Should we learn to embrace mess in the office?

Are you a filer or a piler? Messy desks can be a serious bone of contention in the office, as hyper-organised individuals grow frustrated with seemingly chaotic colleagues, but studies have shown that those with cluttered workspaces actually tend to be more productive than tidier counterparts.

From afar, it’s easy to assume that neatness reflects a coordinated, structured, more fruitful way of working – thus there’s a certain pressure to maintain cleanliness and order – but the ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’ mentality is somewhat flawed when held up to scrutiny.

It may seem counterintuitive, but office design firm Herman Miller conducted a survey of ‘Work Masters’ – highly-productive employees – and the results categorically indicate that ‘neatness and organisation are not the same thing’.

In essence, the report found that those who dedicate energy to formalising their filing system often end up storing unnecessary information, making it harder and more laborious to locate the right things at the right time.

However, the ‘pilers’ – those who stack documents in rough and ready towers – are much more efficient, with the most urgent documents naturally working their way toward the top of the pile, within easy reach and acted upon accordingly.


Method in the mess

If you think in terms of computer programming, memory is cached in a manner that allows the most recently and frequently used documents to load quickly, and this is the same principle that ‘pilers’ live by. Such methods may look slapdash to the untrained eye, but it’s ultimately an impressive form of real life RAM (Rapid Access Memory).

The effectiveness of such piling systems largely depend on whether they’re for personal use or if several people require access and understanding, but many researchers agree that disciplined filers tend to fall into the trap of ‘premature filing’; an aversion to mess means documents are filed away without proper digestion of the contents.

However, colleagues whom may appear to be aesthetically dysfunctional, on the face of it, actually know where everything is and can easily recall key information.

In fact, a behavioural study of office staff at AT&T Labs reported that disciplined filers often duplicated their workload, recording the same information in multiple folders. At times, there might very well be logical reasons for this, but unnecessary duplication is not at all logical; it’s actually extremely disorganised.

Creating an affable working environment is one of the fundamental principles of a great company culture, so perhaps we need to redress our views on messy desks. Instead of being fussy about respectable-looking workspaces, the evidence shows that employees flourish when allowed to organise things in their own fashion.


Stop wasting time

While this whole argument may sound like self-justifying claptrap from the messy among us, further research has suggested that those who are fastidious about filing emails are actually wasting time.

It’s all very well creating several folders and subfolders to keep related messages close together, but it’s ultimately a pointless exercise when the search function is so much quicker at finding whatever you’re looking for.

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to lose several hours organising email hierarchies, only to have them collecting digital dust as they go unused. Flagging important messages is arguably a much better way of keeping on top of urgent tasks, while typing a few keywords into the search bar will readily bring up any other message you’re looking for.

At the end of the day, while neat freaks may feel good about putting everything in its place, much of the time, such painstaking preciseness is a complete waste of time, with more effort put into organising than actually working.

Of course, we can’t have complete disarray in the workplace, and order is crucial for collaborative tasks, but when it comes to managing individual workloads it’s probably better to allow staff freedom over how they organise themselves

There are limits, and poor hygiene is the leading cause of office disputes, but when it comes to paperwork and email trails, it makes sense to not be so fussy.


About the author

Ross Howard is the Editor of Insights For Professionals, a dedicated resource of white papers and how-to guides for HR, IT, Marketing, Management and Finance professionals. You can follow @IFP_HR on Twitter.

Author: Editorial Team

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