Is a tidy desk the sign of a tidy mind? The debate continues

THERE is a long-held belief that a tidy desk represents an organised worker.

After a recent visit to a client's office in Sydney for up to 1000 staff, which advocated the clean desk policy that had some significant innovation challenges, I started thinking about the productivity of this strategy.

Responding to the global trend of more flexible, casual workforces and a shift to more knowledge-based work, many Australian organisations like the Commonwealth Bank and ANZ have shifted to an office of generic workstations with lockers for personal items.

BHP has even gone a step further, instituting an "office environment standard", which reportedly includes making staff remove post-it notes at the end of the day, banning decorating or customising work partitions, not allowing clothes to be slung over furniture and forbidding lunch at desks.

However, there are many advocates for the messy desk strategy, and some have stated that the disorganised backdrop of a messy desk seems to promote more creative problem-solving and originality.

Australian Human Resources Institute chairman Peter Wilson said that the clean-desk policy was a giant backward step in the genre of modern leadership.

Yet, despite the spectacular failures, clean desk policies and similar experiments, and the idea of flexible and mobile work, has continued to flourish in the context of a worldwide shift in patterns and types of work.

Today new office designs are likely to adopt some version of the virtual office.

But just as Jay Chiat discovered in his work experiment, although office workers now perform their work via computers, they continue to go about personalising and nesting in their work environments.

Studies have highlighted identity expression and professional status as key reasons for personalisation at work.

Justine Humphry's soon to be published PhD research on "nesting" among professional knowledge workers found that personalising or nesting was also performed for practical reasons.

Nesting, as a form of personally shaping the surrounding work environment, is a key way that workers get prepared or "ready" for work.

There are further practical benefits: to enhance well-being, to create opportunities for privacy or collaboration, to facilitate social interaction and to save time.

In fact, the study found that seemingly simple and mundane activities like placing post-it notes on a nearby well-used surface or display turned out to be critical time-savers that, intriguingly, found a new role with computers.

An environment that allows flexibility, balance, and autonomy is more likely to create a dynamic, high-performing organisation.

Tara Neven is director of neuresource group, situated in Tank St, Gladstone. Phone 4972 5007 or 1800 704 320, or email Tara specialises in organisational learning and development.

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