The Messy Office

How messy is TOO messy of an office? I’ve worked with all sorts of people when it comes to this. There are the people with the super-bare office — completely clean desks with perhaps one photo on it. I’ve worked with folks where it was so messy that it seemed like they could film an episode of Hoarders in there. And I’ve worked with people where it was “controlled chaos” — one of my bosses memorably kept about 10 tall piles of manilla folders on her desk at all times and would have to go through each pile to find what she needed. Personally, I’ve always been on the messier side of the spectrum, but with the caveat that I can almost always find what I need in under ten minutes.

I suppose I’ve assumed something about each of these coworkers — it is, after all, a bit of a window into how the mind works. I always imagine the bare-office people sitting there grinding their teeth at the slightest noise outside their office that interrupts their concentration — the kind of people who, if their daily schedule gets off by five minutes, their day is irreparably ruined. On the converse, I’ve imagined the truly messy office people (the “how did they get that pile of papers so high?” people) always think a clean office is a good idea in theory… when they get around to it, right after they finish that novel and those other 3 ambitious projects that they never quite seem to start.  That said, for my $.02, the only people I viewed as “less professional” because of their office space had to do more with decor (a big sports-related beanbag chair, an overly pink, matchy-matchy desk set) and less to do with “mess.”

But as a junior employee, are you better advised to keep your office space orderly and neat — even if clients and superiors don’t visit your office frequently? When does a messy office cross the line?

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Readers, what do your offices look like?  What do you wish they looked like? What assumptions do you make about other people based on their office space?

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  1. My office is fairly messy, mainly because it’s small and there is limited storage or work area. There are usually a few piles on my desk that I try to clean up about once a week. I am at that point now where I am ready to clean.

    I had a professor who I asked to write my law school resume. Her office was so cluttered that there were literally 4′ high stacks all around the office and on the desk with a path to her desk and a little window to see through the stacks. Needless to say that recommendation got lost for months and I had to get a backup. I would not put her in the “find in 5 minutes” group. A lot of people tend to be a bit messier here.

    • It’s a first impression. In another context, if counsel table is a mess during trial, jurors will be less likely to believe that attorney’s case.

  2. I work with a partner that use to have banker boxes stacked to the ceiling. His office looked more like the storage room than his work space. Surprisingly, there was a method to his madness and he always knew where to find certain case files. HR got on his case at least once a week to clean things up. If you removed anything from his office to the real storage room, he would find it and put it back in his office. This went on for a few years until one day, some of the boxes fell over on top of his assistant. OSHA got involved, etc…etc…Needless to say, his office is spotless now.

    • Love this story. I feel badly for the assistant but can you imagine being that guy and having OSHA get involved? Ha!

  3. Woods-comma-Elle :

    Mine is tidy, but not ridiculous. I have some files on my desk, but they are organised, and some small items like hand cream, a mug with pens in it, stapler, hole punch, rubber band ball etc.

    One think I cannot stand is piles of paper, so I always try to avoid those. If I have to have a pile of paper, there is only ever one single pile and when I have time, I will file it away/throw out what is unnecessary.

    During the day my desk obviously can get a little messy if I’m working with a number of different docs, files etc. but I try to keep it under control or I will never find anything. I tidy my desk at the end of the day and sometimes before I start a new, significant, task, because I find it quite therapeutic.

    People do comment on my tidy desk, but I consider it a compliment.

    The very strange thing is that I’m super organised in the office, but nowhere near as organised outside the office – what is that about?!

    • Same here! Everything has its place in my office. Once in a while I have a few file folders strewn about, but normally it is very organized. My apartment, on the other had, is a disaster area. Not dirty, but very messy. Heaven forbid someone ever opened the door to my closet! Why doesn’t my organization carry over?

      My car is equally messy. I intentionally park on a different level than my coworkers. Because clearly avoiding them is easier than cleaning out my car.

      • Woods-comma-Elle :

        Yes! I think it says something about my personality, though, that I like clean surfaces and everything to be put away/out of sight, but my drawers/closet are a mess. It probably reflects some awful personality thing whereby I look together on the outside but am a mess on the inside!

      • A former co-worker of mine had a spotless office. No pictures on the walls, no papers on his desk, aside from the one file he was working on at the time.

        But open any of his drawers, and things were just stuffed in there. Or his briefcase. Unfiled papers would fall out everywhere. All the supervisors thought he was always together… but I sat in on a trial of his, and it was like a train wreck. He was awful, on the law, and with the client.

