10 Ways to Motivate Employees to Keep a Clear Desk

Like I just moved in.

These are common responses to a question I ask new clients: "What would a stranger assume about you if they walked into your office right now?"  In this moment you are likely listing in your head the names of employees whose offices emit this message.  These individuals are probably the butt of office jokes, struggling with a personal challenge that is all too public.

The problem of a string of messy offices is at least twofold: the state of the office affects both the morale of the office dweller as well as the image of your company or organization.  Whether or not they see their office as a problem that extends beyond "where did I just put that?," their toppling piles and ragged stashes of detritus emit an infectious message to your staff, supervisors, and clients.  Chaotic offices shout a simple message: "productivity is not a priority."  

The most visibly cluttered among us are the easiest to point out and poke fun at, but struggles with organization extend even into offices that appear organized in comparison.  In fact, it's not always the most packed office that harbors the most anxiety with disorganization.  There are as many definitions of "organized" as there are staff members in your company.  Some have very high thresholds, able to work and produce in the most crammed quarters, while others with only a mild case of clutter may suffer the most, unable to retrieve anything if it is out-of-sight-out-of-mind.  The struggle with getting organized does not discriminate, affecting entry level employees on up to the most seasoned executives.  In many cases this is a lifelong issue, affecting them at home as much as in the workplace.


If you are a professional in a position to improve the well-being of individuals in your company, you have a wonderful opportunity to provide the skills, tools, and motivation they need to create and maintain order at work, affecting their working hours and beyond.  Organizing is a quick and sometimes instantaneous way to boost your mood, as environment affects mood in a profound way.  Here are ten ways you can promote a culture of organization in your company:

1. Include employees in creating a short mission statement on organizing in the office.  This should be short, reading no more than 4-5 sentences.  Have employees answer:

     1. Why is organizing important to me, personally?

     2. Why is organizing crucial to the work I produce?

     3. How will I contribute differently once my workspace is organized?

     4. I commit to _______________.

Filter through the most catchy and creative answers to craft a [Company name] Organizing Manifesto.  Decide on where this will be posted physically and digitally.

2. Designate a wall where employees will crowd source to complete this sentence: Once I am organized I will ___________."  Give a generous amount of public square footage over to employees with markers and motivation.  This can be done as elegantly or creatively as you see fit.  Imagine a wall where everyone comes together over the course of days to collect reasons why organizing matters to them.  This gives everyone the nudge to begin thinking about getting organized, uniting the staff in one goal to keep a clean office.

3. Hold a contest with prizes for both individuals and departments. Remember superlatives in your yearbooks?  Offer prizes for individuals and departments who are:

     - Most organized

     - Most improved

     - Most creative

     - Most beautiful

     - Most paperless

     - Most surface area reclaimed

4. Ask the most organized staff members to volunteer to host a show-and-tell session in their office. Your company is already full of people who are doing everything right.  All too often the spotlight is on what is wrong, embarrassing the most disorganized folks in the office.  Showcase what is working by asking a willing participant to give short tours of their workspace to small groups, explaining exactly what they do to keep their office so neat.

5. See who among the least organized staff members want to volunteer to undergo an extreme office makeover, turning their office into a teaching laboratory.  You may be surprised at who is willing to do this.  Just because someone is extremely disorganized doesn't mean they don't want to improve.  Chances are they just don't know how.  While this may be a sensitive topic for some, for others it may be void of any shame.  If you suspect that one of your workplace's messiest offices belong to someone with a good sense of humor, ask if they are open to advice, open to change, and open to sharing results with colleagues.

6. Create an assessment.  This can be anonymous.  Not sure exactly where your employees need help?  Ask them.  Have participants rate themselves on a scale of 1 - 5 on any number of metrics.  Some examples:

     - My office is a place I enjoy being in.

     - I can find what I need when I need it.

     - I use my filing system regularly.

     - There are documents in my office that belong in offsite storage.

     - I feel productive in my office.

7. Appoint a Resident Organizer.  Do you remember your college dorm's Resident Assistant?  He or she may have been a goody two shoes who had you scrambling to hide the vodka every time you heard their door creak.  Or in my case, she was the coolest person in the building (who let me break some rules) and we're still good friends.  Who in your office is well-liked by the masses, generally diplomatic, and naturally organized?  Ask if they are willing to take on this role that will require them to cheerfully check in on anyone who has resolved to get organized.  See what ideas they have for creating a check-in schedule, what comprises the check-in, and how to quantify and reward organizing successes. At best, they facilitate substantial change in your workplace.  At worst, the sound of their footsteps prompts insta-office makeovers.  Either way, offices are better for it.

8. Plan a "Get Organized Day." A common reason and excuse for a messy office is lack of time. Get a date on the calendar when everyone will be allowed time to dedicate to organizing.  It should be a combination of training and doing.  Using a combination of the ideas above and listed here, build-out a day that even the messiest office dweller will benefit from (and even look forward to):

     - Allow casual dress.

     - Have ample shredding and recycling bins available.

     - Hire a Professional Organizer for a talk in the morning

     - Retain Professional Organizer for "Organizer Is In" slots of time, helping individuals one on one throughout the day.  I did this at a school in Mississippi and it was a raging success.  Read about it here

     - Have employees post a single goal on their office door, stating "Today I commit to _______________."

     - Close the day with an awards ceremony for superlatives in #3 and more, such as most recycling bins filled.  

9. Plan a "Clear Desk Challenge" month.  Just as with a "Get Organized Day," the month will instill in employees the personal and professional importance of a clear workspace, as well as the effect it has on the image of the company as a whole.  Ideas throughout this article and in "Get Organized Day" can be spread out throughout the month.  Assign themes to each week, with a speaker on each topic coming in weekly.  Each Friday is a mini "Get Organized Day," allowing for multiple winners and opportunity to share best practices and lessons learned.

10.  Bring in a professional organizer.  There are countless professionals who love to teach the specifics of exactly how to get and stay organized.  Be sure your organizer has ample experience in office settings.  He or she should be able to demonstrate speaking and training experience, as well as success in working with resistant clients.  In addition to having them facilitate the Get Organized Day or a full-on organizing cultural revolution, consider rewarding the most-improved employees with a session with the Organizer at work or home.  

Is a smattering of cluttered offices ok?  Sure.  Are they creating a ripple effect though throughout your company, invisible and visible?  Definitely. 

Anxiety, shame, and hours lost to the black hole of a messy office are contagious.  Because of that, any effort to encourage and support a turning in the right direction will be felt - if not in a public manner that has them chanting your name in the hallways, then perhaps quietly, by those you least expected to transform.  Your employees spend the majority of their waking hours in a work environment that ranges from the cubicle to the corner office. Show them that this little piece of their world speaks volumes.  Just as piled-high desks become the norm, the first person in the hallway to proudly show off their newly cleared desk sends a fresh message of the new norm: 

Change happens here.

Good things are produced here.

This is a good place to be. 

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Office Organizing Expert Kacy Paide loves to do what most people hate: organize offices & paper.

She works with folks who are desperate for a more functional, more beautiful, more inspiring office. Kacy has been a Professional Organizer since 2001 and has worked with over 500 clients. Call her crazy, but she loves a good mess and wants to fix yours. Learn her time-tested solutions in her eBook, The Inspired Office: Organize Your Life One Paper at a Time. Based in Silver Spring, MD, Kacy is nationally available for consulting & speaking.