The Messy Office

messy-officeHow 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?

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. I would say I generally work in controlled chaos. Things get messier as I get busy and time goes on, and every few weeks I get in a mood where I just cannot seem to focus…every time I try to sit down and work, I just feel anxious and overwhelmed…it’s a specific feeling that I only get when the state of my office has crossed some invisible line to intolerable, and everything around me has just gotten to be too messy, so I end up having to drop what I am doing finally and spend an hour or so cleaning up, sometimes more if it’s bad enough. After that the productivity commences again, for another couple of weeks…

  2. My office gets to a certain level of messiness, then I have to spend a couple of hours filing things and tidying up. (No administrative assistant here.)

    I work with data and reports and publications, and it just not all paperless yet, though I hope someday it will be.

    I once had a manager who ragged on his staff members, including me, about our messy cubicles. We underlings all agreed among ourselves that his office was tidy because he didn’t do anything – we did it all for him. I believe we were right.

  3. LinLondon :

    I’m a complete slob (messy, not dirty) everywhere – at home and at work. I should really work on it, I have a messy desk, I’ve got about 5 pairs of shoes under my desk, a whole other shopping bag full of shoes next to it, three boxes of stuff plus two large bins of stuff on the windowsill behind me. I love the look of tidy things, I just hate tidying them. Sigh.

    • I’m starting to wonder if you are someone I actually worked with in London. You sound awfully similar….Do you work in a Magic Circle firm?

  4. Paper Tiger :

    RANT: This has always been a pet peeve of mine. Why are we so concerned with the appearance of someone’s office, and less concered with the quality of their work? I’ve worked with people who are slobs on the surface, but could find anything in a heartbeat and were on top of their work. I’ve also worked with people with “organized” office who couldn’t meet a deadline to save their life. When I worked at a BIG LAW firm, I heard more comments on the state of my office (“don’t keep your desk too clean; it will look like you don’t have enough to do”) then I did about the work I completed!

    Sorry, but I feel better now!

  5. My home used to be messy but clean and my office messy but functional. Then I moved a few times and had a kid. The house now gets so messy it can’t be cleaned without picking up (doesn’t always happen soon enough), and the offices got successively messier as I schlepped along a box or two from each–the last bits & dregs of moving–that never quite got unpacked or the stuff integrated into my office.

    I work from home now, recently had a cleaner “straighten up” my desk by combining stacks of papers and putting things where she thought they should go. I’m still dumbfounded, can’t figure out how to respond to her asking if I want her to come clean again. I’ve just been ignoring them, but feel I should find some way to tell her so she doesn’t work herself out of an occupation that way.

  6. I think it crosses the line if other people feel uncomfortable coming in to see you. Maybe that means it is dark or there’s leftover food/cups around. Maybe because it is more trashy looking than cluttered. Whatever it is, it’s over the line if people feel like they are invading your space. To me, it’s the same as having a visitor in your house.

  7. Consulting :

    to the person who asked about organizing – I read Getting Things Done and it saved my sanity after I had my children and the sleep deprivation was killing my memory. I implement it in my own way, but follow a lot of his advice.

  8. You’ve Let it slide too far if you have food rotting/smells emanating from your desk.

    I’m an academic, so I have quite a few little paper piles, but I get quite a kick out of throwing stuff away, so it never really gets out of control. My colleagues are about the same, with a few glaring exceptions. Prank time! ;-)

  9. I have heard of lawyers losing potential clients because of messy looking offices. I believe I have lost a couple of potential clients in past years for this very reason.

    I think clients deserve to know that their work will be filed in a good file cabinet at the end of the day.

    Lately I keep the office very neat. It is just as easy. The “paperless office” is an impossibility, the neat office is possible, do-able, very pretty and very efficient. When you have old files in boxes, it is important to move them quickly into storage. You must have enough file cabinets for current work. You must have vertical stands for to-be-filed folders. No piece of paper should be astray without its companions.

    Here’s a goal – at lease 50% of the desktop should be visible at all times!

    Nothing confidential should be visible, except when that client is in the office.

    It’s also nice to have clean, well organized desk drawers.

    • Equity's Darling :

      Clients do not see the offices at our firm. We have boardrooms for a reason. Thankfully :)

  10. An office is too messy when there is food in there… Plater, unfinished meal, snacks around… That’s my line. Otherwise, I think it’s hard to be too messy.

  11. Personally – I care less about a person’s office space, and more about their ability to file and handle electronic data/email storage. I can’t tell you how unprofessional it is to watch someone sort through random folders on their (computer) desktop, send you wrong versions of a document, or (worse!) fail to have any sort of filing system for their Outlook emails. Relying too much on the ‘search’ function is a recipe for disaster. To not be able to track down someone’s email/document because of poor filing habits is much more unprofessional than having a cluttered office. (IMHO) ;)

  12. I loved this article… indeed its kaftan awesome… keep posting such stuff

  13. I try to keep my office neat enough that someone else can find a file if they need it. That happens frequently at my workplace, and that’s one of the reasons that I keep client files stacked on the credenza or bookcase. At other places, I’ve seen lawyers keep files stacked on the floor, which I think is totally inappropriate, since those files do not belong to me, but to the client.

  14. lawpryncess :

    I am having serious jealousy issues right now over having an office with a door. I work in the misdemeanor division of my county prosecutor’s office and since we have more attorneys in my division than any other, we have cubicles. Mine is decorated such that most people would think a pre-teen inhabits it. No one from the outside sees our spaces so I can get away with having a Harry Potter poster, a Twilight poster, lots of stuffed Eeyores, and tons of Vegas stuff in my area. Don’t be too judgy, these things all make me exceedingly happy and dealing with domestic violence and DWI cases everyday can be a real downer. I have lots of pi three of friends and family displayed, as well as many gifts and thank you letters and cards from victims as well.

    My desktop is always covered in files (my division handles 15,000 cases a year) and case law, but its not dirty. I try to go through it weekly and make sure it isn’t so messy that no one can find anything. About once a quarter I do manage to see all of my desktop surface. I love those times, however short lived they end up being.

    • lawpryncess :

      I really dislike auto-correct. The last sentence of the first paragraph should read: I have lots of pictures of friends and family…

      My apologies ladies.

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