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Mess or nest: do clean desk policies really help us work better?

New research suggests a bit of clutter actually helps us be more productive. Flickr/Maggiejumps

BHP copped a fair amount of flak for a leaked memo which outlined its daunting list of rules about employee behaviours.

BHP’s “office environment standard” reportedly includes making staff remove post-it notes at the end of the day, a ban on decorating or customising work partitions, and not allowing clothes to be slung over chairs and furniture, among others.

“Clean desk policies” such as these are commonly proposed as a way to prevent employees from “nesting” in the workplace: settling in one place for too long and giving it their personal stamp.

Personal space out, club space in

In contemporary office workplaces, personal space is out and collective or club space is in. A desk and chair, desktop computers, dividers and perhaps a door (if you’re lucky) to mark out an individual’s work space has given way to clubs, lounge rooms, hot spots, hot desks and open foyers with stretches of glass and marble to promote ‘circulation’.

The bureaucratic style cubicle, the subject and setting of many a Dilbert cartoon is becoming less and less the norm.

Today, offices are designed to be mobile and flexible, an extension on the virtual office movement of the mid nineties.

Office layouts accommodate only a percentage of the total workforce – this means there simply aren’t enough desks for each person to have their own. To accommodate the whole workforce, individuals share desks or move around; working at different workstations each day or week, being multiply located or working remotely.

The design of the mobile and flexible office has been made possible and gained traction because of global trends of more flexible, casual workforces and a shift to more knowledge-based work.

There is also the promise of cost savings and productivity gains: organisations can reduce overall floor space and facilitate collaboration amongst staff, thereby breaking down the silos and barriers of the traditional cubicle office.

But how economically effective or practical are these designs and approaches to work? Do these designs indeed enhance productivity or do they impede it? What kind of impact do they have on workers and how do they, in turn, respond?

How the virtual office was invented

In 1994, one of the first “virtual offices” was set up as a work experiment by Chiat/Day, an advertising firm in Los Angeles.

The private cubicles of approximately 300 staff were removed and staff told to work wherever they wanted.

According to a 2009 Wired magazine article, Jay Chiat declared his vision this way: “Take away employees’ cubicles and desks, equip them all with portable phones and Powerbooks, and turn them into wandering nomads who could perform their tasks wherever they liked”.

The Chiat/Day experiment was far from a success story. The sudden transformation of the workplace resulted in what Wired journalist Warren Berger vividly described as, “turf wars, kindergarten-variety subterfuge, incessant griping, management bullying, employee insurrections, internal chaos, and plummeting productivity”.

Spectacular failure

Yet, despite the spectacular failures of this and similar experiments, the idea of flexible and mobile work has continued to flourish in the context of a world-wide shift in patterns and types of work.

Today, new office designs are likely to adopt some version of the virtual office. But just as Jay Chiat discovered in his work experiment, though office workers now perform their work via computers, they continue to go about personalising and nesting in their work environments, undermining the very design of a mobile and flexible office.

Studies have highlighted identity expression and professional status as key reasons for personalisation at work.

Nesting is practical

But in my soon-to-be published PhD research conducted on professional knowledge workers, it was found that personalising or nesting is also performed for practical reasons.

Nesting as a form of personally shaping the surrounding work environment is key a way that workers get prepared or ‘ready’ for work.

There are further practical benefits: to enhance well-being, to create opportunities for privacy or collaboration, to facilitate social interaction and to save time.

In fact, the study found that seemingly simple and mundane activities like placing post-it notes on a nearby well-used surface or display turned out to be critical time-savers that intriguingly, found a new role with computers.

Not clutter, timesavers

Because of their relative permanence, post-it notes are used as reminder systems: to store essential and frequently accessed information that can be hidden on a computer due to its dynamic foreground-background interface.

Being able to configure your work space (which includes both your physical and virtual desktop) fulfils multiple purposes: as a “to do list”; a sorting palette; a link to regularly used programs and information and a surface for notes and reminders.

So what happens when work becomes more mobile and more flexible, either because these are a part of your job or because these are imposed on you as a result of the design and approach to work?

My PhD study found that being able to make changes to the environment is even more of an issue for mobile and flexible workers.

Smart phones and office ‘lite’

Employees of a unit at a global telecommunication company taking part in a trial of a new smart phone were likely to find places to work where they could “nest”, even if in a partial way.

Homes, customers premises, local cafes and cars acted as “lite” offices, allowing staff to work faster, more effectively and to have confidence to perform ‘as if in the office’.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but having a place to settle can also enhance mobility: you can carry less, be more spontaneous and coordinate loosely if you know you will have an office to come back to to do what workers in the study described as “heavy duty” tasks.

The story of BHP’s office policies for employees highlights a contradiction in the design and philosophy of most office workplaces today. Workers need a place to settle and nest but how can this be done if all desks belong to everybody and thus effectively to nobody?

Clean desk work-arounds

In the absence of the ability to shape spaces for longer term use, workers develop elaborate strategies for overcoming spatial limitations, become dissatisfied and frustrated and in some cases, actively resist the constraints imposed upon them by re-territorialising spaces.

Rather than introduce harsh clean desk policies organisations could make the most of the need for workers to “own” their own space and recognise the productive benefits of nesting.

This doesn’t have to mean reinstating the cubicle office. It could mean combining permanent with flexible multi-purpose spaces, offering more support for remote work and finding creative ways for staff to make lasting changes to their work environment.

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