        Tidiness on your desk does not always mean you’re doing a great job. I think it means you’re really focused on looking like you’re doing a great job.

    • I also find I have alter egos in regard to work vs. personal life. I think it is all in the name of balance.

  4. I once interned for a guy that had stacks upon stacks of stuff that it didn’t make sense to keep anymore – old versions of the CFR, posters from trainings that he had put on years ago, little toys and such that he got from events. Add on the weird stale smell that was because of a lack of circulation and the direct sunlight, I always cringed being in there.

  5. Heatheresq :

    Is my corporette screwy or was this posted like last week or the week before. I could have been checking on of those “last year on corporette” features but I feel like deja vu on this one. Not a problem, just wondering.

    • Woods-comma-Elle :

      I thought so, too, but thought maybe it was around the time when the site crashed, so it was reposted…

    • Gourmet Chef :

      There were a few posts in the last few weeks that I thought were reposted from previous years, but not sure and too lazy to check…

  6. I LOVE a clean, sparse, but decorated office. I like to spread out when I work, so it can look messy in the middle of the day. I try to work on one thing at a time as much as possible, and I’ve always found that taking the 10 second to put a project/case/etc away when I’m switching to another one is so worth it. Everything always gets put away before the end of the day, barring emergency.

    I don’t have a great memory, so I’d never be able to find anything if it wasn’t organized.

    • I would love to only focus on one thing, but with all the random phone calls/emails that need “immediate attention” I need quick access to a lot projects, so I’ve adopt the pile of folders system with a central working area. I also use horizontal and vertical file organizers, but still have some small stacks of papers and books.

  7. I used to be super organized, everything away by the end of the day and even used to make fun of my manager for being so disorganized… and now that I’m the manager my desk is a total mess. I keep meaning to take an afternoon and sort through it all but that occasion never seems to arrive.

    (Threadjack: just got back from an amazing weekend in NYC and really recommend checking out C. Wonder in SoHo on Spring street. Every preppy girl’s dream with housewares, clothing, accessories at really reasonable prices and in gorgeous colours. I got their version of the smaller Longchamp for a third of the price and I think its a lot better constructed actually.)

  8. Woods-comma-Elle :

    This reminds me of a guy I used to work with who would just leave everything as it was when he went home at the end of the day – if a book or file was open on his desk, he would leave it open until he returned. Basically it would constantly look like he had just stepped away for a minute, so people would ask when he was coming back, and it would turn out that he had gone on vacation for two weeks! Desk still looked exactly the same, though.

    • I do that at the end of the day sometimes (not for vacation). But, it reminds me to come in and immediately start working on it.

    • I, erm, do that all the time. I don’t do any end-of-day tidying – everything is in media res.

    • I also leave everything open. Not when I go on vacation.

      • I like this idea of “parking on a downward slope” so you can get the day off to a good start. You have the paper open to where you need to start reading, the next article you need to do on your desk so you can dive right in. I’m in academia and we don’t get offices until our 2nd year and I feel like I have to spend so much time packing up and getting myself organized again (I may need a better bag).

  9. I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle. My office is never really messy but my work is pretty paper intensive so it’s hard to have an empty desk. I do try to tidy up at the end of each day so my papers are in neat stacks if I am not done with a project. I find that helps me feel less overwhelmed.

    I rarely judge people for being messy though unless it’s boardering on true hoarding or just gross territory. I have to admit I am also slightly suspicious of anyone’s who has no paper at all on their desk.

    • I’m definitely a stacker too. I’ve tried to limit the visible stacks but was more inefficient. For me out of sight is out of mind.

  10. Time I spend cleaning up is time I’m not billing.

    • MeliaraofTlanth :

      Yep, this. How messy my desk is is directly proportional to how busy I am. But they’re organized piles of paper, I swear! (except for the left side of my desk. I really need to straighten that up).

      • MissJackson :


        • Equity's Darling :

          I find a lot of lawyers think this way.

          When my desk is clean, the partners/associates assigning me work assume that I’m not busy, and so they give me LOTS more.

          If my desk has stacks of paper, they assume I AM busy, and will leave me to attend to my work.

          In actuality, my desk cleanliness generally doesn’t correlate to my level of work….but everyone else thinks it does. So, my office culture generally results in only cleaning up my desk when I’m looking for work.

          • Salit-a-gator :

            Ditto. In fact several partners have made comments to me indicating they associate my messy desk with being very busy. Frankly I’d rather leave 5 min earlier each day than take the time to clean my desk and be though of as not being busy.

