Do you need to declutter your desk?

04 September 2015 -


The rise of technology has made minimalist workplaces a possibility, here’s how to make it a reality and boost your performance

Will Dean

Right now, at home, I’ve got my office down to a lamp, an iMac, an iPhone and – currently – a few copies of Bon Appetit from which I’ve been meaning to tear out recipes and chuck out.

It’s an agreeable arrangement. The computer has no tower, plus a wireless trackpad and keyboard which can be stashed in a drawer. The phone follows me around, so it’s often just the monitor and the lamp – minimalism of which Steve Jobs would be proud.

Actually... a 2004 picture of Jobs’ home office by Time photographer Diana Walker reveals a reassuringly human level of desk mess. But with the way Jobs’ Apple and the other big hardware firms have reduced the amount of stuff we need to operate at work, we’ve got no excuse for mess.

My iPhone alone has reduced my need to own, let alone lug around, the following items (deep breath): a beeper; a diary; a BlackBerry; photos of my family; a camera; a video recorder; a watch; a to-do list; my newspaper and magazine subscriptions; a map; a music player; a chequebook; a Dictaphone; a calculator; a book; a radio; a torch... you get the picture.

Technology in the 21st century has given us an involuntary cull of the stuff we no longer need. We’ve got no reason to be weighed down by not just hardware, but paperwork, files and records.

Tidy desk, tidy mind

So does that matter? Well, yes, it possibly does.

At least that was the conclusion of business students Boyoun Chae and Rui Zhu who put messiness to the test in a series of recent experiments.

They took 100 students and put them in front of either a messy desk or a tidy one. They then asked the students to complete an unsolvable puzzle. Those who sat at the neat desk persisted with the puzzle almost 1.5 times longer than the others.

You can imagine why.

It’s certainly easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re surrounded by stuff. My desk at work is the opposite of my home office. It’s full of old magazines, books and notepads. All kept with noble intent, but pretty much without exception, it’s stuff that’s already been archived digitally (and obviously easier to explore in that form). And if it isn’t archived, a few hours’ work could easily transfer the information I need to my personal cloud or the office network.

And, really, how much are you going to use those old files?

Consultant Ron Ashkenas has written that he has a ten-year rule for getting rid of physical data: “If I haven’t looked at this material in the past ten years, then I probably won’t need it for the next ten years,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

I’d probably say more like six months, but that really depends upon your field. Generally, if something is vital to an organisation, it’s unlikely not to have been archived properly by someone paid to do so.


So how do you stop your office from accumulating clutter in the first place? And what role can technology play?

Some offices, particularly in new media, have eschewed the idea of individual employees having their own set desk, where personal clutter can accrue like pension contributions. If you’ve seen House of Cards, you’ll note the difference between the desktop PCs and paper-stacked world of the fictional Washington Herald and the upstart blog Slugline, where Zoe Barnes files posts on a laptop while perched on a beanbag.

For many businesses in Silicon Valley, the idea of employees trudging towards set desks every morning is almost anathema.

As a result, desks don’t become messy home-from-homes for staff members. At least that’s the idea.

Place of work

Technological change has been the catalyst in giving staff in many fields the ability to work from wherever suits them, whether that’s hotdesking or working from home.

Sometimes that’s as easy as taking files home to work on, but now it’s also easy for employees to log on to servers, and check into meetings or chats on Skype or instant messenger (like a customised, secure version of Gmail’s instant messenger, see reviews). Workplaces then save costs on wasted floorspace.

So, no clutter, no staff. Who needs an office at all? Well, most workplaces, I think.

Allowing employees to work flexibly has many advantages when it comes to cutting the crap. But often more for the employee than the employer.

One of Marissa Mayer’s first acts when she took over at Yahoo was to stop people from working at home. As her head of HR said in an all-staff email: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

I’m not sure about the latter point. When I work at home, I often feel more responsibility to write more quickly in order to let people in the office know I’m not slobbing out. But the first is true. The beauty of t he workplace is the meeting of minds, and the joy of management is directing those processes.

Something that’s much harder to do without physical proximity.

So better to control the clutter, but have staff on hand (at least for some of the week). With that in mind, here’s my manifesto for decluttering:

1. Get rid of all the office technology that isn’t used (bye-bye fax machine).

2. Digitise anything you need that isn’t already – then get rid.

3. Make it easy for staff to move around and work in different areas of your workspace.

4. Keep those desks tidy!

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