Order Versus Chaos

Having a messy desk can hinder a worker's career or help it, depending on the nature of the employer

February 23, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

As chief financial officer of a small Baltimore software company, Anne Shiflett is always juggling more than one task -- and she has the desk to prove it.

Stacks of expense reports, contracts and bills cover nearly all surfaces of her desk. Loose papers lay strewn around her keyboard. Her chair doubles as an inbox.

Shiflett doesn't mind that her workspace is messy; she can still always find what she needs. Besides, she doesn't have the time to clean it.

"I don't trust someone with a clean desk, because then I wonder if they're really busy enough," said Shiflett, CFO of Agentsmith in Canton.

Some, like Shiflett, would say that a messy desk means a diligent and sometimes more creative worker, but others argue that organization breeds success. And at a time when many workers spend more waking hours in their office than in their homes, the neat vs. messy desk debate has spilled beyond workers' cubicles to become a topic on performance evaluations or an impetus in pushing workers up the corporate ladder.

A 2004 survey by Melville, N.Y.-based office supplies manufacturer Pendaflex found that more than half of the 2,000 companies surveyed consider workers' organization skills during annual reviews.

Those surveyed at those companies believe organized workers are more likely to get noticed and promoted than employees with messy desks, according to Pendaflex, which sells files, storage boxes and other organizing aids.

Bosses view a clean desk as the personification of someone who is organized and can handle more responsibility, said Sharon Mann, an organizational expert for Penda-flex and president of the company's I Hate Filing Club.

"We've got a marketing person here who's got mounds and mounds of paper," Mann said, "and somebody just got promoted in that area, but it wasn't her."

Mann said she has felt the benefits of a neat desk firsthand. A dozen years ago, when she was working in Pendaflex's customer service department, her manager kept piling the work onto her neat desk. When Mann asked why she was being tapped so much, her boss said she was the only one who could handle it. Six months later, Mann got a promotion.

Not everyone agrees that a neat desk will help workers move up in business.

Whether workers get promoted has more to do with their accomplishments and how they connect with their bosses than with the state of their desks, said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an international outplacement company in Chicago.

A neat boss might be more likely to appreciate a neat worker, he said. But messy or neat desks can be interpreted in more ways than one.

"Some people think the neater you are, the more time you spend organizing rather than doing," Challenger said, "and some people think the more organized you are, the more you know what you're doing."

As director of operations at the Baltimore sales-training company EntreQuest, Anneli Kressler keeps her work area extremely orderly. It helps her think more clearly when she works, she said. The papers are in a neat pile, the stapler and other supplies on her bookshelves are in order, and the thought of crumbs in her keyboard makes her cringe.

A few feet away, the desk of EntreQuest's director of enrollment, Shaun Callahan, looks very different. In his job, Callahan is expected to think innovatively, and he believes a messy desk lends itself to that.

`Overflow' inbox

In addition to the desktop Cranium game and the Buzz Lightyear figures on his desk, Callahan's workspace is covered with papers. His inbox is stuffed so high with notebooks and memos that he has an "overflow" inbox on the side of his desk. An open magazine is covered with sticky notes. His contacts' business cards are "filed" in a basket, a box or simply on his desk.

"In my mind, there's some sense to the chaos," Callahan said, adding that, more important, his computer files are organized.

Some experts say clean workspaces could be good for workers' images. Many people equate a clean workspace with an organized person, whether the two are related or not, said Andrew J. DuBrin, professor of management at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an industrial psychologist.

"Whenever you see a photo of a powerful person, the person always has a clean work area," DuBrin said, noting that those people typically have assistants to help them stay organized.

When Kathleen Strukoff began her human resources career, the small local bank she worked for in Albuquerque, N.M., had a strict policy: Every night before workers went home, they had to clean off their desks.

Such policies are influenced in part by personal preferences of the company's leaders and in part by the type of business it is, said Strukoff, now a vice president at the Baltimore offices of Aon Consulting, a Chicago employee benefits and human resources consulting firm. Companies whose offices are often visited by customers, for example, are more likely to demand neater workspaces.

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