- Having a tidy office might not be as beneficial as some companies think.
- A bit of disorder and messiness can actually make some people more productive.
- It’s all about being given the choice to work in a space you’re comfortable in.
If you live in a state of organised chaos like me, you might find it comforting to know a bit of messiness at work could actually mean you’re more productive.
According to Tim Harford, economist and author of “The Undercover Economist,” disorder is actually linked with creativity and innovation. In his latest book “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives,” Harford digs into humanity’s obsession with tidiness and order. One conclusion he comes to is how a tidy workspace isn’t necessarily an effective one.
Harford’s inspiration for writing about the power of disorder came partly from wanting to make peace with why his desk was always chaotic, despite being a generally tidy person. The economic markets also had something to do with it, Harford says, as they are often messy too.
“Economists have an appreciation of these slightly chaotic and disorderly processes at work in the economy all the time,” Harford told Business Insider. “People have ideas, and other ideas get superseded. Some stuff works and some stuff doesn’t work. You get successes, you get failures, and some stuff can’t quite be planned.”
Looking at research and real world examples, Harford makes the point that it’s not necessarily the minimalism or the cluttered nature of a space that affects productivity. Instead, people respond well to being given the choice about what to do with the spaces they work in.
For example, Harford referenced the great architect Le Corbusier, and his attempt to design an idealistic, modern village in Pessac, France. He built a series of beautiful monochrome concrete blocks, but found that the villagers had no interest in his modernist vision. Shortly after moving in, the people built traditional peasant shacks on the back of the cubes, stuck on louvred window covers, erected little picket fences in the gardens, and put garden gnomes in the garden.
While they completely destroyed the modernism and beauty of the properties, the point was they were perfectly entitled to do what they wanted with their own homes.
“They destroyed Le Corbusier’s architectural vision, but they made a space that worked for them, and that’s really important,” Harford said.
Another example is Building 20, a former plywood structure that was put up as a temporary building during World War II to house a big radar research effort called RadLab. It was absolute chaos inside: with three storeys and several wings, it was a complete firetrap, was cold in winter, hot in summer, dusty, dirty, and generally not a nice place to work. However, for some reason, amazing things happened inside it. Despite being a temporary workplace, it stayed up due to a large influx of students when the war ended.
“It’s a complete shambles of a place. People just get lost, and it appears to be utterly dysfunctional. And yet so many amazing things happened in this building,” Harford said. These amazing things included Jerrold Reinach Zacharias’ invention of the atomic clock, and Morris Harler’s huge breakthroughs in neuroscience. John Cage was also inspired to write the silent composition “4’33” in a silent chamber there.
Harford gives two reasons how so much genius came out of the chaos. Firstly, it was an incredibly low status space, so different groups of people from all over the university were thrown in there together, leading to interesting collaborations. Secondly, since people had total ownership of this space, they could knock down walls, leave a mess everywhere, nail things to doors, and it didn’t matter. Zacharias even removed three floors at one point.
What’s the psychology behind it all?
The benefits of having the freedom to do what you want with your workspace is backed up with research by psychology professors Alex Haslam and Craig Knight, who run randomised trials of office spaces.
In one experiment, people were put into four groups to get on with office tasks like filing and organising. The first group was given an incredibly minimalistic space to work in, with barely anything other than a chair and a table. The second group was given an office which was decorated with posters and plants.
Then it got interesting. The third group was given decorations and encouraged to do whatever they wanted with them in the space. The fourth group were told to do the same thing, but then had that privilege ripped away, and their arrangements were totally changed by the experimenters. This was called the disempowerment condition.
When people were empowered to do what they wanted, like in group three, they got a lot more done throughout the experiment. The people in group four, however, were miserable. Not only did they not get as much work done, they also mostly hated the experiment and the experimenters who were responsible.
“It wasn’t the physical environment, because it was the same physical environment other workers [in groups one and two] were perfectly productive and content in,” Harford said. “It was the fact control had been taken away in this arbitrary way.”
Just like when you’re moved around the office against your will, or IT decides to change your desktop background, it’s not nice when you feel you aren’t trusted to do what you want with the space you work in. Otherwise, Harford says, you can feel like a teenager in your bedroom with your parents telling you to tidy up.
“It’s just this sense that this is not your space. You only get to work there under sufferance,” Harford said. “We can change it at any time and it’s none of your business. People just feel like they are pawns on other people’s chess boards.”
Of course, not all companies are like this. Many give employees a lot of freedom with how they get on with their work.
However, if you have a manager that thinks it’s appropriate to tell you to clean your desk, you might want to point out that they are unnecessarily harming your productivity. Surely that’s not what they want in the long run.
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