Should Your Office Have a Clean Desk Policy?

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••• © Silvia Jansen / Getty

While some would claim that a clean, organized desk is better for productivity, safety, and conventionality, many argue that a messy, disorganized desk is a stronger vehicle for creativity.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not to implement a clean desk policy at your company, the answer depends on your business and your employees. Here are several questions that will help lead you in the right direction.

What Does a Clean Desk Policy Look Like?

There are many ways to carry out a clean desk policy. You can institute a policy that states that all employees need to have clean desks with no papers on them when they go home at night. Or, you can have a rule that prohibits personal items and says that employees need to put away everything that they aren't actively working on. Reasons for this may vary, but an important argument in favor of a clean desk policy is one that aims to protect sensitive or classified information.

You can choose what you think is appropriate for your company’s needs, but bear in mind: What you do as an organization, how you provide your product or service, and who works for you all play weigh heavily on the decision-making process.

Do You Deal in Confidential Information?

Naturally, every business has some confidential information. You don't want your financials sitting out unattended, nor do you want login information to live in plain sight. You also should always keep performance improvement plans under lock and key.

Some companies deal with more confidential information than others, and this info needs to stay hidden—even from the eyes of other employees or the night cleaning crew. Your clean desk policy would cover these documents and anything else that you don’t want people to see. 

Do You Meet With Clients in Your Office?

You don’t have to have the same clean desk policy for each different area across your company. For example, if you have clients who visit the front office regularly, you may need a stricter clean desk policy for that area. Not only do you want to secure confidential material, but you may also prefer that desks look uncluttered when visitors arrive.

Work areas that are cluttered with personal items may give off an unprofessional look. So, you may find it is easier to make a rule that says no personal items are allowed on desks, as opposed to policing your workplace throughout the day.

For back-office people, appearance is far less critical. If the only people who ever venture into the finance department are current employees, then you may want to allow them to keep their desks any way they want. 

Is Creativity Important?

A 2013 study conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs, concluded that a messy desk increased creativity and fostered imagination. Participants came up with more creative ideas after working in a messy environment than those who worked in a clean and orderly environment. Other participants were more willing to try new products when researchers introduced them in a cluttered environment, whereas orderly environments prompted convention, healthy food-choices, and generally playing it safe.

There are ups and downs to employee psyches when choosing the status of your office. While healthy snacks are good for everyone, you don't want to lose out on employee creativity. For example, telling your art department to keep desks neat and tidy might result in a lower quality of work.

How Is Employee Performance?

A top employee who doesn't deal in confidential information (or who has a door that locks) may not take kindly to your demand that she put away every scrap of paper every night. By allowing each employee to work in an environment that suits them, you’ll be encouraging their success

If you have a struggling employee with a messy desk, implementing a clean desk policy may help with their performance. 

Keep in mind, clean doesn't mean organized and messy doesn't mean disorderly.

An employee who sweeps everything into a drawer at the end of the day won't necessarily be more productive than an employee with a messy but maintained desk.

The Bottom Line

Make your decision on a clean desk policy based on your company and employees’ actual needs, and not an idealized view of what an office should look like. Happy, productive employees are what you need—sometimes a clean desk policy helps you get there, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Article Sources

  1. Association for Psychological Science. "Tidy Desk or Messy Desk? Each Has Its Benefits," Accessed Sept. 23, 2019.


  2. SANS Consensus Policy Resource Community. "Clean Desk Policy," Page 1–2. Accessed Sept. 23, 2019.