    • I don’t get this though. If you organize things as you go, it’s easier to find things so you can bill more of your time

  11. Thoughts on Bikram yoga? I’m not the greatest yogi at all, but there’s a living social deal I’m tempted to try. Love or hate or indifferent or reasons to avoid bikram? The thought of 100 degrees and yoga boggles my mind.

    • I’ve done hot yoga (not specifically Bikram) and really enjoy it. If you can embrace the sweating and not be bothered by it, you will probably like it. I feel like I can get better stretches and I just like sweating without apology in that setting.
      I’ve read that it helps you become a better runner in the heat (I run). I believe that because typically when you walk outside on a super hot day, you start to get a bit panicky b/c its so hot (particularly if you’re going to do something active). With the hot yoga background, I stayed calm and didn’t really get bothered by being dripping wet.

      • That’s funny, re the panicky-bc-it’s-hot thing. I do always tell my yankee friends complaining about the summer heat to just accept it. I swear it makes the heat much more pleasant.

    • Love bikram! The first session is tough, but its addictive. I find this especially true about type-A overachieving types. Drink lots of water a couple of days before your first class.

    • The NYT had an article about the dangers of bikram yoga, which suggested the practice can lead to damaged and scarred muscle tissue and knees.

      • Anonymous :

        Link please? Would love to read.

        • Worth a try but I would suggest checking out that article (which I have not read) and also asking if the studio’s floor is carpeted or wood. It gets so hot people sweat buckets and sweat stains on carpet are a major deterrent for me.

          • Yes – I was so excited to try it, and really enjoyed the practice, but the studio where I attended was so stinky it distracted me from my practice. It was like the worst high school boys football locker roomX10. I emailed Groupon and got my money back because there was no way I was going back there 19 more times.
            If there was a different studio near me that did not have carpet, I would definitely do it.

          • Wow. It would not even cross my mind that a yoga studio would be carpeted, so it is not something I would ask! Thanks for the warning.

      • I found this article.

        A few thoughts on it. Bikram is like everything else: you have to listen and pay attention to your body. There are several poses where I’m always very careful because they involve stress on the knees, and that’s a place I’ve had trouble before. In several years of constant yoga practice, I never injured myself.

        If you’re the type that would injure yourself lifting weights, running, etc. because you’re overzealous and don’t stop when your body says stop… well, then guess what? You might injure yourself doing yoga, too.

        • I think the issue with Bikram is that the heat tends to make it harder for people to know their flexibility limits. I think for most people who practice yoga regularly and then go into Bikram or other hot yogas, it’s not a big issue because they already know their strengths and weaknesses. Someone who starts out in Bikram is less likely to know her limits and may end up going to far due to the hot temperatures.

          And to Herbie below- sometimes it’s not just “freaking out” that will cause problems. Hot temperatures aren’t safe for everyone. I know I tend to get dizzy/lightheaded easily and really can’t handle hot yoga because I’ll pass out.

    • I love Bikram. Just make it through your first class (it feels like an eternity). Take rests when needed. Drink lots of water before class. Don’t be afraid to sit. Don’t let the heat freak you out – you’ll be fine.

      I’d never set foot in a yoga studio before Bikram. Although the first class kicked my a$$, I loved it.

      • Bikram Teacher and Law Student :

        I’ve been practicing Bikram for eight years and teaching for two. I have never seen or heard of anyone getting hurt as long as they were exactly following the directions of the teacher. The practice is very specific and very safe when practiced correctly. Unfortunately I frequently see people trying to modify the poses around their weak areas or just try to do what they think is the more “advanced” way of doing something before they master the basics. Then those same people come in complaining of injuries. All the postures are made with beginners in mind and you should not change them but if you need to not go into it as far, or back off no problem.

        It’s very hot, some studios more than others. It is not unusual to feel a little icky/dizzy/nauseous your first class. Most of us walk around very dehydrated, many of us overly caffeinated and poorly nourished. If you had three cups of coffee or only three cups of water or ate a big burrito for lunch you are not going to feel fantastic when you get into the heat. You will learn quickly that if you treat your body well outside the room you will feel much better inside the room. It’s great for becoming aware of your other health choices during the day.

        Take it easy your first class, and if you don’t feel love it the first time come back the next day anyway. You don’t know how many people I’ve heard say they made up their mind in the middle of the first class never to return, someone convinced them to come back and now they go almost every day. I have found it to be life changing for both the way my body feels and my mental focus and stamina.

