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.

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63 Comments

  1. In my life, I have always found it easier to work and be productive if my workspace and environment was neat and tidy. I have found that the more cluttered the workspace was, the more stress I accumulated. Although being neat and clean is just my personal preference, others may be able to work in those messy environments and still be able to get their work done. Although the study shows that someone who works in a cleaner workspace can work 7.5 minutes longer than someone in a cluttered space, it all comes down to personal preference. Everyone has a different idea of what kind of environment they are comfortable and able to work in. Some do not mind the mess, while others can not work when there are papers scattered everywhere. Even though the article makes a solid point, I do not agree with the name of the actual title being “Study Reveals What You Coworker Really Think of You.” For the most part, the participants are just basing the work ethics of the office owners based of the cleanliness of the office. The participants believed that the messiest officer belongs to an owner who is less conscientious and uncaring. I believe that just because the office appears that way, does not actually mean the owner does not care or is not as productive. As mentioned before, people work best in the environment they are comfortable in. Just because your own personal preference is to be neat and tidy does not make it everyone else preference. I think that it is hard to judge someone based off the cleanliness of their office.

  2. Reading this article has made me realize that when people don’t want to judge, they still will. How can you not judge someone based off of their tidiness, especially if it is in a public workplace? At work, you always want to make a good impression to your coworkers, especially when you are new. An important reason to make a good impression when you have been there for a while is because newer employees tend to take after what the newer employees do. If your supervisor has a messy work desk, the workers underneath them might be the same way because they might think the supervisor doesn’t care. What was stated in the article and what colleagues actually think about an untidy workplace is, “that the person is more neurotic, less agreeable, and pretty uncaring.” It is interesting to see what people think of others based on their organization.
    As a college student, I am organized in order to make sure I am getting my work done on time and know where everything is and to have easy access to any documents and papers. With organization comes time management because if you’re not organized, chances are you don’t know how to manage your time well. In the workplace, it is important that one knows how to manage their time with their tasks and meetings they may have to attend. Many people believe that with an organized workplace, you get more things done and it is easier to stay on task. Another statement that interested me in the article was that the way people organize their work desk, depends if coworkers want to have a professional and even personal interaction with them. I was thinking about this more and agreed. If someone was unorganized, I wouldn’t want to work with them because I would probably have issues trusting them to get their work done because they either won’t remember or won’t be able to find anything. This will effect my friendship with them too for similar reasons. This article helped me realize that people do pay attention to small things about people and that it is important to be organized in the workplace and at home.

  3. I disagree with the writer because having a messy office does not and should not tell about a person’s personality. Nowadays it is easy to judge someone from just looking at their outer appearances or their surroundings. Many people work well in a messy office, and they know exactly the whereabouts of their paperwork. Messy office could just be how that person works and should be unjudged because of it. I know someone who does have a messy office but the way she works is the same as everyone’s work. I would not call her less agreeable and uncaring. I believe she works well with the situations she put herself in. Every stress in their way and just because they have a messy office, I guess the study assumed they are more stressed-out than others. We cannot determine a person’s personality just because of their office. Everyone in this world does not work the same way. Everyone in the world does not live the same way. The reason I say that is because we are not all the same, each of us has our own unique way of working.
    In the article, it states a recent study by Harvard University found yet another reason to get one’s work desk together better productivity. Everyone works under different conditions and could be productive in their way. We cannot let a study determine these things about a person. I can only work on an organized desk, but that is my preference. Just like everyone else if they like to work in a messy office let them be. In my opinion, I do dislike seeing an unorganized desk; today’s society let us assume a person with a messy desk could reflect on their personal lives. If someone’s personal lives are the same way as their office is bad too. What if their life is going well, and that’s just the way they work in a mess. All in all, I believe people should not judge anyone just because their office is messy because if it was reversed back to them, they would not like it.

