Got A Messy Work Desk? Study Reveals What Your Coworkers Really Think Of You

from Fast Company

What does a worker’s messy desk signify to the greater office? Unfortunately, far more than just an inability to organize bobbleheads or throw away empty La Croix cans.

A new study finds that an untidy work space leads colleagues to perceive that the person is more neurotic, less agreeable, and pretty uncaring.

Researchers and psychologists from the University of Michigan Flint and Ann Arbor conducted three experiments in which 160 participants were randomly assigned to sit in three offices: one that was clean and uncluttered, one that was “somewhat” messy, and one that was “very” messy.

The tidy office boasted all the markings of a put-together employee. It had neatly stacked papers, upright books and journals on bookshelves, organized drawers with handwritten tables, and, of course, garbage in the wastebasket.

The “somewhat” messy office included tilted books, papers on the floor, and a wall clock that was an hour off. The next iteration–the “very” messy office–was an even dirtier and more cluttered version of that, with pretty much everything in disarray. The study’s participants were then asked to share their opinions of the offices’ owners based on their time in each space.

More here.

11 Responses to Got A Messy Work Desk? Study Reveals What Your Coworkers Really Think Of You

  1. Douglas Tkac December 7, 2018 at 1:20 am #

    Personally, I feel as if this article and study about cleanliness can expand beyond the just the office setting and can surprisingly indicate how a person might operate or conduct themselves.

    The adjectives that were used by the participants in the study conducted by the University of Michigan Flint and Ann Arbor were pinpoint accurate with “careless, cranky and uncaring” (Raphael 2018). Even though that this study might come across as ground-breaking news to some, I feel as if there’s a direct correlation to messiness and how a person might be operating themselves.

    In terms of the workplace, I’ve worked at two minor-scale jobs (both within the food industry) and both preached thorough, extensive cleaning procedures and habits, regardless if the day is hectic or if the day is extremely slow. However, within my latest living situations at Seton Hall University, I find that I can relate to this article and agree with what they found based on the living situations rather than the workplace.

    I have lived on campus for all 3 of my semesters so far in a dormitory setting, where the rooms were set up double-suite style (meaning each dorm had two bedrooms with two or three students to a room, and their own personal bathroom to keep track of). In my first semester as a student living on campus, my roommates were randomly assigned with little to no knowledge background of what kind of a person they are. As the weeks went on and the semester dragged, I found that the suite-mates who didn’t keep their part of the room organized neatly had a higher tolerance for bad grades, skipping classes and seeming not to care. This also translated to the following year, noticing that the ones who usually didn’t keep their areas clean usually could care less about the cleanliness, among other things.

    There’s occasionally some type of article that floats around the internet that usually tries to defend having cluttered areas of work-space or living space, saying that “messier is better” for some abstract reason. However, as my own eye test as shown me so far, cleanliness definitely correlates to how a person conducts themselves, whether it is their living quarters or work-space.

  2. Jaden Tate December 7, 2018 at 2:09 pm #

    This study I believe is beneficial for many college students, as well as those who work desk jobs. From personal experience, I can tell you that I do get a lot more done when everything on my desk is organized. For example, this past week when I was studying for my accounting final I was really struggling to focus when all of my papers were thrown all around the table. As soon as I cleaned it up and organized it, I was able to get so much more done than when all my papers were thrown around. I am actually not able to work at a desk that does not have plenty of room for me to spread out all of my papers. I have to be able to see everything as well as spread it all out. Teachers are ones that I believe need to keep their desk in order. Teachers that have the messy desks when I go to see them are the ones that either give the horrible lectures or are never prepared when they come to class. They are also the ones that are extremely lazy, and when you ask them a question, they can never give you a straight answer. In the article when it spoke about a clean and messy office, I do not think that the clean ones exist. In the offices that I have walked into with the many desks, I believe that they would like categories in the middle group or the messy one. Rarely do I ever see that books on the bookshelf are placed where it needs to be as well as every single desk is neat and tidy. The neat and tidy offices I believe are only in the movies and sometimes they are too busy trying to keep up their image of neat and tidy that they do not get stuff done. Overall, I believe that this article should be shown in many colleges across the country as well as they should expand on their research. If they were able to gather more data to prove that by having a clean desk you become more efficient, I believe it would be able to do wonders.

