The environment you work in can have a big impact on your productivity and creativity. The bearing has been the centre of studies and as a result, organizations are paying more attention to the way office spaces are created and kept.

How a Clean-Desk Policy Drives Productivity and Creativity

© pixabay | theglassdesk

One of the popular policies in the field is the clean-desk policy. We’ll explain what the policy is and look at the benefits it can have for productivity and creativity. We’ll also explore the counter-arguments and consider whether your personality is a bigger factor in whether you’d benefit from a clean desk.


Before we start exploring the benefits of a clean-desk policy, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves what the policy is all about.

A clean-desk policy (CDP) refers to a set of corporate rules determining how employees should leave their working space after the workday is over. The policy requirements generally call for the employee to clear the desk and surrounding area at the end of the day from clutter and papers.

This can mean shredding unwanted documents or filing them away from view, placing folders back on the cabinets and organizing any incoming and outgoing letters to appropriate piles.

While a clean-desk policy is often used for creating a tidier workspace and a visually more pleasing view, CDPs are increasingly connected to data security as well. By ensuring all files are placed in folders and sensitive information is not in view, organizations can control the people who see the information and make it harder for it to be stolen. Modern CDPs are often motivated by specific security compliance regulations, such as the Data Protection Act in the UK.

Although the policy and its implementation are specific to the organization, certain common elements can be found in a CDP. The three core elements are:

  • Instructions on how the desk and its surrounding area should be left.
  • Outlined information on who enforces the policy and who checks the policy is being adhered to.
  • Guidance on the punishment, which generally ranges from a fine to a warning.

When an organization decides to implement the policy, it creates a contract with clear instructions regarding the above points. Each employee then signs the contract. This ensures accountability and guarantees everyone understands the policy.

I found this new office design and desk setup of Justin Tse very neat and beautiful.


You can find CDP templates online. For instance, check out the below document template, which can be downloaded from the Privacy Sense website.

It’s important to note that while the majority of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the employee, the employer has to ensure it makes implementation easy. This could range from guaranteeing access to a shredder and providing adequate storage space for the employees.

Clean-desk policies come with a range of benefits and in this guide, we’ll be carefully examining its impact on productivity and creativity. But the policy can also benefit an organization through reductions in costs, enhanced security and compliance. It also helps the office to become a paperless office, which can benefit the green credentials of the organization.


Does a clean-desk policy improve productivity and creativity in an organization? If so, how can it do this?

#1 Boost to productivity

The benefits to productivity are often cited as the major factor behind the implementation of a clean-desk policy. A good CDP can support employee productivity in a number of different ways.

Digitalization of the workplace

First, as mentioned above, clean-desk policies can push the organization towards greater digitalization and a paperless office environment. This can benefit employee productivity because it improves efficiency.

When data is stored digitally, it means it’s properly indexed in terms of keywords and content. When the employee needs to find information relating to a specific topic, it’s much easier to just use appropriate keywords and find all relevant documents at once. You can generally access vast amounts of information within a few seconds and you don’t need to leave the desk.

On the other hand, if you have everything stored in a paper format, the search process itself becomes a task. The files might be stored elsewhere, which means the employee has to leave the desk and walk to the storage room. Indexing documents is another laborious and difficult thing, meaning the employee will likely waste much more of their time finding exactly what they need.

Depending on the files and the organization’s security policies, digitalized data can be accessed outside of the office as well. In these instances, allowing the employee to occasionally work from home might further enhance productivity. On the other hand, having employees take paper files home can breach security rules.

While digitalization of data and paperless office are not requirements of a CDP, they are generally tied closely to the policy implementation and therefore, the benefits are shared.

See how clean the working environment is at Buffer.

[slideshare id=40941030&doc=workspacesofbuffer2-141030175954-conversion-gate01&w=710&h=400]


Communal workspaces

Another consequence of a CDP is the creation of “hot-desking”. This is the practice of having no designated workspaces or desks, but instead employees use communal computers and desks. It’s a popular policy, which is thought to reduce company’s costs by around 30%.