  4. Many people, like myself, would associate a clean and organized desk with someone who cares about their work. In this article, it states how people would perceive a person with a messy desk as more neurotic, less agreeable, and uncaring. I agree with that. There must be a reason why many people who welcome you to their office space, they usually tidy up all the paperwork and make sure it looks presentable. That gives off a great reputation, such as, your coworker cares about you, will hear you out, and makes the time and space for you. A messy desk can send a negative vibe to someone like your coworker. I know from my experience when I have a one on one meeting with my coworker, and it is in their office and they have cluttered space everywhere, I start to think about all the work I do with them. I also wonder have they can keep up with their work, organizing it, and if they truly care about the work they do. Another sign that a messy desk can give off is their effort. The question becomes how much effort, care, and time do they put into each client or project when everything is scattered and all over the place. When things are like that it shows the employee is probably all over the place themselves and not doing the best work to their ability.
    As I began to research a little more about the perception of people with messy desks, I came across a report done by OfficeMax. They found that office clutter undermines productivity and motivation. “Your performance coincides with your workspace,” says Dede. “When it’s organized and precise you have the mindset and motivation to work” https://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2012/03/27/the-dangers-of-a-messy-desk/#7dc9aaaec89e. Organization like mentioned before only comes with positive thoughts and actions, Whereas, being unorganized comes with negative thoughts and actions. At times keeping a desk clean and uncluttered can be a challenge, however, everyone must keep in mind that cleanliness gives off a different reputation to what others think about us. In all, I believe no one would like others to think badly about themselves just because they can’t seem to be organized.

  5. Before reading the article, I had an idea of the opinions of others to having a very messy workspace. I agree that having a clean and tidy workspace will increase productivity and will help these workers be more focused on the task at hand. Being disorganized can make your coworkers have a negative opinion on you and make them not want to work with you. Having a cluttered desk shows that you do not really care about your work and that you do not even care enough to fix all your papers or even take out the garbage from your garbage can. Personally, I tend to have a messy desk but that does not mean that I do not care about getting my work done. Sometimes it could be a busy day and you have things all over your workspace, that should not make people think you do not care about completing your objective. If you clean your desk one to two times a week, then that could show others that you really do care about your job and you like to stay focused on what you need to do. Having a clean desk can be very important for college students. It could be really helpful when you are right papers or doing some complicated work on a clean and organized desk because you will not have anything around you to distract you. Also, when there are papers or garbage on your desk, the only thing that is in your head could be, “Maybe I should clean this instead of doing homework.” Having an organized place to work can make a difference when it comes to your performance.

  6. I am a very organized person. From a young age, I always liked to keep lists, make to do lists, and make sure that everything was in just the right place. Growing up, and currently, this stays the same. I feel as though if everything is organized and tidy, this will reflect on my work and overall productivity. After reading this article, I realized that all of my organization over the years will pay off in my future career. The article describes that a messy desk in the office will create a negative perception of an employee to their coworkers. After recent research at a university at Michigan, it was discovered that between an employee with a tidy desk, a slightly unorganized desk, and a very messy desk, that the owner of the messier desks were “less conscientious” than the owner of the organized desk. Additionally, the owners of the unclean desk were described with adjectives like “careless, cranky and uncaring” (Raphael 7). Whether one is a current employee, applying to jobs, or just a student, this study proves that organization can make you seem like a more hardworking individual, a more qualified candidate, or a more conscientious person in general. This article made me feel inspired. I am what the article describes as an organized individual, and it excites me that this could help me in my future endeavors. As I am currently looking at internship opportunities in my field, I feel a bit more secure and confident as once I obtain a possible position, I will hopefully be perceived well due to my future organized desk. It is amazing that something as simplistic as having a tidy desk can basically help one not only obtain a job but also be revered at their position due to their organization.

  7. I am one that finds this to be completely true. It is very accurate to judge someone based off their workspace. If a manager, or person of higher position, is cluttered and messy, there is a chance your initial reaction to them will be that they are overwhelmed and disorganized. Imagine if you went to a job interview and the person you met with had a messy office, filled with garbage and unorganized papers. Personally, I would be worried this person is untrustworthy and that they could maybe be a not so good boss. I would not want to take a job with someone who could be forgetful for uncaring about their space or environment.

