When your boss and colleagues pass by the paperwork strewn over your desk and half-eaten bag of chips, what are they really thinking?
According to a recent OfficeTeam survey, 68% of human resources managers feel it’s at least “somewhat acceptable” to have a messy desk at work, but 32% said they would “question an employee’s organizational skills and effectiveness” if that person had a messy desk.
Here’s a look at five problems your messy desk might be causing:
1. Your colleagues don’t want to work with you on group projects.
Some people truly believe a messy desk is the sign of a creative mind, but others may see it as a sign of unprofessionalism and disorganization, says Robert Hosking, executive director of staffing firm OfficeTeam.
“Although it’s not necessarily right to judge someone based on their desk, it can be hard to turn a blind eye to a cluttered workspace,” Hosking says. “Having a messy workspace can affect your professional reputation. Your colleagues may perceive you as unorganized and inefficient.”
If your colleagues need help on a project, your disorganization may make them less likely to use you as a resource than someone who is tidy, says Skip Weisman, leadership and workplace communication expert and founder of YourChampionshipCompany.com.
“You always want to be seen as the go-to person for projects. You’re only going to accomplish that if people’s perception of you is that you’re responsive and organized,” Weisman says.
Your desk is a reflection of how you operate, says Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.
“Are you the kind of person who can get projects done ahead of schedule and find files quickly, whenever you need them? If you have your jacket hanging over the side of your cube and you have food out on your desk all day, it doesn’t speak to your professionalism,” she says.
2. It actually affects your productivity.
Having a messy desk can make you less productive if a lot of time is spent looking for things rather than actually working on assignments, Hosking says.
“The tipping point for employers may be if a worker’s desk is negatively affecting his or her productivity or is distracting to colleagues,” he explains.
“If you have stacks of paper on your desk, you may think, ‘It’s OK, I know where everything is,’ but how long is it taking you to find things?” Weisman asks. “Maybe you’re being as productive as you can be, but maybe not.”
In the digital age, where most of our work and files are on the computer, we have fewer excuses for a messy desk, says Joe Weinlick, senior vice president of marketing at career network Beyond.com.
“If you have to move a pile of paper to see your desktop, you are projecting to others that you are undisciplined,” he says.
3. You’re making a bad impression with clients.
If an employee’s “embarrassingly messy” desk is visible to customers or clients and could leave a bad impression, managers may also choose to take action, Hosking cautions.
Anytime there are customers or guests coming in from the outside, the entire office needs to have its best foot forward, and a messy desk is a big no-no, Weisman says.
“It could be a client coming in, or it could be your boss’ boss in town from Chicago, but in any case, everything needs to be in tip-top shape. It’s all about perception,” he explains.
4. Your colleagues resent your encroaching on their space.
Talking loudly on your phone or smacking gum aren’t the only ways to encroach on someone’s personal space in the office, Taylor says.
“The silent space invaders are often worse – the food smells, the stacks of paperwork that edge into your colleague’s space – it can be intolerable,” she says. “Everyone is entitled to a neat space that they control, and when you prevent that, it’s incredibly discourteous.”
With many modern office layouts, your space is rarely contained by four walls, Weisman says.
“If it’s your own space and no one else has to work near you, then you can have a little more freedom. If you are in a partially enclosed cube or in an open loft space, you have to realize that everything you do is going to impact others,” he says. “It all comes down to self-awareness and being respectful of those around us.”
5. You could get passed over for promotion.
If you get passed over for promotion, your manager might not outright say, “It was because you had a messy desk,” but that may well be part of the reason, Weisman says.
“Your inability to keep a clean, organized space may be one thing that made them think you couldn’t handle more responsibility,” Weisman says.
If you appear disorganized, the first thought managers may have is, “Is this going to transcend into their work product?” Taylor says.
“If you have two equally qualified people and one person has no clean surface to be seen on their desk, and the other person has the exact same skill set and a neat, organized space, rightly or wrongly, the person who is organized is going to get more respect.”