The Pro's and Con's of a Clean Desk Policy

The Pro's and Con's of a Clean Desk Policy

In an age where flexible working is on the rise, it seems unusual that work spaces are becoming the opposite. ‘Clean desk policies' and ‘hot desking' are incredibly popular trends that have been adopted across the world. Do these policies really create productive work environments, or do they do more harm than good? Are entirely tidy work spaces a concept that just does not translate in reality?

The Research

Information communication and technology provider Brother UK, recently conducted a survey of 2,000 office workers to better determine workplace attitudes towards employee tidiness. The Workplace Organisation Survey highlighted that 73% of Managers perceive someone with a messy desk as being disorganised. Another 30% of respondents also said they believe that a tidy desk is part and parcel of presenting a professional image at work.

Despite these opinions to support tidy desk policies, Brother UK also found that a third of those quizzed admitted to having a messy desk themselves. Smaller desks and open plan offices appear to be cultivating an environment for untidy desks to grow, but employers and employees still appear to be holding on to old notions of "tidy desk, tidy mind".  

However, the jury is still out when it comes to deciding the effect that messy desks have on the overall productivity of workers. The Workplace Organisation Survey reports 41% of those surveyed believed that a tidy workplace makes people more productive and 21% admitted that having a cluttered workspace has actually increased the workload.

These statistics, however, are at odds with the recent academic research. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that creative workers will usually favour a chaotic workspace. After testing participants in both tidy and disorderly work areas, impartial judges decided that ideas were much more interesting and creative when working in the messier spaces.

This falls in line with a study conducted at the University of Exeter. Participants were given the opportunity to work in both tidy and disorderly work areas again, but were also given ‘empowered' and ‘disempowered' spaces. Some spaces were created and refined by the employees and others were micro-managed by the experimenters. Unsurprisingly, the latter was enormously unpopular.

Economist Tim Hartford, author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives', discusses how "disruptions help us solve problems, they help us become more creative". So, when it comes to the debate on whether or not to adopt a clean desk policy, the real question might be whether or not you want your employees to be creative in the work place.

This clear divide between the needs of creative employees and the outdated attitudes of organisations and colleagues around them, could make clean desk policies a bone of contention. If mess is improving the quality and production of work, what reasons would employers have to implement this kind of policy?

The Practicalities

From a practical perspective, there are a number of matters to consider when forming a policy regarding office space and tidiness. Firstly, client confidentiality may be a core aspect of your business. You may require a clear desk policy to ensure any confidential paperwork and information is put away and stored safely. With new data protection legislation looming on the horizon, confidentiality policies will be scrutinised increasingly.

A tidy desk policy may also be beneficial if your day to day work place has regularly visiting clients and customers. If your employees are required to liaise with these visitors across their own desks, you may feel it compulsory to enact a policy to ensure your employees present a clean and professional image on a day to day basis.

Many office spaces also hire regular cleaners to come in during out of office hours to clean the space. For some businesses, this may be the reason for utilising a clean desk policy. The cleaners will need to have desks clear in order to efficiently clean the area. Desks covered in important paperwork and personal items could make the job challenging for the cleaning company, but could also leave documentation and paperwork at risk of being moved and lost.

How should businesses approach a clean desk policy?

HR expert Paula Fisher from Practical HR states, "Based on the evidence, it seems important to consider that your environment certainly can have an effect on your creativity, productivity and overall performance. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all clean desk policy seems counter-productive. It would seem a better approach would be to assess every position and the needs of each individual."

If you feel you need desks to be tidy for practical purposes, providing useful storage space and confidentiality guidelines may be best. If you are expecting employees to be creative and think outside the box in order to productive, it may be best to give them flexibility to curate their workspace in a way that works for them. 

It is very rare for a hard line clean desk policy to be compulsory in the modern workplaces of today. Employers should be mindful that creating a policy that is not in line with the needs and demands of their business could be divisive and potentially damaging to your employees and their productivity.

If you are considering implementing any kind of clean desk or hot desking policy, it's important that it is clearly communicated to employees. It's imperative that your team understand the ins and outs of the policy, your expectations and the implications of not adhering to it. An employee handbook managed by the HR experts at can help to ensure that policies are always clearly communicated and regularly updated.

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