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Here's What Your Manager Really Thinks of Your Messy Desk

How neat is your immediate work area? You might not think it's too bad, but senior management might think it resembles an episode of Hoarders!

A new OfficeTeam survey asked 300 senior managers to name the most distracting or annoying thing about employee work spaces. More than half (54%) said that a "messy" work space was the most distracting or annoying thing. Displaying "inappropriate" or "offensive" photos or phrases annoyed 21% of senior managers surveyed, while another 15% can't handle too many knickknacks or decorations populating anyone's work area.

Now for the weird part: One in ten senior managers surveyed (that would be 10%) don't like a work area that looks too neat and clean! They want to see that you're working, and they can't tell unless you are shuffling a stack of papers, sticking random Post-It notes here and there and otherwise leaving a trail of broken staples around your desk. Productivity means generating paper, people, and documentation strewn about your work area like kernels of smashed popcorn on a movie theater floor means work is on like Donkey Kong!

But you live in the 21st Century, where everything is stored on various devices and your workplace runs on a festival seating policy where you don't know where you will be sitting this afternoon. HR apparently doesn't care, but at least one senior manager on staff is quietly disturbed by your profound neatness and your co-worker's questionable meme collection. It raises a red flag in their minds.

Before you wave the white flag of surrender, please note that wearing soda-stained hoodies to go along with bad breath and uncombed, greasy hair is still a-okay. After all, how else can the company make those vaunted "Best Places To Work" lists unless it has a fun, cool, and relaxed work vibe? There is a happy medium somewhere in the dichotomy between desk and deodorant, but everyone in the office is equally failing somehow at the desk thing. Like The Three Little Bears story, you don't want too much or too little on your desk; you want it to be just right. So, what can you do?

Moderation Is the Key To A Messy Desk
Aim for somewhere in the middle, because moderation is the key to an appropriately messy work area. "Your work space is a reflection of you. Keep it tidy and make sure there isn't anything on display that might cause others to question your professionalism," says Brandi Britton, a district president for OfficeTeam. "Showing a little personality on your desk is fine, but don't go overboard. You want to stand out for your positive attributes, not the messy state of your office or work area."

If my work area is a reflection of me, then I'm pretty sure I'm part squirrel and part fifth grader. So what have we learned here? You have one job, and that is to make senior management think you're working. You make them think you are working by working some mess into the mix, but not too much mess.

With some thought, you can win this game of entropy for the employee soul. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to pick up a stack of papers that fell on the floor and cram them back into my desk.


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