Clean desk policy? Please think twice”.
When managers get tired of dealing with messy people or being surrounded by clutter accumulated over the years, they often go from one extreme to the other and implement clean desk policies on a whim. At other times this decision is triggered by financial pressures and the need to increase staff productivity.
These managers are somehow convinced that clean desks are the answer, that in a perfectly tidy workspace (think of the photos of offices you see in design magazines) workers will be less distracted from their work and will therefore concentrate better.
While in some cases this might help, the truth is that certain levels and types of clutter, for certain types of work, can be really beneficial.
How can clutter be helpful?
Many of us feel more comfortable and content in moderately cluttered, scattered spaces. Just think of the types of spaces where you go to catch up with friends or to have some ‘me time’.
This is no coincidence. We humans are hardwired to feel more at home in spaces that look and feel natural, and nature certainly doesn’t have a ‘clean desk policy’. When we see an animal in a barren cage, we feel sorry for it, don’t we? But having a homely work environment is not just about feeling good …
A fascinating study found that the brains of mice increased by 15% in volume when they were kept in stimulating environments, compared to the brains of mice kept in sterile, bare cages. What do you think this might mean for humans?
Extensive studies show that in rich, stimulating environments we are better able to concentrate, and our productivity (i.e. speed and accuracy of work) can increase significantly compared to when we’re working in sterile, minimalist environments. Furthermore, in spaces that are rich in detail, containing many different objects, we tend to think more creatively than in minimalist spaces.
In contrast, (as mentioned in previous articles,) in sterile, unstimulating environments most of us find it difficult to focus, and we more easily become restless and emotional. We also tend to be more risk-averse, more constrained in our thinking, and thus less good at solving problems.
What kinds of objects are useful?
Seeing unexpected, surprising objects – ones that look a bit out of place in the workspace – helps us think outside the box. These stimulating objects might be a pile of toys or other non-work-related objects, or quirky artworks you wouldn’t expect to see in an office.
Since happiness is one of the greatest productivity boosters, anything that makes us feel good is worthwhile to have around in the workspace. These could be family photos, hobby items, beautiful or inspiring images, or funny drawings that make you smile or laugh – laughter can do miracles at work.
Playing with tactile objects during a conversation or while contemplating a problem can actually help us think better. So while those translucent tubber toys and fluffy tassels might look completely ridiculous in your office, they can be useful to have around.
And what is bad clutter? Anything that reminds us of the huge amount of work ahead of us, stressing us out and tempting us to multitask. Most of us are so over-committed; a single look at our endless to-do list or a mountain of files on our desk can make us feel overwhelmed and disempowered. So any files and documents that are not needed for the task at hand should ideally be kept out of sight.
What is the right amount of clutter?
The optimal level of clutter largely depends on the type of work. Tasks that require intense focus and analytical thinking – like doing calculations, doing quality checking or writing technical reports – are better done in relatively low-key, non-distracting spaces. On the other hand, tasks that require open, expansive thinking – for example creative tasks, problem solving, and building relationships – benefit from a more rich, scattered environment.
Of course, when clutter is so extensive that it doesn’t leave sufficient space for work, that’s a real problem. Some people are prone to being messy, or have a tendency of hoarding. I’ve seen workstations where the entire desk and even the chair was filled up with stuff! This not only undermines the work performance of the messy person but also disturbs those around them.
Apart from these extremes, the right amount of clutter to some extent is also a matter of personal preference. Some people find it easier to think clearly in a perfectly organised, clean workspace, while others are more productive in a slightly messy space. This means that what one person finds too busy or cluttered, another person may find too minimalist.
To ensure that the workspace serves everyone, it’s best to create a diversified environment. Also, where possible, allow your team members to ‘enrich’ their work areas according to their personal taste, instead of imposing your preference upon them. Stand up against unproductive habits, but please respect individual differences.
No allocated desks?
In flexible workplaces, where people use a different desk each day, there need to be some measures in place to ensure that the desks are always left clean and tidy after work. While in these kinds of workplaces people don’t have an allocated workstation which they could personalise, there tends to be a good range of shared areas – meeting rooms, media rooms, collaboration rooms, design studios, quiet rooms, breakout spaces, social areas, etc. – that users can ‘dress up’ and make more homely.
“But lazy people need to be kept in check!”, I hear you say. If people leave their personal stuff all over the place, creating a real mess, of course this needs to be addressed. But even then, please do not threaten staff by saying that their personal items left behind will go straight to the bin (as sadly, so many companies do). What would that say about your company’s culture, about the relationship between staff and management, and about the extent to which your company respects and cares about its people?
Focus on reducing mental clutter
Mental clutter, in this age of information, is indeed a serious problem. But clean desks will not do the job, and will likely cause more harm than benefit. In my next article I will talk about how to minimise mental clutter through smart workspace design.