When you're the CEO of a startup, your employees have you under a microscope. You're constantly on display, not just for the job you do, but how you do your job.

That's why it's your job to set the example for how you want your business to be run: Organized. Efficient. And most importantly, effective -- which is why your office space should focus on structure, not layout.

Should that level of organization apply to your employee's desks?

According to research, the answer depends on the outcome you desire. Generally speaking, tidy desks (and tidy office environments) lead to people doing what is expected of them; or, as the researchers call it, "compliance and good behavior." Messy desks and messy office environments lead to more ideas, more innovation, and greater creativity.

According to the researchers:

"Orderly environments promote convention and healthy choices, which could improve life by helping people follow social norms and boosting well-being. Disorderly environments stimulated creativity, which has widespread importance for culture, business, and the arts."

Granted, the relationship between messy or tidy desks and behavior could be correlated rather than causal. It's very possible that creative people naturally prefer less organization, while people who keep the trains running on time naturally prefer an organized workspace. In either case, their tendencies extend to the way they prefer their work environment rather than being caused by their work environment.

Regardless of messy or neat, you do have a choice: If a constant flow of ideas is critical, consider tolerating messy desks. If operational effectiveness is paramount, expect desks to be relatively uncluttered.

When messy is just messy

What if an employee's desk is particularly messy? And what if, especially in a startup where employees tend to wear many hats -- and the lines between those hats tend to get blurred -- one employee's lack of organization makes it time-consuming for other employees to find information they may need?

You could tell the employee to keep his or her desk neat, but that might come across as micromanaging. I'd try a much smoother approach. Find an excuse to talk to the employee about something: a deadline, a project, a customer problem, anything really.

Then, when you're done, glance at the desk and say, "Wow. It looks like you have a ton of different things going on. Give me something I can help you with so we can take a little bit of this off your plate."

That approach accomplishes two things at once:

  1. In some organizations, asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness, so many employees naturally hesitate to ask. But everyone needs help. When you offer in a way that feels collaborative and not patronizing or gratuitous, you help create a culture of giving -- and of asking for help when help is needed.
  2. You implicitly signal that a messy desk indicates the employee is behind or overwhelmed. Or, if nothing else, that you value a relatively tidy desk.


If subtle hints don't work, provide a business reason for expecting workspaces to be organized. Explain that other employees have trouble finding what they need. Explain that it's harder for others to do the person's job when he or she is off or on vacation. Don't make it about you and your preferences; make it about business.

Unless, of course, when one person's messy desk extends into other people's desks, which can often happen with shared work spaces and facing desks. That should never be tolerated.

The same is true with unfinished meals. Or smelly food left in trash cans. Then it's okay -- in fact, more than okay -- to be direct. Trust me, other employees will thank you for it.

One more thing: don't expect employees to keep their desks uncluttered if your desk is a disaster. "Do as I say, not as I do" never works.

As the CEO of a startup, you're under a microscope. Make sure your employees see the behaviors you want them to emulate.

Remember, your company's culture may not end with you -- but your company's culture definitely starts with you.