Your desk defines you

The Life: a tidy desk is the sign of a sick mind, so the saying goes - or is it? A recent survey suggests otherwise.
Experts say an untidy desk may suggest that a worker is busy, but the reality is somewhat different: it may mean a person is disorganised.
Experts say an untidy desk may suggest that a worker is busy, but the reality is somewhat different: it may mean a person is disorganised.

Some say a tidy desk is the sign of a sick mind.

But what does a messy desk signify to employers?

"It speaks to us of many things, none of them particularly positive," says Dr Linzi Kemp, the assistant professor of management at the American University of Sharjah. "We judge the person as unable to control their lives as represented by the stuff spilling all over their desk."

Yet bosses should not be too quick to judge the person responsible for the untidy workspace. "They may be working on the next great invention," says Dr Kemp.

The way people keep their desk may reveal aspects of their personality, says Paul Vella, an organisational psychologist with Innovative Human Resource Solutions in Dubai. "When it comes to our work space, research suggests significant links do exist between personality and work performance. How we keep our desk, where we position it and how valued it makes us feel, have all been found to reveal something telling about us as individuals at work."

And, it seems, managers instinctively pick up on the connection. A recent survey commissioned by OfficeTeam found that 83 per cent of human resources managers said an untidy desk affected their perception of a person's professionalism.

"A tidy desk won't necessarily boost your career, but a messy one can leave a bad impression on colleagues," said Robert Hosking, the executive director of OfficeTeam.

Dr Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai Knowledge Village, agrees. He says an untidy desk may suggest that a worker is busy, but the reality is somewhat different.

"It is a false indication, because what we actually know is that a messy desk actually means that the person is quite disorganised."

Of course, employers want productive and consistent workers. And the concern about a messy desk is that it gives "a false indication of being industrious but in the long run nothing gets completed", says Dr Hamden.

Those who claim the clutter is actually ordered chaos may not be telling the truth, experts warn. "They will use that as an excuse," says Dr Hamden. "But the person who wants to be productive, which is a leadership responsibility, means that they are taking the team in the direction of a common goal.

"If you are only organised inside your own head nobody knows what's going on inside your head. It does not mean that you have to be obsessive compulsive, just organised."

People who have messy desks may have issues with organisation, Dr Hamden says. He notes that they may be setting their goals and expectations too high and end up working too many hours because of their disorganisation, just to show that they are productive.

The problem is that those who do no meet their goals may become frustrated and end up doing nothing at all.

"That's the reality of a messy desk," says Dr Hamden. "The only time something happens is when someone calls and asks them to do something that day."

Professionals with problems keeping their desks tidy should set themselves long-term goals. Categorising piles of paperwork is a good start. "Only deal with an item once," says Dr Kemp. "Use the waste bin as an extension of your desk, rather than your desk as your bin."

When it comes to overall workplace productivity, bosses should still be concerned by workers with messy desks if they appear to be productive.

"I would question whether they have been productive or just temporary goal reaching," says Dr Hamden. "If that person gets sick and can't come into the office nobody would know what to do the next day."

Published: August 23, 2011 04:00 AM


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