Managers who insist on clean-desk policies are revealing more about themselves than the workplaces they are ostensibly trying to reform. Despite scant evidence to support the nostrum a tidy desk means a tidy mind, managers of an officious bent have long attempted to institute clean-desk regimes. Usually with disastrous results.
Employees – at least, those still with desks to call their own in this enlightened age of hot-desking – bristle at attempts to enforce clean-desk policies.
First and foremost, they reject clean-desk edicts from above because no good reason is ever proffered for such a draconian policy. The CEO's distaste for clutter is hardly a matter of concern to the office worker. How individuals choose to work, and the immediate environment in which they do so, assuming the observance of basic standards of decorum, is surely a personal matter.
If one employee surrounded by stacks of manilla folders, coffee cups, newspapers and family photos produces much better work than another at a pristine desk, which employee is the most valuable to the organisation?
“Bill, your report left a lot to be desired, and we may have lost the Henderson account because of it, but that's a spotless desk you have there. I'm particularly taken with how your arrange your pencils. And is that Mr Sheen I smell? Let's play golf on the weekend. I think it's time we discussed a promotion," said no manager in corporate history. (Well, actually, I can think of a few, but the point remains.)
AN EMPTY DESK
We all know where Albert Einstein stood (or sat) on the matter of clean desks versus lived-in desks:
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" he was quoted.
An empty (that is, clean) desk is a sign its occupant, or more likely the busy-body manager who has mandated a clean-desk policy, is almost certainly suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder or reads too many management books.
I once worked for a business newspaper whose publisher and CEO was a fastidious, urbane and beautifully groomed man who had three pet hates: gossip, smoking and untidy desks. Talk about being in the wrong business.
Every few months he would issue a memo reminding staff the company had a clean desk policy – which dictated before employees left for the day they must remove everything from their desks.
It was a policy fiercely resisted by the hard-working staff who resented having to pack boxes of files at the end of a long day and unpack them again in the morning. I was the editor in charge of the floor and regular toe-to-toes with the CEO (“It's not how journalists work!") if nothing else kept the staff entertained. The rules would be enforced for a week or two until in exasperation he would relent. Until the next memo.
It was pretty clear his fixation with clean desks tended to hit a climax when things weren't going his way. A heated telephone conversation in his office, usually resulting in the phone being slammed down with some force, would generally result in him storming out of his office and, standing akimbo, declare: “These desks are a disgrace!"
Which is to say a manager or CEO who preoccupies himself with the state of employees' desks has something else going on. Advocates of clean desk policies postulate what a cluttered desk says about its occupant. But it's the clean desk nut that should be on the couch.
Who's to say what is going on in the mind of the CEO who is rendered apoplectic by the sight of a half-eaten muffin on a worker's desk?
Any attempt by journalists to quiz CEOs on their reasons for instituting clean-desk policies will be met with the same response: “We don't comment on on-desk matters."