Messy desk – busy executive? Or clean desk – tidy mind. The worldwide ‘clean desk debate’ has just had its latest instalment, with an international mining giant issuing 11 pages of office rules restricting the number and size of personal photographs on employee desks, the length of time flowers can be kept and the eating of certain types of food. Foods with strong odours, such as soup, are banned from desks but can be eaten in a special breakout area.   “Sensible” quantities of lollies are permitted.

Is this prescriptive approach a necessary discipline for employees or does it treat them like children, who will respond by not taking personal responsibility? The latter, according to some.

The pressure to de-personalise and de-clutter desk space has gone hand in hand with the move to hot desking and its close cousin Activity-Based Working (ABW).  ABW encourages teams to sit together, even if seating is unassigned.  It also offers breakout areas designed to suit different activities but tailored for use by the same teams.

It is thought that ABW will encourage a more collaborative, consensual and results-based style of leadership rather than the old command and control model.

“Going to ABW and then installing 20,000 rules is no better than the old assigned desk model”, says Jones Lang LaSalle’s head of corporate consulting Rajiv Nagrath., who oversaw a conversion to flexible work spaces.

Some firms, particularly in the IT sector, are not as prescriptive about desk policies as firms in more traditional sectors, and encourage employees to use nearby kitchens, sofas and sporting facilities, such as table tennis tables, Google being a case in point.

iHR believes there is a fine balance between authority and rules and flexibility and freedom, but getting it right will pay large productivity dividends.  A well-led, motivated and engaged workforce is the best asset a business can have.

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