  3. Robert Musantry December 7, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

    When I first read this article, the conclusion that the study was going to come to seemed obvious. People with messier desks are more disorganized. That seems like common sense to me. But the details show a little more analysis, as the study discovered how people judge other people in the workplace based on the tidiness (or lack thereof) of their desk. The subjects in the study said that the owner of the messier workspace would be less caring, less agreeable, and even neurotic. This may seem unfair to us outsiders, just looking at the study. I mean, who are these people to set up a study that purposely makes people judge others without meeting them. But in reality, what the study shows is something that we all do on a daily basis. I know that personally, my desk in my dorm room is very messy, and whenever somebody sees it, they always ask how I survive like that. It is because we think of being messy or disorganized as a bad sign, saying something is wrong. I do not necessarily believe this, because I find that I care a lot about my work and I am a pretty agreeable person, even with my workspace in the condition it is in. Basically, I think it boils down to me just not wanting to clean my desk up and does not reveal that much about my personality, but this belief cannot stop others from forming conclusions about me.
    Now, a separate study mentioned in the article looked at productivity as it relates to having a clean workspace. This study has much more value, in my opinion. If somebody is not getting their work done because of clutter, then it is a problem. But in general, if that is the way they operate, then I say let them be. It is only when it begins to affect productivity that it is a problem. Of course, that is my opinion, and these studies do show that other people do not share this opinion and instead believe that clutter and uncleanliness are negative personality traits that can affect relationships and how people view other people.

  4. Shaunak Rajurkar December 7, 2018 at 6:19 pm #

    It comes as no surprise that people think negatively of uncleanliness. Perhaps it should be assumed that any minor negative reaction can be re-scaled and amplified based on the situation. If a response to an unsettling stimuli is slightly negative, we should assume that the emitter of the stimuli is already at a social disadvantage.

    The implications of the study seem to indicate both assumed and tested disadvantages to a messy office. Colleagues will see the inhabitant of the messy office as less conscientious, caring, and more cranky. Furthermore, the level and length of a focused work period is at a lower concentration duration in the messy office. The effects on the inhabitant of the messy work space are likely much greater than the effects on a temporary observer. It almost inevitably affects focus and quality of work – I can see this in my own studies.

    Most people are at their most disorganized when they’re in college, usually as a result of the constant chaos from academia, recreation, extra curriculars, and the party scene. This lifestyle leaves almost no time for cleaning and due diligence (outside of school). Maybe if college students paid more attention to the organization of their works spaces, they would be more successful in each facet of their lives, and their peers and professors would see them in a better light.

  5. Cassie Sibilski December 7, 2018 at 6:21 pm #

    This brief article was very interesting to read about. It talked about how someone’s workspace or room or anything really that is messy and/or unorganized can signify to other people negative vibes. The study described in the article signals that people find that people with a messy territory are not agreeable, neurotic, and other negative qualities. This is because someone who keeps their space unclean comes off as someone that may not be an easy person to deal with and could mean they are lazy, or can’t keep focus long enough to clean a workspace, qualities you wouldn’t want in an employee or coworker. The article describes the importance of keeping your workspace clean and tidy because it gives off the vibe that you care about what your doing and will make you look more pulled together overall. This is an extremely important thing that contributes to how you are viewed at work that I feel is often overlooked. I think that people nowadays need to think further into how they behave and present themselves at work, rather than only focusing on the physical work that they are completing. Because let’s face it, appearances are important and ultimately give off the first impression people have of you, and the same goes for the appearance and organization of your workspace. It gives off the feeling tj your employer that you care and are able to complete a simple task. If you don’t keep your workspace clean, people will no doubt be taking note of it and it will ultimately affect how you are viewed around the office. No one wants to be viewed as a slob, so don’t present anything about yourself that way.

