Is a messy desk really counterproductive to performance?
Physical Work Environment

Is a messy desk really counterproductive to performance?
The Physical Work Environment impacts performance and the way you work

Killing productivity

Our physical environment at work has a great impact on our performance and the way we work.

Recent research relating psychological perceptions to the physical environment shows that the environment influences cognition, emotion, and behaviour, along with significantly affecting decision-making abilities. Research also suggests ‘cluttered spaces’ at work can have negative effects on stress and anxiety levels of the employees, and can affect their physical health through altered sleep and eating habits__¹__.

Conversely, a clean environment at work can improve productivity and overall happiness of employees. Cleanliness has been shown to have a positive correlation with overall job satisfaction and performance at work__²__.

However, maintaining cleanliness and avoiding mess is not just the responsibility of the company or the janitorial staff. As employees we also have the responsibility to keep our work environment clean, and we can start by cleaning up our desks and workspace regularly.

A desk cluttered with papers, coffee cups and files may make us feel that we are working in full swing but it can have a larger impact on our overall performance and the impression others have of us. A messy desk can represent a messy employee!

More so, our brains like order. A study at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute used FMRI to show that brains had a preference for organised visuals, and unorganised visuals became a source of stress. They also found that when participants cleared the mess from their work environment their ability to focus improved along resulting in increased performance__³__.

Making a mess of things

When employees are stressed and low on productivity they tend to procrastinate, leaving their work till the last minute and piling up tasks on their desks, creating even more clutter. Just imagine what must be stacking up in their heads! It’s a vicious cycle. Stress leads to a messy desk which in turns causes more stress and decreased work output.

An untidy workplace has negative consequences for the company as well. Employees with cluttered workspaces could be less healthy mentally and physically causing a decrease in overall productivity of the company. An average employee spends 4.3 hours every week just searching for paper. Similarly, for paperless companies, searching for lost documents on an unorganised PC accounts for a loss of about 2 hours per week__⁴__.

The National Association of Professional Organisers (NAPO) found in their study that disorganisation can lead to financial losses equivalent to 10 % of a manager’s salary along with stating that 80% of the clutter in the office is a result of being disorganised and not due to a lack of space__⁵__.

Considering the major financial and performance losses, companies could support ‘cleaning up’ or ‘spring cleaning’ days where employees team up to clear the mess at the workplace. A clean desk policy can also be maintained and made part of the corporate culture so that it is respected and followed.

There's a silver lining...

However, what’s surprising is that there are a few studies that say quite the opposite. Yes, our messy desk can actually be good for us as well, but it all depends on the nature of our job. A 2013 University of Minnesota study, published in the journal Psychological Science found that, while tidy desks may promote healthy eating, generosity, and decreased stress, messy desks may have their own benefits as workers with cluttered offices were found to be more creative__⁶__.

For jobs that require creativity, it has been shown that a certain level of disorder might actually improve productivity. So it all depends on the type of job and the personality of the individual. Eric Abrahamson, Professor of Management of Columbia Business School and co-author of 'A Perfect Mess' says, “One of the reasons disorder does seem to work well for creative types is that a chaotic desk may bring together different elements of work in unexpected ways and create new juxtapositions.

The key however, is to find the balance, and determine when the level of mess becomes an asset rather than a liability. Depending on the nature of the job and the personality of the individual, the amount of mess that is beneficial for an employee can vary from one person to the other.

A good balance can be maintained by following these steps to avoid excessive mess at the workplace:

  • Make a habit to clean-up every Friday afternoon, so you start the following week in pristine form
  • Keep the desktop clear, only keep what’s necessary, or likely to be needed in the next few days
  • Organise the computer, especially the desktop, and clear digital clutter
  • Avoid piling things up and don’t overflow the storage space. Finding the required paper in a pile wastes more time than finding it “spread out” on your desk.
  • Keep a few objects that are interesting yet minimal on desk tops to get the creativity flowing
  • Dust and disinfect occasionally to avoid sneezing fits and influenza respectively


Sometimes a little bit of mess can be the performance booster (especially when it comes to creativity), but there is always a limit. If a messy desk can impact productivity and health, it can be a problem too.

SHAPE looks at nine aspects of the Physical Workplace Environment including cleanliness and hygiene to assess the impact of these conditions on work performance and long term output. It helps give employees and managers an idea of how the work environment is affecting them, along with recommendations to improve it.

__¹__Sander, Elizabeth (Libby) J., et al. Building and Environment, vol. 148, 2019, pp. 338–347., doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2018.11.020.

__²__Horrevorts, Mirte, et al. Facilities, vol. 36, no. 9/10, 2018, pp. 442–459., doi: 10.1108/f-02-2017-0018.

__³__Mcmains, S., and S. Kastner. Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 31, no. 2, 2011, pp. 587–597., doi:10.1523/jneurosci.3766-10.2011.

__⁴__Webster, Melissa. "Bridging the information worker productivity gap". 2012.

__⁵__Noria Corporation. 2009. Reliable Plant, Noria Corporation.

“Tidy Desk or Messy Desk? Each Has Its Benefits.” Association for Psychological Science. 2013.

__⁷__Abrahamson, Eric, and David H. Freedman. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008.

Physical Work Environment