Hot-desking can boost productivity, because it makes completing work easier. Instead of having to wait until you get to your workplace, you can finish a specific task from anywhere in the office whenever you have an idea.

It can also decrease procrastination, as you will take the specific desk when you have work to do, not wanting to sit there doing nothing. It can be more motivational, as other employees hard at work surround you and provide you with that extra boost.

Reduced stress and time wasting

Finally, a clean-desk police can boost productivity by reducing stress and time wasting. Research has indicated a correlation between productivity and clutter. By reducing clutter with the DCP, you can drive up productivity.

First, clutter can increase stress levels. If you constantly have to look for items, you can become more stressed. If those important papers are evading you, then your heart rate can increase. This in turn has been shown to reduce your concentration and it can further damage your ability to think clearly.

The National Association of Professional Organisations found executives to lose one hour of productivity a day due to missing information. If you consider that people across the organization suffer from similar issues, the loss in productivity can have damaging consequences for the organization.

Furthermore, clutter increases time wasting, which naturally decreases productivity. In the study by the National Association of Professional Organisations, the researchers found that an average employee wastes 4.3 hours every week looking for items. When the desk is full of papers and files, finding the right document becomes that much harder.

The time wasting can mean you aren’t able to perform tasks on time and instead of serving customers, you are just ploughing through paperwork. The drop in your ability to perform your work correctly and efficiently can be detrimental for the company’s sales figures or profits in general.

#2 Boost to creativity

A clean-desk policy can also enhance your creativity levels in a number of ways.

Increase collaboration

As mentioned above, a CDP often comes together with hot-desking. When employees are hot-desking, they also tend to collaborate more. This is down to not having assigned workspaces and thus you won’t be drawn to just stay at your desk all day long. Instead, you are likely to walk around more and communicate with different people.

See why open innovation and collaboration are so important for businesses today.


Improved focus on the task

Studies have shown how solving difficult tasks gets easier when you have a clean-desk in front of you. This is driven by the fact that you are better able to concentrate on the issue at hand when the surroundings aren’t cluttered.

A cluttered desk can also make the mind seem “more cluttered” and thus make problem solving difficult. If you are sitting at a desk, which is cluttered, your mind will find it harder to focus on a single issue, as you are visually bombarded with different cues. When you have a clean desk, your mind is clearer and more focused on solving the task in front of you.

In one particular study, researchers asked participants to solve a puzzle in a cluttered and a clean environment. The people solving it in a cleaner environment were able to get the job done quicker. For the scientist this indicated that the messy environment “threatened participants’ sense of personal control”. The scientists went on to say, “Coping with that threat from the physical environment caused a depletion of their mental resources.”

More time for creativity

You can also boost creativity with a CDP because you are able to spend more time in thinking about creative solutions rather than finding the required documentation. As mentioned above, a cluttered table can mean you spend more of your time searching for the right files, instead of working.

When you free up this time by having digitalized data storage and a clean-desk, you’ll be able to use the ‘extra’ time on being creative.


But not everyone is convinced about the benefits of implementing a clean-desk policy in terms of its impact on productivity and creativity. More specifically, research suggests a messy desk might provide certain advantages for creative behavior. The counter arguments on productivity, on the other hand, are less clear.

Perhaps one of the most quoted sentences in favor of a messy desk came from Albert Einstein. Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”

Opponents of the CDP got some more fuel for their fire in a landmark study in 2013. According to the scientist, people who were sitting next to a cluttered, messy desk were more innovative and creative. The task the scientist set them involved a Ping-Pong ball and the participants were tested in a tidy environment and a messy environment, with the aim of coming up as many uses for the ball as possible.

According to the study, a clean desk can drive people to be more conservative and safe in their approach. When you are surrounded by such a sterile and organized environment, you aren’t as imaginative and experimental – you stick to what you know.

Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” Kathleen Vohs, psychological scientist and the author of the study, concluded.

Furthermore, in another study, scientists found an association with messiness and creativeness in babies. Babies, who were able to make more mess, were also learning faster. The argument of the study was that the baby’s ability to test and see what happens (i.e. creating mess), helped them to make more sense of surroundings

A clean desk policy can therefore be less efficient in fostering creativity, as people are less likely to take risks in thinking or try new ideas.

Whilst clean-desk policy doesn’t require hot-desking, the two are often implemented together. Furthermore, a CDP often limits the employee’s capacity to personalize the workspace, as plants and photos are not considered necessary.

But the loss of the personalized workspace has been critiqued by studies. A study by psychological scientists Gregory A Laurence, Yitzhak Fried and Linda H. Slowik found that the lack of privacy can cause more stress and this could distract the employee from the task.

The researchers concluded “individuals may consciously or subconsciously take comfort from the items with which they surround themselves at work, and these items may help employees to maintain emotional energy in the face of the stresses that come from their work”.


Nonetheless, while a messy desk might not be as detrimental as previously thought, especially in terms of innovation and creativity, it doesn’t mean you should go and mess up your table. The overall benefits of a clean desk can trump the small boost in innovation.

The studies above have shown a messy desk can increase stress levels and have other detrimental consequences for an organization, including things such as data loss or theft. The boost in productivity from a clean-desk policy is unrivalled and it can benefit an employee’s ability to do tasks.

In addition, a messy desk isn’t the only way you could boost creativity. Research has identified plenty of other ways innovation and imagination can be enhanced. These include:

  • Colors have the ability to boost mood and improve creativity. You could use this knowledge when designing the office furniture and décor.
  • The ability to collaborate with others can help make innovation easier. Communal workspaces are important and team-building activities across the organization can boost mood.
  • The ability to ‘change the scene’ has been shown to improve creativity. If employees are able to spend time away outside of the office environment, they can be more creative. You should encourage lunch breaks outdoors, for example, and even consider flexible office hours that allow employees to occasionally work from home or even a nearby coffee shop!

The below clip by Entrepreneur is a great way to learn more about how different elements in an office can spark creativity.


Furthermore, the rewards of a messy desk can depend highly on the employee’s personality. Functionalife website introduced Core Motivator groups, which can decide whether a messy desk would turn you into an Albert Einstein or not. According to the idea, Core Motivator groups divide people to:

  • Task or people driven
  • Reserved or outgoing

If you are task driven and outgoing, you are more likely to benefit from a messy desk. This is because the mess doesn’t affect your ability to focus on tasks, and your outgoing nature means you aren’t held back by the mess, but can move forward despite it.

More importantly, the site suggests, “a messy desk won’t trigger creativeness, a messy desk is a byproduct of someone who could be considered creative”.

Therefore, creativity is a complex issue that might not solely depend on a single thing such as clean or a messy desk. It can be more about your personality and your ability to adjust to your surroundings rather than something that’s boosted by either clarity or distraction.


A clean-desk policy has become a popular directive to implement. Big organizations are using it and the benefits range from cost effectiveness to improvement in creativity. While the benefits to productivity are almost unparalleled, the positive impact on creativity tends to be a bit more complicated. It’s not to say that a clean-desk policy wouldn’t improve creativity, but that certain individuals might also find a less controlled workspace more beneficial in terms of innovation.

It is therefore a good idea to consider carefully the way your organization might implement a CDP. You definitely should talk about the benefits and disadvantages, together with the workforce and perhaps consider implementing the policy a bit by bit.

Overall, if your organization wants to improve profits and safety, then a clean-desk policy is likely the answer to your calls. It will help boost productivity, but ensure you keep an eye on its impact on the creative geniuses of your organization.

Image credit: pixabay | theglassdesk under CC0 Public Domain.

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