Clean Desks and the Workplace: A Guarantee of Productivity and Value?

Your work desk is a platform for judgment.

There’s no way of avoiding it. When people walk by your space and you’re not there, they scan your work area. They see what’s on your desk and what’s not on your desk. And they may, either consciously or unconsciously, form an opinion about you.

In this sense, your desk is like an advertisement for you, a billboard that’s marketing who you are and how you work.

However, you might be surprised to know that professionals across different industries agree that your desk says something about you, but they don’t agree on what it is your desk is saying.

We talked with a trio of professionals to get their opinion on what your work desk says about you:

Is a Spotless Desk a Sign of an Organized Mind?

Our experts were decisive about this one. For the most part, a clean desk indicates some level of order and structure.

“A neat and tidy desk … tells that you are good at organizing work and visual clutter impacts your levels of productivity at work,” Kapoor said. “Attention to detail is one quality that reflects when you keep your work desk tidy than messing it up altogether. Generally, the more you tidy up your work desk; the better is your focus and clarity to your work.”

You don’t want to go overboard on the organization though because an overly minimalistic workspace might seem a little too sterile, Shawe said.

“An empty, spotless desk can demonstrate that you are not committed to a long stay or aren’t that confident you will be accepted or kept,” he said. “That has a lonely, solitary feel and it isn’t good for a congenial, collaborative experience.”

Should You have Photos of Family, Friends and/or Significant Others on Your Desk?

Some of us love showing off our spouses, kids, friends or partners via photos on our desk. It’s a way to share our lives with those around us in a passive way.

But is it a good idea to bring your personal life into your workspace? Shaw says it’s a simple method for making our space – and ourselves – better.

“When your desk is neat but has pictures of family and friends, a few mementos, pens, paper and accessible work needs, it can be indicative of a strong work ethic and strong ties to the workplace,” he said.

Kapoor agrees. He noted that displaying photos of your family, for example, lets you and your coworkers know that your life is more than what happens at work.

“As far as family photos are concerned, it’s quite heartwarming to have them in front of you at your workplace,” he said. “Many people call it an emotional distraction; however, it can actually serve a reminder that your work life has a broader purpose and keeping a balance between work and family is a prerequisite to holistic living.”

Does a Spotless Desk Mean That You’re a Good Employee?

This might be the most interesting question. Many of us see a clean desk as a sign of an organized mind and, it stands to reason, organized employees are better for the company than those with messy desks.

However, Shawe pointed out that your overall demeanor and work ethic has far more to say about you than your desk. Don’t make the mistake of believing a clean desk makes up for a poor attitude.

“Conduct is always king, and cleanliness does not necessarily mean you are a good employee. You need to be pleasant, intuitive, savvy and talented in your field,” he said. “If you are the latter three but unpleasant to be around, cleanliness or not, your conduct defines you.”

Lowe said that, in her experience, a clean desk isn’t a guarantee that its owner is a productive employee.

“The truth is, while a clean desk might be an indication of how you keep your home or preferred spaces there is no real proof that there is a connection between a neat desk and productivity,” she said. “In fact, I’d argue over the years of coaching senior level leaders, and as an HR practitioner the some of the most brilliant business leaders didn’t always have the neatest desk or offices.”