Archive for Sunday, May 31, 1998


May 31, 1998


While some experts say messy desk owners are stricken with ``pile-a-mania,'' others think a cluttered desk is ``cognitively enriching.''

Harlan Roedel's work space resembles an office Dumpster subjected to the spin cycle of a washing machine.

Few patches of laminated surface are visible beneath interlocking piles of stuff on his desk at Kansas University.

Delores, an armless mannequin adorned in comic strip art, silently observes a rubble-strewn landscape that gives new meaning to the joke: ``You don't have to be tidy to be organized. I use the chronological layers system.''

Roedel has fallen into the clutches of a common malady. He's a -- heavy sigh -- ``pile-a-maniac.''

``I have a distaste for regimentation,'' he said. ``You can be comfortable with your surroundings without having to feel you have to be orderly.''

State Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, doesn't maintain a spotless desk, but it's a far cry from Roedel's toxic waste dump. Her papers and folders are in A, B and C stacks in accordance with daily priorities. A telephone, Rolodex and other standard equipment occupy spots on her two desks in the Statehouse and two desks at KU. She maintains an open work space on all four.

Ballard's habit is to clear the deck before running off to a meeting or leaving for the day. It prepares the space for her return.

``I have to be able to sit down and start working,'' she said. ``It's organized and I know where it is.''

Studying desktops

Researchers have attempted to examine the ways people outfit desks for clues to what makes them tick. British psychologist Donna Dawson, who studied more than 500 desks for an employee recruitment agency, identified six types of desktops.

``Desks convey character, and you can tell the type of employee by the type of desk they have,'' Dawson said.

They are:

  • Trophy desk. Each item is placed for maximum effect. These employees are likely to be natural team leaders but may sulk if they feel their talents are ignored.
  • Show desk. A large desk with no revealing personal items. This worker is likely to be a good judge of character and one to watch for the future.
  • Personality extension desk. Covered with photographs and personal items. Employees are likely to need constant entertainment and may be insecure.
  • Creative chaos desk. Scattered with drawings, books, articles, notes. Owner is likely to be in a constant whir of activity and is unpretentious.
  • Organized chaos desk. Buried under piles of rubbish. Employee is often good at handling multiple tasks simultaneously but prone to bouts of hysteria.
  • Super organized desk. Work space is taken up by essential office equipment but is always immaculate. Usually belongs to a middle-ranking employee who may feel unappreciated.

David Holmes, KU professor of psychology, said that reaching precise conclusions about the emotional stability and job effectiveness of workers based on the style and degree of materials on a desktop might be a stretch.

He does give Dawson credit, however, for cleverly focusing on an area that touches many people.

``She will get a lot of clients,'' said Holmes, who comes at the issue as a researcher of obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Holmes, who has a desk that fluctuates between tidy and messy, said a small number of people are compelled to maintain extraordinarily clean desks because they have a biochemical imbalance in the brain. Most individuals with the disorder can be effectively treated with prescription drugs.

``This has nothing to do with self-presentation or trying to impress your boss,'' he said.

As a practical matter, Holmes said, people function effectively with all sorts of desk styles. He personally believes that devoting a lot of time each day to cleaning distracts from real work.

``The problem with someone keeping an incredibly neat desk is that person spends all their time keeping the desk clean and gets nothing else done.''

Competing theories

Experts make a good living by sitting at big office desks and offering efficiency theories to anyone willing to listen.

Time management guru Jeffrey Mayer, who would like to sell you his insights for workplace productivity, believes a desk should look like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The Chicago consultant came up with the term ``pile-a-maniac'' to describe folks not working as effectively as possible because of desks in disarray.

``Eliminate that clutter and you'll save up to 60 minutes a day, simply because you'll be able to find all the unfinished work that has been lying around,'' he said.

``At least 60 percent of the papers piled on a person's desk no longer have any value or meaning,'' he added. ``Instead of deciding what should be done with them when they arrived, the pieces of paper were just put in an `I'll get to it later' pile. And later never comes.

``Of course the person who sits behind this desk may think he or she knows where everything is, but it takes a lot of time to find it -- wasted time.''

Organizational behavior specialist Jay Brand of Holland, Mich., disagrees. In fact, he said, companies that mandate clean desks may impede individual performance and productivity.

Brand believes office workers are ``cognitively enriched'' by maintaining a user-friendly environment. In some cases, that equates to an unkempt desk.

``If you have room in a work area to keep all tasks available, then the odds are you are going to aid productivity and performance,'' Brand said. ``Developing an enriched context ... helps you perform more efficiently than a clean environment.''

For example, research in the educational field has shown students' test scores are significantly higher when tests are taken in the same room where the class typically meets.

It perhaps follows that a company that requires office workers to have spotless desks before leaving work may be inadvertently removing cognitive clues useful to employees who require steady, intellectually comfortable surroundings. Work space lobotomies can do more harm than good.

Brand's "enriched context'' approach suggests some workers -- Roedel? -- need a messy desk to easily pick up where they left off.

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is

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