    I, myself, cannot function if things aren’t neat and in order. As mentioned in the article, they used a clock that was an hour off. While some might not notice that, I wouldn’t be able to work. I function the best when things are easily accessible, orderly and accurate. This way, there is little chance of a mistake or to lose something. I have a very small desk at my job, but also have a very important job with numbers. If a paper gets confused or goes missing, I could lose my job. Any time my things aren’t arranged and perfectly in order, my co-workers know that I must not feel good or am having a bad day.

    With that said, just because someone might be cluttered or have a messy desk, does not mean they aren’t at all capable of being a good worker. I do, however, agree that those who do have the tendencies of being forgetful or prone to mistakes.

  8. Even before reading this article I already knew the typical stereotype that it would be perceived towards the worker who has a neat organized desk compared to the worker who has a messy work desk. The worker with the nice, neat, organized desk is believed to have themselves put together. While the worker with the messy work desk is believed to have their work and life in disarray. I disagree with the write of this article. In my opinion a neat or a messy work desk doesn’t define the workers work ethic and their characteristics. In today’s society it is easy to judge someone by their appearance or by their surroundings. Just because someone works in a messy work environment does not mean that they’re unable to work as hard as someone with a neat, organized desk. The people who work in an unorganized mess knows exactly where their paperwork is and important documents. Everyone works different and in different types of environments that might not make sense to others. For example, my sister and I are two completely different people. Her work environment is mess and unorganized, but she knows exactly where everything is. My work environment is neat and organized and you better believe I know where everything is. We both have the same work ethic even though our work environments are different. Each person is different. Each person does not work the same. Each person does not live the same. You can’t judge a person by their work environment.

  9. I understand how people can be perceived poorly for having a messy work space by giving off the perception of not having their act together. Personally, I find it easier to work in a clean space as it allows for better organization. In addition, I find that the less clutter in my work space also contributes to less stress inside my mind. I argue that the better productivity exhibited within the Harvard study discussed in the article is due in part to having less anxiety from your environment. The more things strewn about on your desk can increase this feeling of being overwhelmed and distracted. There is a purpose as to why blinders are placed on horses during a race; to allow for concentration on the task ahead.

    Maintaining organization is harder for some people in comparison to others. Fortunately for myself I am rather organized, but for those who are messy there is hope as I have a couple of tips to help. First, begin by taking the time to throw out anything unnecessary and clean off your work desk. Once your desk is clear it will be more manageable to keep it clean. In addition, by utilizing your computer’s functionalities and eliminating the need for paperwork when possible, freeing up space on your desk that was once occupied by papers and folders will be a thing of the past. These are just two simple and easy ways that I found worked well for me without the need to make drastic changes that can aid in the presentation of yourself, just in case your boss decides to drop in.

  10. I found this article to be very interesting, as there can be many different opinions about coworkers with a messy desk. This article takes the approach of how a messy work space leads coworkers to think that the worker with the messy desk is more neurotic, less agreeable, and pretty uncaring. I would argue that there are a few different reasons as to why people have messy desks. My first thought is that the employee is too busy to clean their desk. I have interned in a office where the employees handle lots of paperwork, and are very busy between meetings and phone calls. Seeing this has shown me that employees may not always have the time to reorganize their desks. Another thought of mine is that some employees may not mind having a messy desk. If an employee can function normally with a messy desk, he or she may not mind the desk being messy. During my freshman year of college, I had a professor that had the messiest office. Even with his messy office, he was one of my most memorable professors. He had assignments graded very fast, answered his emails quickly, and had a unique style of teaching. This shows that he is not neurotic or uncaring, even with a messy desk. I think it just depends on how a person functions at work, as some people cannot function properly with a messy desk, while others can.
    Personally, I do think that if employees share an office, they should have to reorganize their desk before leaving work each day. I understand that there are employees that feel anxious when the office is not neat, as the mess causes unnecessary stress. I especially think that the desk should be cleaned of any empty coffee cups or perishable items, as keeping these items can result in unwanted critters coming into the office.
    Overall, I can understand how coworkers may assume that an employee with a messy desk is neurotic and uncaring, but I do not think that this is always the case. I think that some employees with messy desks may not mind the mess, as they can still function normally. I also think that employees can not always keep their desks clean, as the work day can get busy.

