The concept of the clutter-free office was raised again recently as a leading corporate law firm, who shall remain nameless, has recently cracked down on clutter in the office to the extent that it now demands surfaces that render each desk totally anonymous. No pictures, no personalized calendars or pen-holders, no mugs, no cardigans over chairs, nothing. All office desks, chairs and immediate surrounding areas must be kept clutter-free to maintain a professional and tidy workspace at all times.
One of the reasons cited for this extreme level of desk policing was that 'It was, in fact, for the benefit of visiting clients.' Read this as this decade's commercial version of 'keeping up appearances'. What's wrong with an email asking you to keep desks relatively tidy and make sure you get rid of your mugs at the end of the day?
'Clutter-free' is by no means new - the only surprise is how often the issue resurfaces. The problem with this type of nannying is that, human nature being as it is, most of us tend to resent it. Add to that the fact that any habit is hard to break - especially the bad ones! - and the jackets over chairs come creeping back in along with the chipped 'best dad' mugs.
It's true that a ridiculously cluttered office can impact negatively on work - time spent wasted searching for important paper work, contact details and files etc - but then this is a tidy issue rather than a call for total 'clutter-free'. To ban all personal items is more than a step too far. We are all individuals and we should be allowed to take pride in that individuality and the bits and pieces of our life that carry some meaning and reflect who we are.
Enforcing the rule of clutter-free is a thankless task anyway. It's often a knee-jerk reaction as we all have different levels of tolerance to clutter - some can go for quite a while without snapping while others lose it on a Friday when the office dishwasher is loaded and the sink is overflowing with cups.
These absolute, 'all or nothing' rules get introduced when things have gone a bit too far. Better to introduce a respect for space policy before the junk piles up and ask staff to keep their own spaces tidy in case other workers need to access it and to avoid letting their personal items encroach upon a next door neighbour's territory.
When it comes to presenting the best front for visitors, many clients like to see a bit of humanity and evidence of that in a legal environment would be pretty reassuring. As long as it doesn't get out of control, stall productivity and cause disruption then there is room for a bit of middle ground.
It's always worth remembering that, as individuals, we all work in different ways and the best can be achieved by respecting what works best for each of us. In many creative environments clutter is a vital part of the mix. Strip the desks and you'd take the working mojo away.