        As for the carpet, its required by the Bikram franchise. It has to do with the fact you have to step off your mat for three postures and you don’t want to be slipping. Furthermore pools of sweat on a wooden floor sounds like a case for 1L torts class. Not safe. Although, I can say some studios are much better than others as far as managing the cleaning/scenting of the carpets. Really though, it’s just sweat. It’s not going to kill you and probably not worse than what you are sitting on when you lift weights or ride the bike at the gym.

        Oh and also a word on the teachers. Bikram teachers are not quite what you think of when you think typical yoga teacher. We are trained to be strict with our students, to teach discipline and to push when it’s appropriate. You grow when you get to your edge. We are also worried about your safety so if you get corrected it’s not because the teacher wants to control you, or anything personal. It’s that we’ve taken hundreds if not thousands of classes and watched hundreds if not thousands of bodies in the postures. Normally, the teacher knows what works but might not have time to explain it. Trust her/him and if you don’t understand why they told you to do X talk to them about it after class. They should be happy to explain.

        Buy the living social deal. What the worst thing that happens? You do some yoga and you don’t love it. At least you tried something new. Best thing that happens, you love it and it transforms your life. I know that sounds a little dramatic and corny but I have heard it come out of the mouths of so many people that I would say it’s worth a shot. Maybe it’s for you and maybe it’s not. You’ll never know unless you try.

        -sigh- Can we tell I’m procrastinating writing this paper? Hope that was at least helpful.

  12. I just did a straightening up of my desk because of this post. My desk is on the
    clean side for my office. I have several piles of paper but it is information that I readily access at times. If I find I don’t need it any longer – or haven’t accessed it in a while – then it gets filed.

    I do keep knick knacks and personal stuff on my desk as well (a few pictures, business cards, lotion, pen cup, business card holder, etc). My window sill is an extension of the desk, so it usually holds those items.

  13. Equity's Darling :

    I’m on board with the organized stacks of paper. That’s how I operate. When I go away for the week, I just put a sticky with the file name on top of each stack, so if my assistant is looking for something, it’s easy for her to find. And I can find everything within 2minutes, so I’m fine.

    I feel like when I file things away, I forget about them. Seriously, if it’s not on my desk, I don’t make progress on it. Maybe that’s a different problem that I need to attend to though…

    I find the tax lawyers are the worst, their offices are always out of control. At least at my firm. The cleanest…probably banking.

  14. Gooseberry :

    I’m sure this has been covered here a million times (especially if this exact post has already been done, as some are remembering), BUT does anyone have any advice for those of us who are not naturally organized? It’s not in my nature to be organized (my thoughts, closet and desk are all a scattered mess), but I do follow rules and systems pretty well. So, if anyone has found a system that works, I’d LOVE to hear it!

    • Haha- I am with you there. I have tried tons of organization strategies but never end up keeping up with them. I have a really good memory for dates and appointments, and I usually find what I need within a few minutes even though I am not the most organized. I had trouble outlining in law school as well because I just don’t think like that.

    • I am looking forward to the answers as well. I have organization challenges, and when sorting through objects, there is ALWAYS a miscellaneous category I don’t know what to do with.

      • Put the miscellaneous things in a “misc” folder. Ta da!

        Seriously, the best thing is to have an admin or similar who is organized and be willing to follow their system. Organization systems have to be flexible and the best ones are tailor-made. If you adopt a system from the internet or whatever you may find it doesn’t work for you in 6 months.

        If you have any power over hiring, consider looking for someone with a library background. It’s all about organization.

    • This book has some tips:

      The biggest thing for me is to make sure I have a file for everything. I have case files in one drawer. Those will probably be created by your office. But you can make your own topic files (like, “Ethics CLEs”, “Search and Seizure Checklists”, whatever your practice area is) in another drawer. Then I have my business files (“Business license”, “Credit card processing”, billing procedures, etc.) in another drawer. Having files is huge, because that creates a place for things to go.

