Is your workspace cluttered, do you maintain a tidy work environment, or do you fall somewhere in between?
In a recent article, Professor Libby Sander of Australia’s Bond University (@BondUniversity) says, “The physical environment of the workplace has a significant effect on the way that we work. When our space is a mess, so are we.”
A mess, eh? That’s quite an indictment. Yet, based on research, it doesn’t seem to be going overboard to say that “our physical environments significantly affect our cognition, emotions, and behavior, affecting our decision-making and relationships with others. “
A few examples of the negative effects of untidiness
Clutter can increase our stress and anxiety levels. (Workplace stress in the U.S. costs around $190 billion per year, a horrifying sum.) It can make it harder for us to focus. It can affect our food choices—junk food, anyone? It can interfere with our sleep.
Clutter, with its constant visual presence, depletes our cognitive resources. Our brain, it turns out, likes order. Professor Sander points to a Princeton University Neuroscience Institute study that revealed when participants cleared out clutter in their work environment, they focused and processed information better and ended up being more productive.
A study found that people surrounded by untidiness at home feel overwhelmed and tend to procrastinate. They develop negative coping mechanisms such as TV watching and (as mentioned earlier) snacking on empty calories. Professor Sander guesses that this behavior generalizes to the work environment, resulting in employees who delay making decisions and may spend less time working.
Perhaps as important as any of these other factors is how clutter affects our relationships. In one study, messy participants were seen by others as “less conscientious, more neurotic, and less agreeable.” Ouch. Clearly, those perceptions affect how others behave toward them and may affect the course of their careers.
So what is to be done?
Professor Sander recommends tidying your workspace regularly and, interestingly, “Avoid letting things get so bad that you start cleaning as a form of procrastination.” A side note: a graduate school colleague once commented that her friends always knew when an important test was coming up: They’d drop by and find her cleaning her oven. Professor Sander also recommends work-sponsored “spring cleaning” days bolstered by pizza and an office-wide clean-desk policy. (Maybe this works in Australia? Not sure I see it working here)
During graduate school, I earned much-needed cash by cleaning houses for a couple of professors. One guy was brilliant, but both his home and his office looked as though a bomb had gone off in them—an analogy with unfortunate connotations these days—and were really challenging to put in order. And this is where Professor Sander throws us a bit of a curve—a study reveals that messiness is linked to creativity—before coming down on the side of the tidy work environment.