Messy desk can boost creativity and problem-solving

OPINION: There is a long-held belief that a tidy desk represents an organised worker.

A Sydney client's office for up to 1000 staff advocated the clean-desk policy, but it had some significant innovation challenges, and after a recent visit 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 - 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.

Peter Wilson, chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute has stated that the clean-desk policy is a giant backward step in the genre of modern leadership.

Yet, despite the spectacular failures, clean-desk policies and similar experiments, 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, though 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 is also performed for practical reasons.

Nesting as a form of personally shaping the surrounding work environment is key a 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 were time-savers.

An environment with flexibility, balance, and autonomy will likely create a high-performing organisation.

Tara Neven is director of neuresource group in Gladstone. She specialises in organisational learning and development. Email

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