The many reasons you should clean up your desk at work

We know at BlueNotes – courtesy of our most-read story –the tie or no tie with business suit debate is a hostile one. But we've found another: desk management. Our publisher, Paul Edwards, was so stunned by the state of the desk of our managing editor, Andrew Cornell, he tweeted a pic of it.


" I can't believe such an unstable mire of clippings, cards, notebooks, reports and – I think – technology is remotely capable of supporting a working life."
Paul G Edwards, Publisher, BlueNotes

It sparked such a blizzard of polarisation we commissioned our management correspondent and author of the tie-atribe, Leo D'Angelo Fisher, to investigate. A neat-desk man himself, his argument was less than convincing to the Publisher who asked for – and was granted – a right of reply.

So what's your view, does a neat desk signify a proper order of things or are clutter, chaos and creativity aligned?

BlueNotes is part of an evolution in journalism but it's also turned out to be part of an evolution in the corporate world. When we first had the idea to create a newsroom at ANZ, built around real journalism, I understood real journalism took real journalists.

I thought, too, bringing in some journalists would have the beneficial side effect of sparking some cultural change, some new ways of thinking.

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Photo: Paul Edwards

BlueNotes is not corporate marketing, the journalism in it is not all produced by ANZ and so we have to expect we won't always agree with the content. We knew when we started the experiment. It's been fascinating, rewarding and a little unsettling.

So too with the cultural experiment of bringing journalists like our managing editor Andrew Cornell into a bank. It's not just the dress sense, the brown shoes. But that desk…

We wanted cultural diversity but it's important to be careful what you wish for. Not all cultural change is welcome.

The desk, frankly, is a disaster. It almost deserves its own relief program. I can't believe such an unstable mire of clippings, cards, notebooks, reports and – I think – technology is remotely capable of supporting a working life.

Entire projects could be buried there: CEO “Whatever happened to Project Mandible?" CFO: “It strayed onto Cornell's desk and was never seen again. We occasionally hear the echo of a plaintive meeting request."


I am aghast at that desk. And so I was initially reluctant to publish this piece by Leo D'Angelo Fisher arguing such chaos is creative. Is the story humorous? Yes. Droll? Definitely. Well argued? At a stretch.

One doesn't like to be put in the position of killjoy. Or indeed, process worker mindlessly following some pointless corporate dictum.

I do prefer a clean desk, it's true. It's part of being organised. And it's part of being digital rather than running your professional life on reams of paper, coffee-stained envelopes and a barely functioning 1980s Rolodex (It's a '92 model and still works - Ed).

But, humourless as this may sound, there is a reason clean desk policies exist. And they are legitimate.

There are some real differences between banks and traditional newsrooms. Journalists are rightly protective of their scoops but at banks we have third parties to protect as well: our customers.

A clean desk policy recognises banks have a very real and clear role in protecting confidential information. It is core to our brand. We simply cannot afford to take the chance buried among the morass of creative detritus is material which simply shouldn't be there and which on a clean desk would be glaringly obvious.

It is not so much we have a clean desk policy but we have a risk management and security philosophy. Unfortunately we know, from experience, items can go missing. That might be technology, it might be storage devices or it might be paper.

Moreover, like many companies ANZ supports flexible working. We seek to enable people to be their most productive and this often means working from multiple locations. For this to work our facilities need to be able accommodate transient workforces and that in turn means creating available desks.

So even those of us with permanent desks need to recognise they may well be used by others when we are not there. If nothing else, it is common courtesy to our fellow workers to leave them an uncluttered space.


D'Angelo Fisher quotes Albert Einstein's famous quip an empty desk implies an empty mind. Even TS Eliot, the most famous banker in literature, had a notoriously messy desk.

To this I'd make the point we do not have desk police, our policies are guidelines not black letter rules. But the intent is crucial: we must protect privacy and confidentiality, it is core to our being.

Were Einstein or Eliot – and we would probably agree with his employer Lloyds he might have made a fine branch manager - working for the bank today we would probably be prepared to tolerate some clutter. But not disregard for the confidentiality or privacy of the information we have.

The science of the workplace is one of the most keenly debated disciplines in the business world and I note D'Angelo Fisher's references to creativity, clutter and focus. To which I would counter with the story of an outbreak of skin disorders in an office in Iowa which was traced back to a mouse infestation. The mice were feeding on leftover food scraps on desks.

Even Cornell conceded to me one of his mentors, a highly esteemed investment writer with an infamously messy desk, was ordered to change his ways when a building inspection deemed his cubicle an OH&S and fire risk.

D'Angelo Fisher refers to a former boss of his whom, in a newsroom, hated messy desks, smoking and gossip. He suggests he was in the wrong profession. But of course, even journalists are now banned from smoking at their desks. Probably luckily for Cornell's mentor.

You can read Leo D'Angelo Fisher's original piece here.

Paul G Edwards is Publisher at BlueNotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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