'Clean Desk' Policies: Latest Executive Fad Designed To Torment Workers?

A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, the saying goes -- which may explain why Australian company BHP Billiton's rule book, leaked to the Australian Financial Review, made a big deal about employee desks. According to the publication, employees "have to clean their desks every day of all but eight objects -- their monitors, keyboards, mouse, mouse pad, telephone handset and headset, one A5 photo frame and, should they need it, a footstool, gel wrist pad or other ergonomic equipment."The theory is that a "Clear desk enables ... others to use our desk when we're not there," BHP Billiton's policy says. The policy should also help keep information confidential and would encourage people to file things digitally. I guess people's desks would also look snappy in photos. Iconic images of a leader at his desk always features vast expanses of wood with nothing piled on top.

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But do draconian clean-desk policies really boost productivity? Personally, I've always liked to "nest" at my desks -- piling up papers I'm still thinking about, and posting notes for myself in different places. While I like the idea of being able to work anywhere at any time (which universal clean desk policies would in theory promote), if you do expect employees to show up in an office on a regular basis, it's nice to give them a home base. Let's put it this way: If your employees can work from home 3 days a week, sure, keep the desks clean. If not? You're asking for trouble by forbidding the installment of more than one picture frame. It's like taunting: Not only can we keep you away from your family for 40-50 hours a week, we won't let you display each of your children's school pictures separately either!

Personally, I think a clean desk is a sign of nothing other than the fact that you took the time to organize and clean it. That's a neutral statement. If you cleaned it instead of goofing around on the Internet, great. If you cleaned it to procrastinate calling a supplier whose quality problems have now become a major embarrassment for your employer? Well, that's not such a great sign.

Obviously, if you're leaving food on a messy desk and it's rotting, that produces negative externalities (odors and vermin). But a mere mess? That's easily solved with a cubicle door -- a product whose existence confirms for me what an awful idea cubicles were in the first place.

Do you need a clean desk to work? Or do you keep top-of-mind items top of desk as well?

January 11th: National Clean Off Your Desk Day

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