  11. I like this article to a point. There are many reasons as to why someone is more productive than another person is but this is something that does not necessarily come to mind. I do not think that the experiment was very inclusive because they gave 160 different people an office, and that office may not be how that particular person organizes their own desk. This in and of itself is a misrepresentation, because if you put someone who has an organized though process into a messy room, of course their mind is going to be different and disturbed in someway, but that does not mean that a person who works well in a messy room would react in the same way. Just like that, if you put a messier person into a completely organized room, their thought process will be completely different from the person whose room is actually organized. The actions and work for each person in the unfamiliar and unusual room does not explain the actions and the work that each person can do when they are working in their own comfortable place. I understand the study behind this and the correlation between each of the workspaces contrary to the person but I do not believe this article takes into consideration what job is being done, and what can actually be done well in each space. For example, the untidier person may be able to have a more creative and fluid mind whereas the tidier person may be better with technical subjects. This article was too general for me and did not actually take into consideration other factors.

  12. This an interesting article to read. I have a mixed feeling on this topic. There are some point I
    Agree with and some I do not. I support the idea that a cleaner desk often proves that the person is more productive. In general, it makes because whenever you are in a room where there is less distractions you are able to focus more on completing your task. Howeever if it is very untidy, you are very distracted and your focus time is quite low. The reseaercher claims that the time span between someone who has a clean desk compared to another with a messy desk is around 7 minutes. This is kind of time is enoiugh to get ahead of your peers.
    The other part of this research I do not quite agree with is the idea that having a messy makes your coworkers assume you are uncaring, less agreeable and unstable. There is a saying do not judge a book by its cover. I think that terminology applies here as well. You cannot assume a person is unstable because they have a messy desk. It just does not make sense to me. The person could be in a difficult position in their and might be in need of help instead of assuming they are uncaring. This is something I feel the research might not be accurate based on the ideas it portrays. Honestly, I don’t think its right to assume all kinds of thoughts about someone based on the cleanliness of their desk. What is your opinion about this concept? Do you agree with the research?

  13. From the title of the article, I had a preconceived notion that a messy work desk corresponded to negative attributes of a person. The article stated a study that was conducted and its findings concluded that an untidy work space leads colleagues to perceive that the person is more neurotic, less agreeable, and pretty uncaring. This makes sense to an extent, but how can we truly judge a person’s work ethic on the sole purpose of the appearance of their desk?

    Making a good first impression is particularly important when it comes to meeting customers, pitching to potential clients, or during interviews. These are the key points at which people will meet you and begin to form an impression of you and the services you’re offering. A messy or disorganized desk can be interpreted as a sign you are disorganized and inefficient in your work. That’s not the type of image any of us want. This mindset is what causes people to judge a person’s ability to do something just because it’s different from the rest. Who knows, maybe the person with the messiest desk was the only one who could’ve given you the best deal off the car you were looking to purchase.

    Being messy at work does not necessarily mean you are a messy person in general. Not only do we see people wanting to make a good first impression in the workplace, but it even happens in our own homes. I think many would agree that if you are hosting a party at your house you would tidy up and make sure everything is cleaned before the guest arrive. Sometimes, we don’t even realize we are doing it because it comes so naturally. In addition to affecting the way others see you, a messy desk can impact how you see yourself. Don’t miss the importance of this. Having confidence can have a profound impact on how you present yourself and pursue your work. A clean desk at work is a very simple step that can have a variety of benefits in your professional life, but shouldn’t dictate if you are a good employee or not.

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