  6. Paul Lee December 7, 2018 at 6:35 pm #

    I can definitely see why a messy and disarrayed room could be perceived that the owner is careless, cranky and uncaring. Many of my friends have seen messy rooms like mine and thought very negative of it, to be honest. How one puts effort into their own territory, truly shows the personality of how a person can be. A clean person, not only in the office, in a room or apartment can show that he or she cares about how they like to present their territory as well to the world. Organization and cleanliness are a very important aspect in human life that many tend to neglect or at least neglect for themselves. I really enjoyed what lead author Terrance Horgan applied viewers or perceivers of the owner’s primary territory be it an apartment or a dorm room, if it is not organized or clean then it will be viewed down upon and the owner will be seen as an unorganized and rude person. This article is a very handy tool and something that needs to be addressed in today’s world.
    Everyone constantly forgets in their busy day to day life on how to be organized with one’s stuff and how to present oneself. At the beginning of the semester, I tend to forget to tidy and clean my college room during the college semester as I find myself busy with school assignments to being social. However, I have started to organize my room and make it presentable as if I constantly had company enter my room. There are many benefits personally that I believe everyone should have his or her personal territory as organized and clean as possible.
    First off, in my personal experience, I wake up to an organized room that makes me feel very happy about myself and I feel productive throughout the day. I can find what I need without any hassle or problems. Usually when my room is messy, and I wake up to it, I am in a terrible mood to start and I feel lazy throughout the day. I also cannot find what I need for the day in my unorganized room at the time. I tell many people this, do not think about just how your personal territory will be perceived. Think about yourself as it will improve your behavior and how you go about your day. It feels amazing to want to be productive throughout the day just because of how organized and clean your room is. This is a personal experience that I believe many people can relate to and understand.

  7. Michael Zera December 7, 2018 at 6:44 pm #

    In this article by the University of Michigan, a study was conducted showing that an untidy work space results in people to perceive an individual as neurotic and uncaring. This may seem obvious, but a messy work space usually results in someone that most people assume do not care about their appearance. And I believe it 100%. Last semester I roomed here at Seton Hall, and typically, I would always keep my room cleaned. I felt that every time my room was cleaned, I felt better about myself. I am not going to brag about myself, but I received many good grades throughout both semester because I was organized, and it made my studies much easier. However, my suitemates were the complete opposite. They were very messy, as they left their books everywhere, and had opened food for days. Again, I am not trying to talk down upon my roommates, I am just showing a real-world example. It is probably not surprising, but my suitemates were struggling to pass their classes and I had an easy time with studying and homework as I felt that I was way more organized than them. I am not blaming their disorganization for their grades, but typically for most college students, you will see something like this. I think that most college students should begin to become organized and efficient. I guess my parents will always right. An organized room is an organized person. A disorganized person usually is stereotyped as lazy or a bad student. But like I previously said, usually this is the case, but there are few cases that a messy person is an efficient worker that does well in their real lives. If this is the case, I would let the worker do what they keep doing best. But when this “messy” behavior begins to show negative results, this is when there needs to be a “flip of the switch.” This study may seem silly, but it should be followed for most people as I have had great experiences with being organized inside and outside the classroom. Having organization in life is crucial, as this survey demonstrates that.

  8. Henry S December 7, 2018 at 6:47 pm #

    This article adds to the age-old argument that cleanliness in the workplace facilitates greater productivity. I liked how the article focused on the study’s deep dive into how different levels of office organization seem to contribute specifically to employees’ perception of managers. Whether we are in an office for just minutes for an interview or work in the office for years, we are certainly collecting data points on cleanliness. It makes sense that organizational cues in the office contribute to subliminal perceptions about the culture of a particular workplace and the habits of employees. However, I would like to argue that this “cleanliness=productivity” is not a be-all end-all, ironclad rule. I think the data points we collect on cleanliness impact some differently from others.

    During my internship this past summer, my desk got pretty cluttered. As the projects and research materials stacked up, the free space on my desk disappeared. By the end of the summer, my desk looked like the cluttered desks of the futures traders on our trading floor. This article would assert that such a workplace with a lower level of neatness would indicate managers that are “less agreeable, neurotic, as well as careless, cranky and uncaring” However, this was not how my office operated. Although we were all busy, stressed and had cluttered desks at times, my managers were rarely cranky towards me. I think the organizational status of our office was spoke to the less-structured vibe our office had. For some, as mentioned in the article, this would not work. They may sit each day in frustration, only able to keep their cubicle organized. For me though, the atmosphere was intense, fun and chaotic. It was a great place to work.

    This experience leads me to believe that an interest in intense workplace organization is an individual choice. What matters the most is that a workplace fits the individual. Some of us may work better in a more chaotic, disorganized space.

    While interviewing it is key to pick up on the small touches like in the study indicating organization. If the hiring manager has piles of paper everywhere and you only work well in a vacuum, maybe search for alternatives!

