What’s your desk like?

Dr Sarah Norgate, Reader in Applied Developmental Psychology


As you start thinking about semester 2 assignments, your inner antenna may be detecting at least one of these emotions…

  • Overwhelmed by a disarray of piles of papers, reports, stationery and paraphernalia on your desk
  • ‘At home’ with an assorted array of photos, pictures and travel souvenirs.
  • Empty at the sight of a clear expanse of sterile hot-desk surface
  • Relieved to be back to study
  • Reassured to find the things you need on your desk, amongst a few warm reminders of ‘home’ life and home-life transition
  • Connected, your smartphone or device is a brain extension of your ‘desk’

Interwoven with our desk habits around physical order and displays of personal identity, comes further emotional fabric about whether you feel friction or resonate with your organisation’s culture around personalization. And if you study or work from home, you will already have been stamping your beliefs on your workspace. But have you been doing so informed by research?

When we are already submerged in popular quotes like ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’ and Einstein’s “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” why not just simply choose whichever suits. One limitation of these quotes is that they run the risk of a making a judgement about the occupier of the space having a fixed trait, and this corresponds to a supposed desired outcome. And so, instead, let’s cast the net wider to look at how the environment can influence behaviours.

Taking a systematic approach, Kathleen Vohs and team at the University of Minnesota1 investigated how differences in physical conditions of an workspace may influence behavioural outcomes.   At the heart of their study’s focus was the concept that an ‘ordered’ physical environment would activate a mind-set showing a tendency to follow convention, tradition and ‘playing it safe’ by upholding the status quo. In contrast, cues from a more ‘messy and disordered’ environment would promote both novelty-seeking and unconventionality.

Involving European and American students as well as adults from the community Voh and her team set up a series of carefully selected test rooms which were variant on being set up as ‘messy and disorderly’ or ‘orderly’ but otherwise nothing to distinguish between them by way of size or light. When tested, not only did participants turn out to generate more creative solutions than did participants in an orderly room, but they also generated more ideas rated as ‘highly’ creative. This was known not to be attributable to making effort in the ‘messy’ room as the number of ideas generated stayed even across the two rooms. Taking their work further, the researchers checked findings across a range of different behaviours, and found initial evidence for:

Cues from an orderly environment being associated with healthy behavior, charitable donations, convention and ‘playing it safe’ with social norms.

Cues of messy and disorder environment can be associated with taking the risk of ‘unknown’ and fresh insights which may boost innovation.

But so far this research looked only at ‘solo’ behaviour from the perspective of an individualistic mode of personal achievement.  Also, given the experimental nature, participants had no reported familiarity or emotional attachment with the items in the ‘test’ offices, the objects were not possessions. Given that high performance global business innovation involves multi-cultural teams distributed by time and space where personal possessions afford conversations, fresh insights are needed for countries hoping to leap up the 2017 Global Innovation Index rankings.

In the meantime, given Vohs’ research showed that the situational cues of our local environment can impact on our performance, it may be a time to explore being a little more playful with your own workspace and any judgements about the habits of co-workers.



1Vohs, K.D., Redden, J.P., & Rahinel, R., (2013) Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1860-1867.