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Every work desk tells a story. What does yours say?

Whether your cubicle or workstation is super clean, well organised or highly chaotic, it says something about you

Research has shown that messy desks are often correlated with more creative and interesting work output, thus turning the tables on the proponents of cleanliness.
Research has shown that messy desks are often correlated with more creative and interesting work output, thus turning the tables on the proponents of cleanliness. (iStock)

Over the years, an innocuous but rather unproductive habit that I have picked up is observing the workdesks and cubicles of my colleagues. I look at them as keenly an archaeologist surveys a dig, and, to provide some gravitas to these efforts, I have begun calling myself a “deskologist”. This study of desks has thrown up some interesting findings, which I am delighted to unveil here.

Before we dive into my deskology findings, we must remember that our desk is important to two sets of people—one, of course, to the person who uses the desk. Two, to visitors who interact with this person. The workstation creates a space that is virtually an extension of the user, and therefore tells a personal story. A colleagues has summarised this nicely, borrowing from a famous advertisement: Har desk kuch kehta hai (Every desk has something to say).

Also read: Why daydreaming is a good thing

My study has thrown up an initial classification of desks, based on random observation of over 1,000 desks. Just in case you are impressed, let me hasten to point out that this is not such a big number, really. Think of how many desks or cubicles you have seen during your lifetime, in all the organisations you have worked for. If you haven’t kept a count, don’t worry, just trust me.

Here is my initial deskology classification.

Clean and empty

There is a set of managers who insist on sporting a beautifully clean and empty desk, with virtually nothing on it.

Such desks look perennially gleaming and polished, and they are meant to represent the equivalent of an empty inbox—projecting the image of a hugely productive person who has successfully dealt with all his or her work, and is now perhaps eagerly waiting for more to arrive. In some cases, this may also have to do with an ongoing fetish for cleanliness, or painful childhood habits born out of unreasonable parental insistence on clean rooms and tables at home.

In some cases, the real truth may be that the user of the empty desk has no work at all. All in all, the clean desk is an impressive sight, though increasingly rare in today’s offices.

Chaotic by design

At the opposite end of the clean spectrum stands the workdesk that is chaotic by design. Papers, files, books, headphones, coffee mugs, even unopened letters, are strewn across this desk or cubicle, in no apparent order. Sometimes, mountains of papers piled up on the desk impede the visitor from seeing the user of the desk clearly—which, I admit, has its own benefits too. Since this desk is messy by design and not by accident, the user often knows exactly where each specific item or paper is, and will dig it out promptly as and when required. No one else would know, of course.

Albert Einstein purposely kept his worktable in a chaotic state, and when he was once asked whether it showed that his mind was cluttered, he pointed out: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is the empty desk a sign ?”

Messy by inertia

Yet another segment of people keep their workspaces or cubicles messy primarily because of laziness. Here are people who would actually like a clean desk but do not wish to take the effort of cleaning up. The helter-skelter look of this desk may resemble the “chaotic by design” workspace, but it is actually different because this user typically has no clue where various specific things are stored on it. So, it is an ongoing struggle to dive into the mess, and ferret out the exact document which is now required for some reference. Often, the users of such desks like to be perceived as incredibly busy, which is a nice little smokescreen for their inertia.

On the other hand, research has also shown that incredibly messy desks are often correlated with more creative and interesting work output, thus turning the tables on the proponents of cleanliness.

A little disorder

A large number of people keep their workspaces reasonably clean, but there are bits and pieces of disorder that are always visible. There is adequate empty desk space here to work in, but you will still find some mounds of paper and other stuff, in a couple of corners or on the floor. Such people have perhaps drawn their own mental balance between the costs of constant cleaning up, vis-à-vis the costs of some bit of unruliness. So they permit the descent into a little bit of entropy. The interesting thing is that a little disorder can actually lead to efficiency.

In their book A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits Of Disorder, authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman demonstrate that moderately messy systems use resources more efficiently than absolutely clean ones. However, each user has to assess the right amount of disorder that works best for them.

Nostalgia overkill

For a certain set of people, the workdesk or cubicle is first and foremost a space for nostalgia. Nostalgia about family and friends, weddings and vacations, achievements and awards, children’s letters, and famous meetings or conferences from past years. These people wish to create a space that is suffused with warmth and fuzzy emotion, virtually an Instagram wall of themselves. They think they work best when surrounded by these markers of love and happiness, and perhaps this is truly the case. The problem arises when the nostalgia is overdone, and a visitor has to contend with a sea of colourful personal images that blur the boundaries between the beach and the office. This may not come across as entirely professional, and can also be quite distracting. Such an environment, however, can also trigger informal and interesting personal conversations, which have their own role to play in building enduring work relationships.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He wonders whether the phrase ‘table stakes’ has now developed new meanings for us.

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