    • FWIW, I live and die by lists – usually on the first page of my notepad. I’m a litigator, so this might not work in other fields/practice areas, but I’ve developed an organizational system over the past 15 years that seems to work pretty well for me. I have a notebook with color-coded tabs for every open case I work on (currently around 20 – I do a mix of IP, employment, and commercial lit). Behind each tab is the current scheduling order, judge’s rules (if applicable), and then all of my attorney notes and scribbles – which I date/time stamp on the top. Then when I’m working on a brief or prepping for a deposition, everything goes in a notebook with the label color-coded to match the same color from the notes notebook. I’m a little OCD with color-coding, but I’m a visual person, so it helps me find things easily – especially when a client calls and wants an immediate update. I’ve converted several people in the office to varying degrees – it’s a PITA to initially set up, but it’s super easy to maintain once you get in the habit.

  15. I used to work with a partner who had the proverbial spotless desk. The only thing on his desk at any particular moment in time was the particular document he was working on at that moment. He had gorgeous artwork on his walls and perfectly filed binders of precedent materials on his shelves.

    I aspire to be like that, but the contrast between my office and his is….well…tragic. My usual MO is paper scattered everywhere, but I do know where everything is. I have managed a clean desk in the past when I was seconded to a client that had a clean desk policy, but that required a massive amount of effort. And yet….I know I could do it again if I really tried – I just need the motivation!

    • yikes, what is a “clean desk policy”? The client cared how your desk looked?

      • Woods-comma-Elle :

        Usually banks etc. have a clean desk policy where at the end of the day you’re not allowed to leave anything on your desk. Especially at banks and some law firms this is justified on the basis that confidential documents cannot be left lying around.

        • In this case, we were not allowed to leave anything, confidential or not – the only things allowed on the desk at the end of the day were our telephones. This was an open-plan office and there were a lot of VIPs walking through all the time so the execs were very hung up on image. For most of the employees it was not a big deal. For me, as a lawyer who deals in lots of contracts, corporate documents, reference texts, etc., it was agonizing.

        • I started my career (pre-law school) at a bank, so the lack of a clean desk policy at the law firms/corporate legal departments that I’ve worked at was shocking to me at first! I should hope you can trust your colleagues, but what about the cleaning people? Any office visitors? It always amazes me what people leave on their desks, especially in cubicle situations.

  16. Rachel Roy :

    Anyone have this Rachel Roy dress? Just bought it and it looks beautiful, but I’ve never bought this brand before:

    • Seattleite :

      I like it, but I also find myself thinking of it as the mullet of dresses – business in the front, party in the back. My own particular MANAGEING PARTNER would never let me live the ‘wings’ down.

  17. My office is messy, but no one is paying for me to be a cleaner. I have so much work to do that I do not have time to clean. Once in a while, I do, but not usually. My home is also kind of a mess, except when Larry comes over. I then clean it up because I want him to think I am clean and neat. His mother is very neat and I hope I will become engaged to Larry this Christmas.

  18. It’s a delicate balance between looking unprofessional vs. having no life outside of work; being organized vs. not having enough to do. I display a few family photos and always have some current projects’ file folders laying around, and I make sure to have art on the walls and an interesting lamp to provide a welcoming atmosphere without too many personal touches.

  19. I’d describe my desk/office as “lived in but relatively tidy.” I have all the personal stuff – framed photo, lotion, tissue box, mug of pens, etc. – all in one area, and the rest usually has a couple of piles of things. So it’s not immaculate (it does kind of creep me out when there’s just nothing), but it’s fairly neat and I can always tell when things have been moved. If I’m going on vacation, though, I would put my piles on the bookshelf or under the desk for the more pristine look.

    I give myself permission to judge someone’s clutter once I begin to question the space’s level of sanitation. There’s no one tip-off for that, but just an overall sense of how feasible it is that things in that space ever get moved. There’s someone where I work who doesn’t have a huge ton of clutter, but the sense you get walking in her office is that she’s just not very attentive and the stuff in her office just sits. I don’t mind clutter, but it’s not okay if I’m afraid I’ll catch something if I stop by for a chat.

    • Years ago I sat in a cube next to someone who would leave used oatmeal bowls and teacups on her desk. Sometimes for days.

      Needless to say, when she would bring in homemade goods for birthdays or anything else like that, I would always pass. I can’t even imagine how gross her kitchen must be. It still makes me shiver just thinking about it.

    • I don’t think it necessarily follows that her kitchen must be gross. I tend to wash dishes at home every day… but at work, I get busy with other things.

      Like Eileen/Ellen said, I’m not paid to be a dishwasher.

  20. Stark barren desk lovers, come here!

    I worked for a partner once who would lose MSJs in his waist high piles of paper and find them the day before they were due.

    I have a brief I am editing on my desk, and a water bottle, and an apple. Stacks of paper give me the heebies.