Messy Desks Could Limit Career Potential

  • A third of British office workers admit to having a messy desk
  • Survey of 2,000 office workers shows 1 in 10 bosses say an untidy or messy desk would stop them promoting an employee
  • Half of office workers (49%) with an untidy workspace said it affects how they feel about going into work each day
  • 40% of us see untidy colleagues as disorganised and 15% believe they don’t take pride in their work

New research by office ICT services provider Brother UK shows a third of office workers could be missing out on promotion because they have a messy desk.

In the survey of more than 2,000 office workers, 1 in 3 admitted their desk is cluttered or a mess, and almost 1 in 10 bosses said a messy desk would lead them to overlook a junior colleague for promotion.

Managers admitted to judging junior colleagues with an untidy workspace as being disorganised (73%), struggling with their workload (27%) or simply too busy (25%). They rated a messy desk as being on a par with having an unkempt personal appearance when it comes to considering what would prevent them awarding a promotion.

As well as being overlooked for career progression, half of office workers (49%) with an untidy workspace said it affects how they feel about going into work each day. They admitted that it makes them less productive (40%) increases stress (31%) adds to their workload (21%) and makes them worry that their colleagues will be judging them (12%).

And it’s not just bosses who think badly of messy-desked employees. 40% of office workers said they believe untidy colleagues to be disorganised and not taking pride in their work (15%). Almost a quarter (24%) even said that messy colleagues have a negative impact on their own productivity during a working day.

Modern working practices appear to be contributing to the problem. Office workers reported that hot-desking (33%), working from home (21%) and open plan offices (18%) make it more difficult to maintain a tidy workspace.

Interestingly, the millennial generation has the highest proportion of tidy desks (22%) yet are more likely to negatively judge a co-worker for having a messy desk than any other age group. Almost twice as many 25-34 year-old office workers believe a messy desk means that a colleague is disorganised (12%) and struggling with their workload (10%) than those aged 45-55.

Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, analysed the survey results for Brother UK. He said: “Our colleagues and bosses are making judgments about us every minute of the day, often without even knowing. The old adage ‘a tidy desk makes a tidy mind’ might not always be true, but, as the research shows, if you’re looking for promotion it’s important that you give colleagues the impression that you are in control of your workload.

“Younger workers are often seen as more relaxed when it comes to maintaining standards in the office, but this research turns that idea on its head. Millennials are under more pressure than previous generations to prove themselves in the workplace, and keeping a tidy and organised workspace is part of them showing their capability.”

Almost one in five (17%) office workers also admitted that their untidy workspace has even resulted in them losing something of financial value such as receipts, booking orders or cheques – to the average cost of almost £148.

Phil Jones, UK MD at Brother UK said: ”Office culture and ways of working are continually changing, yet the age-old problem of staying organised in amongst a hyper busy world remains.

“We are storing information both digitally and on paper and having fast access to the things that matter through good organisation can make a massive difference to your personal productivity.”

For those office workers with tidy and organised desks, they reported feeling more in control (53%), more productive (52%) and generally happier (48%).

Illustration of a messy desk