For good or bad, people make assumptions about you based on the appearance of your office. If they see a framed picture on your desk of you standing on a beach with two children, they instantly assume you like going to the beach on vacation, you have two kids, and you enjoy being reminded of this vacation while you’re at work. If you have a law school diploma and a state bar association certificate framed and hanging on your office walls, people seeing these items assume you’re a lawyer, who graduated from a specific school, who is legal to practice law in your state.
The previously mentioned examples of the family photo and the diploma both resulted in positive assumptions about you and these items were likely placed in the office to elicit the exact responses they received. The bad side of assumptions based solely on appearances is that people can also come to negative conclusions about you. For example, a consistently messy desk (not one that is disrupted for a few hours each day as you plow through a project, but one that is disorganized, dirty, and cluttered over a prolonged period of time) can hurt you professionally because it gives the impression to your coworkers you’re not a good employee, even if your work product proves otherwise.
On April 13, Businessweek published the article “Clean Your Messy Desk, Lest Ye Be Judged.” The article, as you probably assume based on its title, explains the downsides of having a perpetually messy office. From the article:
… according to a survey of U.S. workers by hiring firm Adecco, 57 percent of people have judged a co-worker based on the state of his or her workspace. A clean desk sends the message that you’re organized and accomplished, while a disheveled one implies that the rest of your life is in a similar state.
Katherine Trezise, the president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (you may know ICD by its former name, the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization) comments on the survey’s findings in the Businessweek article:
Trezise says that a little mess is OK, but that “the problem comes in when it affects other people. Can you do your job? Maintain relationships with colleagues?” If the answer is no, you might need to rethink your habits.
To keep your coworkers from making negative, and probably inaccurate, judgments about your job performance, spend five to ten minutes each day cleaning and straightening your workspace before heading home. Return dirty dishes to the break room, wipe up any spills, process the papers in your inbox, throw away trash, put away current projects to their active file boxes, and set your desk so it is ready for you to work from it immediately when you arrive to your office the next morning. Not only will these simple steps send a positive message to your coworkers, but they will also help you to be more productive. For larger projects, such as waist-high stacks of papers and towers of boxes cluttering up your office, schedule 30 minutes each day to chip away at these piles. Your coworkers will notice your efforts and start to reassess their negative assumptions.
For the rare few of you who work for bosses who believe a messy desk is proof of your competency, I recommend keeping a fake stack of papers on your desk for the purpose of looking disorganized. To create your fake mess: assemble five inches of papers from the office recycling bin and wrap a large rubber band around the stack. The bundling will make the stack of papers simple to pull out of a drawer when you need it to influence your boss, and it will also make sure you don’t get any important papers mixed in with the decoy stack. Think of the stack of papers similar to a potted plant (which, oddly enough, researchers have discovered gives the impression to your coworkers that you’re a team player, so put a single plant in your office if you don’t already have one).
Like most of you, I don’t love that assumptions about job performance are influenced by the appearance of one’s office, but feelings about assumptions aren’t important. If you want a promotion and/or raise, if you want your coworkers and boss to have positive opinions about your work, and you want to give the accurate impression that you value your job and place of employment, then keeping your office organized and clean can’t hurt you in your pursuit of these goals. My opinion is that in this economy you do what you can to keep a job you love, so it’s a good idea to spend the five or ten minutes each day helping yourself in a positive way.