Is a messy desk a problem in the workplace? Elaine Varelas discusses

Should employees with messy desks be asked to maintain a more organized work space—even if it doesn't bother them? Elaine Varelas discusses the value of a tidy work place.

Ask the Job Doc.

Q: I thrive in a fast-paced, spontaneous environment at work, and as a result, my space gets a little messy—I’m just executing on so many things in any given day! It’s not an issue for me, but my manager recently asked me to work on keeping my desk clean. I don’t think this is fair. If it works for me, why should I change?

A: I can sympathize with your situation, as I am also one of the many people whose work environment is…less than pristine, and my version of a little messy might be like yours and not like most other people. On a regular basis, I commit myself to straightening out my work space. I do recognize the need for the appearance of an organized desk, which represents an organized approach and mind. It is fair for your manager to encourage you to keep your desk clean. An uncluttered desk—especially in shared or open work environments—is increasingly important as everything about your work environment impacts and reflects on everyone else.


Learning how to keep an organized work space is something we should do more than aspire to. Multi-taskers especially will suffer more from a cluttered work space, representing the multiple projects they have in action at the same time. But our version of “a little messy” may be overwhelming to those around you. More importantly, it can also make you a target if you ever overlook something or make an error—if an oversight or mistake occurs, it will be easy for others to blame it on your lack of organization. Though it may not come naturally to you, you have a lot of resources at your fingertips to help with organization. Luckily for you, office furniture is known for desks or work areas with lots of drawers and cabinets—and at the very least, space under the desk to store things. If you need other tools to help you organize—color coded files, storage bins, three-ring binders—feel free to ask for your organization’s support.


Rather than thinking of this request as fair or unfair, think about it as an opportunity to understand what your manager’s concerns are and let them know that you are committed to working on maintaining an appropriately organized work space and maintaining the highest quality output. Clarify the concern behind the request. Perhaps there has been an organization-wide concern about projects falling between the cracks—or, more literally, falling behind your desk or under a towering pile of papers. Do a lot of your projects involve confidential materials that should not be left lying around? Do high-level clients visit your area of the office? The overall presentation of the company is important in these situations, and your messiness reflects on everyone. Don’t take offense at this comment; take it as an opportunity to adopt new, helpful habits. Plus, if this is the biggest weakness your manager sees in your performance, you’re in a great position.


It’s becoming more and more common to allow a lot of leeway in the ways people work, as different work environments work for different people—some people find it easier to focus with the thrum of a busy office nearby for example, while others need noise cancelling headphones just to concentrate on a task. A disorganized space isn’t necessarily one of those situations. Important deliverables are at risk of getting overlooked and your messiness impacts not only you, but everyone around you and the company as a whole. So, invest in some folders and a filing cabinet and start some new habits—you can still be fast-paced and spontaneous with a spotless desk.