HR Headaches: What to Do if an Employee’s Desk Is a Mess

A messy desk can send the wrong message out to colleagues and customers. Here’s how to encourage organized workspaces and create a company-wide clean desk policy.

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Every time you walk past that messy desk you feel your blood pressure rise. Whether you’re a highly organized person or not, the cringe worthy piles of files, papers, food wrappers and who-knows-what is maddening. Coworkers take the long way to avoid looking at (and sometimes smelling) the chaos. They say they have a system — one that upsets your central nervous system, but almost everyone subjected to looking at it agrees, something’s got to change.

Some believe a messy desk indicates a disorganized mind: others say these employees are more creative. Whether or not there’s genius beneath the rubble, a messy desk can be more than an eyesore. It can be the reason employees are unable to easily find materials when asked, it can cause staffers to miss deadlines, and it can spill over onto coworkers. You may think it’s not worth the effort, but one messy desk can have a ripple effect. If one worker can have one, why not everyone? Imagine all your office spaces looking like that. Shudder. 

Why does neatness count?

A disorderly workspace sends the wrong message to existing and potential customers that you don’t have what it takes to get the job done.

If you have the occasional or frequent client walking through your business, you know what an embarrassment a messy office or cubicle can be. Your workforce represents your company; a disorderly workspace sends the wrong message to existing and potential customers that you don’t have what it takes to get the job done.

These days we’re all about cleanliness and sanitizing the workplace. It’s hard to get desktops cleaned when they’re littered with paper and debris. If you haven’t had luck convincing messy employees to clean up their act in the past, you may have the perfect opportunity now.

Messy spaces can impact others. Staffers will go out of their way to avoid interacting with a person whose workspace is disorganized because they know they’re not able to take a seat in their cubby and talk. Others may feel the person who’s allowed to live in clutter is getting away with something: if we can keep our spaces neat, why can’t they?

Often messy spaces create spillage. When the desktop clutter starts spilling into the aisles, or over the tops of cubicle walls into the neighbor’s space, it’s gotten completely out of hand. Are there smells? Are old food wrappers and partially full coffee cups turning into science experiments in their space?

When the messy person is out sick or on vacation, are others able to find things on their desk or step in to help? If their system is pandemonium, it’s unlikely.

Are there passwords or confidential files sitting amongst the clutter? Who knows? A messy desk can pose a security risk, to the employee as well as clients. When disorder reigns free, you can’t be confident there’s nothing in that mess that should be confidential, but isn’t.

Getting them on board

Some may be at a loss as to how to get started. Be ready to help, and offer tools and systems to get them on track.

You’ll want to welcome employees into the world of cleanliness, rather than shaming them into the fold. Make sure your discussions about their space are private. You don’t want to put them on the defensive or embarrass them — you want them to clean up and keep it tidy. Some may guard their disorder, but stand firm. Their space is a reflection on all of you, and it needs to represent you properly. Some may be at a loss as to how to get started. Be ready to help, and offer tools and systems to get them on track.

Recognize the problem, offer options, organize

If the problem is just clutter, food wrappers and the like, get them a bigger garbage can. Then, tell them to use it and dump it as needed throughout the day. For desks covered with papers and files, do they need more filing space? A small cabinet at their workstation or in the aisle or common space might help. Assist them with sorting through what:

  • Should be archived
  • Is current and needs to be at arm’s length
  • Should be disposed of

Offer options: do they want to stay late and get it cleaned up, or do it on work time? Do they want to spend an entire day working on it, or do small sections at a time to get it done?  Often breaking down the task into smaller projects can help. Start with 1 or 2 desk bins or stacks, sorting through and reallocating. Then move on to the next section. If there are bins, sorters, or other tools you have in the supply closet (or can order) help them set up systems to keep it tidy and organized into the future.

Have fun with a label maker: let them tag systems and sections with their own lingo: “do this now,” or “maybe someday” stickers make organizing fun and relatable. Provide anything you can to help them create a system they can sustain in the future. Old habits die hard: remember to check in frequently to make sure they’re keeping up with the cleanliness and organization until neatness becomes the norm.

Create a clean desk policy

With so many companies bringing in overnight cleaning crews to sanitize, this is the perfect time to enact a clean workspace policy. After you’ve gotten employees started on organizing (so it doesn’t look directed at a single staffer) take the opportunity to make it a company-wide plan.

The goal is to make sure workspaces represent the organization, are accessible for sanitation efforts, and help others access necessary materials easily when an employee is out of the office. Build a system generally (don’t be too obsessive) around:

  • What should go where
  • What should be secured every night, and
  • Who has copies of desk and cabinet keys

Provide guidance on how long files should be kept at their station, and when things should be archived or discarded. Sometimes simply cleaning out the 20 year old folders from your predecessor can make a world of difference. Remind employees that cleaning crews shouldn’t be moving things around to get their job done; a bare desktop is easier to sanitize. With everyone more health-conscious, it could be an easy sell.

The goal is to make sure workspaces represent the organization, are accessible for sanitation efforts, and help others access necessary materials easily when an employee is out of the office.

When you just can’t win

You may have spoken (repeatedly) to the employee about cleaning up their act. There may be temporary bouts of neatness that devolve back to disarray. They may defend the chaos, saying they have a system that works for them. If they’re highly productive, they may be right. If they can find everything easily and get their work done in a timely manner, you may think it’s not worth changing. You may even have noticed that enforced neatness really does negatively impact their performance.

They may be top performers that thrive in disorder and you don’t want to lose them. Rather than an ‘“you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” stance, you might consider just moving them. Setting them up off the beaten path, where others don’t have to look might be the only answer. Maybe isolation will inspire them to keep it clean. If not, at least you don’t have to take the long way to the lunchroom.

A neat workspace benefits everyone, boosts company pride, and makes it easier to keep germs to a minimum. It’s time to deal with messy desks and disorderly spaces so everyone can work more efficiently and safely.

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