  9. Dominique Pina December 7, 2018 at 8:10 pm #

    This article is very helpful in calling attention to the usefulness of being organized. It is a simple thing that seems to be overlooked as not being a big deal, but seeing as people will make judgments and assumptions about you based on it, it can become a very big deal. It is always said that first impressions are important, this is no exception. When people, whether coworkers, clients, or especially your boss, walks in and sees your office in disarray, it gives off a bad impression. When there is a clean office, people assume that the person at the very least cares and it can be inferred that they are good at time management, organization, and have pride in their work.
    Time management is very important in a job and in life, because it allows you to get all of your work done in a timely fashion and makes sure that everything that needs to be accomplished in that time span gets done. Assuming that this person has their priorities straight, the fact that they have completed all of their work first and still had time to clean their office or keep it neat due to a lack of rushing, proves that they manage their time very well. So, with a messy space the opposite it inferred, and people do not want to work with someone who is always late and rushing last minute or does not complete things.
    Organization is another skill that goes along with a neat space. In an employee organization is a great thing to have because they never lose paperwork or anything else of importance. Also, as the study says, people work better in an organized environment. I know this is true for myself, when my room is a mess it is usually because I am all over the place, but when everything calms down a little and I set aside time to clean and organize my things, I feel more in control and am able to get more accomplished. In my opinion, when things are neat it motivates you to keep it neat for as long as possible. In an office this means finishing the paperwork now instead of later so it can be filed away and not stay on your desk to make clutter.
    Having pride in your work is a great aspect to have as an employee. This entails showing up everyday on time, wearing a uniform if necessary, and doing all of your work to the best of your ability. This shows a lot of respect to the company, your boss, and your coworkers and can really make you stand out. A clean desk shows this by showing that you have respect and care for the place to keep it clean. This displays discipline and showmanship that are pretty rare.
    Overall there are major benefits to having a neat space. This is not exclusive to offices, but anywhere that people may walk in and form an impression about you. This article does good to remind us that small things can have a big impact in your overall image and how people view you. Perceptions of these types of attributes are what people consider when deciding to do business with you, and it would do everyone good to remember this the next time they think about putting minimal effort into something.

  10. Michael Martini December 7, 2018 at 8:15 pm #

    This article is pretty accurate because I believe that organization is the key to living a successful life. Think about it, if you take one personal who has nothing together and everything all over the place, and another person who as their life in order, which do you think is going to be the more successful of the two? The answer is pretty obvious, and that proves the point that this article makes that you should strive to organize yourself to the best of your ability. It will help you to better keep track of, for example, your work in an office space just as the article states. If you are looking for papers and have no idea where they could be, this means you are disorganized. Keeping your papers together will not only help you know where to find things, but will help you to be more productive. Being organized will also help to motivate you because of the simplicity of achieving your goal. If you know it is going to be hard to get work done because you are disorganized, it will prevent you from getting it started in the first place. There is an exception to this, however. Very few people do work better in an unorganized work space, and in my opinion I do not know how. But for the majority of human beings being organized can help significantly.

  11. Joseph Capouch December 7, 2018 at 8:29 pm #

    I was surprised at how much information people derived just from seeing a person’s workspace, as the study found, discussed in the article “Got a Messy Work Desk? Study Reveals What Your Coworkers Really Think of You”. Given that the study surveyed the reactions people had to three stages, a neat and tidy workspace, a somewhat messy workspace, and lastly a very messy workspace, I was more or less surprised by each of them. The fact that people aligned a neat and tidy area with a good employee, who they saw no evident flaws with seemed logical to me, and there were really no surprises there. However, perhaps what was the most surprising was how people reacted to a somewhat messy workplace (one that had a clock that was off by an hour, and somewhat misplaced books and papers). This seemed to me like it would be less than ideal, but still relatively normal with little information to be gained from it. But in the article it seemed to be more aligned with the very messy office, whereas I would have aligned it more with the clean office. One last thing that surprised me was the amount of information people seemed to assume about a person when seeing a messy work area. These things included that the employee was careless, cranky, uncaring, less agreeable, and more neurotic, which I don’t believe are all things you can determine in this sense.
    As a person who likes having my workspace tidy and clean, but also is not able to maintain it that way one hundred percent of the time, I took an interest in this article. I consider myself to be someone who cares about my work, is not generally cranky, or disagreeable. However, there are times where circumstances such as limited time, limited space, or working with others that may cause me to have an unclean work area. So, are there times where I am causing people to have incorrect assumptions about me because of this? Or perhaps there are times where I am concluding incorrect things about those who are working around me. According to this study, that may be entirely possible.

Leave a Reply