mess.jpgThere’s an article in the Wall Street Journal today about the former CEO of Olympus Corp., Michael C. Woodford, and how he was a big neat freak when it came to his employees.

When he was at Olympus, according to the story, “Woodford laid down the law about what personal items employees could keep on their desks—nothing but photos of family members and pets, as well as children’s drawings.”

This got me thinking of a guy I worked with at a newspaper in Florida who’s desk was considered a fire hazard. It was piled high with folders, paper, food, and lots of missing items from around the office, like the tape recorder I lent him which he was unable to find.

Despite all this, he was one of the best reporters in the newsroom, thorough and always on top of his beat. What if someone like Woodford decided to make him organize his space? Turns out, it wouldn’t be a good thing.

I recently came across some research by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, the authors of “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder - How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place,” and it gives props to the messy among us and a thumbs down to all the anti-mess hype out there.

Here are some excerpts from their book:

The message that we’re not orderly enough is all around us. It has become a staple of television news, newsmagazines, and talk shows, form Oprah – who has outed unsuspecting people as messy in front of millions of viewers – to Today, which has had guests advice viewers on “systematizing your spousal relationship.”

Being neat and organized, after all, isn’t just about getting rid of physical mess, its about being systematic and consistent, following a scheme, and imposing the right processes, whether filing papers at the office or dealing with loved ones.

Businesses and other institutions, of course, are supposed to be epicenters of order – it’s not a coincidence that we call them organizations. But by their own reckoning, a significant percentage of them are never quite organized enough or are misorganized – or so we might assume when trying to make sense of the fact that, according to Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, U.S. businesses spend more than $45 billion each year on management consultants.

The authors argue that mess and disorder can actually be “less harmful than they are usually made out to be” and can even be “useful, and even necessary” in some situations.

I have to admit, I fell for all the anti-clutter voices out there and actually had a professional organizer come to my home office and organize more. Here’s a link to my experience. I’m not sure it changed the way I work, but it did make my hubby happy. We share an office and he was convinced my mess was impacting his productivity; and he was sure it was impacting mine as well.

Indeed, as with so many things in life, perceptions can doom a messy employee.

According to a survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam of human resources managers,

the appearance of an employee’s desk at least somewhat affects their perception of that person’s professionalism.

HR managers were asked, “How does the neatness of an employee’s desk or office affect your perception of that person’s level of professionalism?”

Their responses:

Greatly affects it…………………………………… 18%
Somewhat affects it………………………………. 65%
Does not affect it at all……………………………… 17%

“A tidy desk won’t necessarily boost your career, but a messy one can leave a bad impression on colleagues,” said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam.

If you’re worried about how your clutter is perceived, OfficeTeam offered some tips from the International Association of Administrative Professionals:

* Sit in your visitor chair to get a perspective on what others see when entering your cubicle or office. Clean your workspace so it’s visually appealing not only to you but also to your guests.
* From the start, establish an organization system that suits your style. You can always rearrange items later, but this will prevent things from getting out of hand early on.
* File, don’t pile. Eliminate clutter by organizing paperwork in vertical or tickler files. Clearly label or color-code documents so you can find them more easily.
* Don’t touch the same piece of paper more than once without filing, recycling or tossing it, or passing it along to the next person.
* Keep only the materials needed for your current project on your desk, and clear these items after the assignment is completed. Store supplies you need close at hand, and move things that are used less frequently out of the way.
* Print documents only when necessary and go paperless. Electronic calendars, task lists or e-mail alerts can help you remember deadlines, appointments and meetings.
* Take a few minutes before lunch and again just before leaving the office to clear your workspace. At the end of each day, prioritize the tasks on your to-do list so you can hit the ground running the next morning.

Or just leave well enough alone and go home early.

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