The big debate – messy desk person or tidy desk person?

As any of you who follow me on Twitter (@lornagozzard – hi!) will know, I love a good PR survey. Especially when it’s on an issue close to my heart. So imagine my joy last week when I saw that Staples had been investigating the two tribes of sworn enemies that dominate any office – Tidy Desk People and Messy Desk People.

As is illustrated in this nice Guardian piece here (, the results were stark. One in four Britons has received complaints from colleagues about their untidy desks. Apparently, one in 10 of us has actually been formally cautioned over it, which means that either a remarkable number of us work in some pretty unforgiving environments, or there are some desks out there that are real health hazards.

Now, I have an interest to declare at this point. Despite being very organized and the sort of person mildly obsessed with the correct use of coasters in my personal life, my desk is pretty messy. At earlier points in my career, it’s been very messy. I work on a lot of things at once, I like having the documents near me, I can’t proof on screen, and all of this generates paper. Depending on how busy I am, I periodically sort through this paper, but if I have a lot on, many piles of it may accumulate before I do.

And, despite arguably doing fairly well for myself, I have always felt that Tidy Desk People judged me for this. Largely based on some of them being quite open about doing so. Even though I can always find what I want (except in fairness, pens), there’s no tangible evidence it’s ever affected my work, and it’s just paper, so doesn’t smell or attract vermin.

To check this wasn’t just personal paranoia, I opened the discussion up to the wider Kindred office. Again, shocking results. The first one of which is that messy desk people (MDPs) are much keener to defend their behavior than tidy desk people (TDPs). I was flooded with emails from MDPs, whereas I had to ask twice before any TDPs spoke up. Too busy tidying their desks, possibly.

The second, was that there really is some genuine antagonism there. I work in what I’ve always thought was a very happy and relaxed office, but clearly there’s dark tensions bubbling away under the surface:

“There’s certain pods in the office whose desks are ALWAYS in an absolute state. I couldn’t hack it – I don’t know how they keep on top of their workload.”

“I often find myself looking with suspicion at tidy desks and assuming their owners either have too much time on their hands, or a radically different sense of priorities.”

“Tidy deskers make me feel bad. They can be condescending too – when you sit next to one and your stuff accidentally overspills into their area, they can get really mean about it.”

There’s also a lively debate out  there about whether a messy desk is in fact ‘creative chaos’ – “I find empty, minimalist desks uninspiring” – or just something that distracts you from the job in hand – “a cluttered desk definitely proves a distraction in my case…..a tidy desk makes for a tidy mind.”

At the end of the day, it’s probably a sign of a good agency environment that there are these differences of opinion – a homogenous group of people with the same way of looking at a problem would not be a great set-up.  And I suspect MDPs are cut a bit more slack in agency – at least there’s an understanding that PR generates paper and attracts people with a range of approaches to creativity, some of which might not be tidy. You don’t hear of that many agencies who force people to hot desk, or have clean desk policies, for example.

So, the debate will continue, and people like Staples will continue to make excellent PR mileage out of it. Bad news for trees and people who need to find pens quickly, good news for reminding us all that it’s often our points of difference that make us into a successful, interesting team. Cast formal cautions and paranoia to the wind and embrace the state of your neighbours’ desk – your workplace will be all the stronger for it.

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