of his desk is delineated
by towers of paper: "I have a relatively big desk so as long as there is elbow room, things tend to pile up, even if some of them do date back to 2004."
But his main reason for untidiness
is lack of time to tidy: "It is a busy environment and at the end of the day, while all confidential documents are shredded and recycled, I want to leave and see my son, not file bits of paper." He adds: "I can get a professional-looking desk by doing a 'five-minute tidy' where I straighten all the piles of paper up if I need to."
Prof Abrahamson says messy desks can be good: "People with a moderate amount of mess usually have everything to hand." Leaving a mess on your desk can often work creatively too: "Mess puts items in context and the unexpected juxtapositions
of unrelated items can cause you to make connections that you'd never make if the things were in two separate filing cabinets
". There are even economies of scale: "One trip to clean 10 coffee cups is much more efficient that 10 trips to clean one."
Obama admits messy desk
Messy desks have some celebrated advocates. Barack Obama recently allowed
that he might have a messy desk; Nobel prize winner Robert Fogel dealt with the issue by buying a second desk; and Einstein famously asked: "If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, then what is an empty desk?"
Yet many people still believe untidy desks belong to slobs
, whose disorganisation will make them unsatisfactory as colleagues and employees. Prof Abrahamson cites one chief executive who has two offices - one with a pristine
desk where he receives visitors and one with the chaotic desk at which he works.
The messy desk has a virtual version. Not only is there the messy desktop, but PCs' powerful search abilities enable us to have clutter on a hard drive. If a computer can search thousands of documents and e-mails within minutes or even seconds, why bother organising the information properly? Arguably, one downside
of the virtual mess is that, by being less visible, it increases the likelihood of being careless, say, with laptops containing personal data.
Many companies take a stand against workstation disorder, but they say it is for pragmatic reasons. Richard Jordan, head of employer brand at Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm
, says: "We have a flexible desk policy as a lot of people work out at clients. For them having a permanent desk is a waste of space," and therefore they share a desk where personal clutter is kept to a minimum. Others insist on absence of clutter
for compliance reasons.
Even those who have messy desks have sporadic clear-ups. "My desk gets a guaranteed deep tidy at key points of year such as when I go on holiday or we have a recycling drive,' says Mr Smalley. "When you're going off for two weeks, tidying your desk gives you a nice sense of closure."
The point where chaos is unacceptable may be when the desk becomes a health hazard
. With more people snatching lunch at their desks, the workstation can be a haven for germs
. Mr Smalley says that while he doesn't mind mess, he is not so keen on grime
: "I do clean my keyboard - if you eat at your desk, they can get pretty horrible."
Meanwhile, at Mr Alderson's workstation: "The one thing that stops my desk from being disgusting is that I actually like cold coffee."
Perhaps the most compelling defence of the moderately messy desk, says Prof Abrahamson, is that working amid a modest disorder tends to make you more flexible, open to new experiences and better equipped to deal with the unexpected.
Mr Alderson puts it slightly differently: "I don't need any of this stuff. If the office burnt down tomorrow, it wouldn't matter that much. I carry the company around in my head."
Tips to look tidy
*Organise your desk once a week - recycle anything you don't need and file anything you do
*Do a deep tidy
and organise before you go on holiday
*Leverage technology - you can now have electronic sticky notes on your screen
*If you eat at your desk tidy up afterwards and clean your keyboard
*Do not stash
all your shoes under your desk or hang more than one coat over your chair