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Is a messy desk a sign of creativity, or a cry for organizational help?
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If you're reading this at work or, because you've taken my advice and have a flexible schedule, your home office take a quick look at your desk.

(Don't worry. I promise I won't tell your boss you were reading my column while on the job.)

What do you see in front of you, other than a computer screen?

I'm writing this at my kitchen table at home, so I see a bag of chips, a vase full of lavender roses (given by me to my wife yeah, I'm an outstanding husband), some newspapers and magazines and, strangely, a bottle of Windex.

If I were at work, however, my view would be quite different. In addition to my computer monitor, keyboard and mouse, I would see a Darth Vader bobblehead and accompanying Darth Vader Lego key chain, as well as a variety of stress balls, several signs and magnets extolling the virtues of bacon, a handful of desktop games, some Angry Birds stuffed animals, two cups filled with pens and pencils, a few paperclips, some loose change for the vending machines and a bunch of photos of my wife, children and other family members.

That sounds like a lot, but I've got quite a bit of desk acreage in my cubicle, so it's all neatly arranged, leaving plenty of working space.

What I wouldn't see on my desk are piles of papers, folders and books that I haven't opened in months. I'm a bit of a neat freak when it comes to my workspace, so there's generally a place for everything, and everything is in its place.

However, I know not everyone believes that desk cleanliness is next to work godliness. I've had several bosses and co-workers who kept so many papers, food wrappers, cups, pens and other items on their desks that they needed a backhoe to clear room to work.

That would drive me nuts, but it never seemed to bother them.

I thought of those folks when I saw the results of a new survey from OfficeTeam, a staffing service that specializes in the placement of administrative professionals.

OfficeTeam had an independent research firm conduct telephone interviews with more than 300 U.S. human resources managers, asking them how they perceived workers who had messy desks. I thought the results were interesting.

Nine percent of respondents said it was fine to have a messy desk, going so far as to indicate that a workspace covered with junk was a sign of a creative person. I had several reporters use that line on me when I was a newspaper editor, and I generally didn't buy it, especially if they couldn't find a notebook they needed for a story.

Another 59 percent of HR managers said it was OK to have a messy desk, without mentioning the possible creativity benefits. And 32 percent said it was not OK, adding that they would question the messy-desk user's organizational skills and effectiveness on the job.

I'm not an HR official, but I am a manager, and I'd say I fall somewhere between the second and third responses. I don't think there's a direct correlation between a desk's messiness level and the creativity of the person using it. However, I don't always think a messy desk is an indication of a disorganized person.

I guess that, as with most things, I try to deal with this weighty matter among my employees on a case-by-case basis.

The people at OfficeTeam do have some specific ideas on this topic, though. Not only does the company's press release suggest that a neat desk can improve work efficiency, but it also points out seven desk organization mistakes and how to fix them.

I'm always looking for tidying tips, so here are those mistakes:

  • "Creating a pileup." The press release suggests that people recycle or shred unnecessary papers and file or scan everything else.
  • "Failing to contain yourself." Use pencil cups, drawers, trays or other items to keep your stuff in place. I'm a big advocate of this.
  • "Hoarding." The OfficeTeam release suggests that if you haven't touched something in a year, it probably doesn't need to be on your desk. That makes sense to me, so I try to make Darth Vader's head bobble at least once a day.
  • "Not being tech-savvy." Going paperless can help eliminate desk clutter but only if you use a digital filing system or organizational app to keep track of things, the press release said.
  • "Overaccessorizing." OfficeTeam's press release said it's OK to show personality with workplace decorations, "but leave your teddy bear collection and gigantic cat posters at home." Hmmm. I might have a problem in this area, but you can have my office toys when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers.
  • "Being 'crumby.'" Throw away food wrappers, empty coffee cups and dirty plates, and wipe off your work surface after eating, the press release said. I'm definitely on board with that.
  • "Cleaning just once or twice a year." OfficeTeam's advice is to spend a few minutes sprucing up your workspace at the end of each day. I do this, and it works great.
I think this is wise counsel from OfficeTeam, but I know workspace neatness can be a source of much disagreement among colleagues. I'm interested in your take on the subject.

How neat or messy is your desk? What is on your desk that you would never toss, and what could you easily eliminate? Has a messy desk either yours or someone else's ever caused trouble with your boss or co-workers? How did you deal with the problem? And if your desk is always neat, what are your organization secrets?

Send me an email or leave a comment online, and I'll share some of your responses in a future column.
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