With the good intentions of New Year’s resolutions still at the forefront of everyone’s minds, you’ll have inevitably discussed your resolutions with all your co-workers.

However, if your workplace has collectively decided that the New Year calls for a new clean desk policy, it could be bad news for the creative thinkers and thought leaders.


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For the last few years in particular, a lot of management gurus and experts have openly praised the “lean office”. However, whilst minimal workspaces may work for some people, it can leave others feeling disinterested and uninspired. As a leading office design company, we know that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to increasing productivity in the workplace. Different people have different needs and these should also be catered to.

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A thought-provoking Ted article takes an excerpt from economist Tim Harford’s book, “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives“.

It mentions a fascinating experiment that sought to identify the most productive office setup. Whilst it’s a bit of a lengthy read, it’s well worth the time. Harford references a number of experiments which have been undertaken in a bid to understand if clean desk policies really work, Perhaps the most interesting of which was conducted by two psychologists, Alex Haslam and Craig Knight, both from the University of Exeter.

In 2010, Haslam and Knight set up simple office spaces as part of an experiment. Some of these spaces were based in a psychology lab and others in a commercial office. Haslam and Knight then set about recruiting experimental subjects to spend an hour completing simple administrative tasks such as proofreading documents. Of course, the goal of the experiment was to see how the office environment can affect productivity.

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In total, they tested four different office layouts. The first office was entirely minimal and the second was similar but enriched with decorative elements such as large prints and potted plants. The final two layouts were called the empowered office and the disempowered office; both were based on the enriched office with the only difference being who got to decide the appearance.

The empowered office was the most successful in increasing productivity. Here, workers were invited to spend time arranging the decorations themselves and could even remove them entirely if they wanted. The disempowered office was unsurprisingly the most hated. Again, workers were invited to decorate the office as they wanted, but the experimenter would later return and rearrange things themselves. And when we say this was the most hated, that’s an understatement; one worker even commented that he “wanted to hit” the experimenter when the layout was rearranged!

Whilst this experiment doesn’t solely focus on messy desks, it does show that it’s the choice that matters most to workers. As such, it’s probably not the smartest move in the world to enforce a clean desk policy.

Keep it clean

Kathleen Vohs, PHD, conducted her own research into the matter and found that cluttered environments can actually boost creativity. In one experiment, Vohs split up a group of 48 participants and asked them to find new ways to utilise a simple ping pong ball. Half of the group was sent to a tidy room while the other half was sent to a messy room. Despite the fact that both groups came up with the same number of ideas, the ones produced by those in the messy room were seen as far more innovative by a panel of judges.

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Vohs commented, “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.” It’s an interesting statement and one that isn’t entirely new. Disorganisation has often been associated with genius and creativity. In fact, many well-known thinkers and writers have famously worked in messy environments, including Albert Einstein and Roald Dahl. A recent proponent of the messy desk is also Donald Trump. Although we’ll reserve judgement on that one!

When it comes down to it, there’s no right or wrong option. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. It’s important that your office space has different areas to meet different needs.

If you want to find an office layout that works for all of your employees, get in touch with our team today.