A clean office isn’t necessarily a more innovative one

Contrary to an already-legendary Wired memo, orderly workspaces may hinder workplace creativity

The library in Wired’s new offices

The library in Wired Magazine’s new office. The austere renovation was accompanied by a withering memo on keeping the new space clean by editor in chief Scott Dadich. (Scott Dadich via Instagram)

The road to a spotlessly pristine, uncluttered office is often littered with passive-aggressive memos, some formal (“Note to all staff: cleaning crews will be coming through your workspace this evening; please remove all items from the floor), some less so (“To whoever keeps leaving their disgusting wet teabags in the sink: your mother doesn’t work here! Throw it out yourself, you filthy slob!”).

Writing a well-crafted admonishment—with just the right level of thinly cloaked anger—is a fine art, but Wired editor in chief Scott Dadich may have just produced one of the best. In a withering memo about cleanliness in the workplace, he called for an end to coffee stains, teetering piles of paper and “too many pictures of family and friends,” chastising staff for treating the Wired office like “a dorm room.”

“It’s an embarrassment: coffee stains on walls (and countertops and desks), overflowing compost bins, abandoned drafts of stories and layouts (full of highly confidential content), day-old, half-eaten food, and, yes, I’m going to say it, action figures. Please. Wired is no longer a pirate ship.”

Dadich’s censure of employees’ X-Men and Adventure Time action figures—the tech-geek equivalent of security blankets—coincided with the company’s January move to a sleek new office space, where he expected to see a “significant uptick” in visitors. “When we stop caring for our shared spaces, we demonstrate a lack of respect for the space and for each other. When you leave stains on countertops, it’s disgusting for your colleagues and embarrassing for visitors.”

Interestingly, the memo didn’t suggest that the clutter was making staff less productive or draining their mental energy—two byproducts of mess that are often cited by clean freaks. And some studies suggest they’re right: In a paper called “Environmental Disorder Leads to Self-Regulatory Failure,” a pair of researchers from UBC and Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business found that “being surrounded by chaos ultimately impairs the ability to perform tasks requiring ‘brain’ power.” Study participants who sat at a desk piled with papers, for instance, reported feeling more frustrated and fatigued and took 10% longer to perform a simple cognitive matching test.

But there’s plenty of other research that suggests tidiness has a downside: a University of Minnesota study suggests that people with clean desks make more conventional decisions. “A messy desk may confer its own benefits, promoting creative thinking and stimulating new ideas,” according to a news release about the findings. Eric Abrahamson, a professor of management at Columbia Business School and author of The Perfect Mess, adds that order comes with a cost: “If you stop to tidy up every time something becomes disordered you’ll continually interrupt yourself and never get any work done,” he says.

Still, one conclusion seems irrefutable: As Dadich’s memo points out, people make assumptions about others based on the appearance of their workspaces. One survey of U.S. workers indicated that 57% of people have judged a colleague by looking at the state of their desk: a tidy one suggests a worker who is organized and accomplished. A slovenly one, meanwhile, reflects a lack of discipline and control. And possibly, barrels of rum and pirate ships.