13 Things Your Desk Says About You

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: May 9, 2012

Your Desk Speaks for You -- Even When You're Not There

It speaks for you even when you're out of the office doing your thing to make the company wildly successful. Positive words? We hope. But it can also interrupt and speak out of turn, relaying completely unauthorized messages.

Your desk. What does it say about you? Does it convey the message "Respect the owner of this hallowed professional space?" or "Attention: creativity in progress?" Or does it warn "Caution: finding that file is going to take a while?"

Your positive words & actions still speak loudest, but they'll have less impact if your workspace sends a conflicting message. It’s worth a few minutes to make sure your desk is an effective envoy for your professional abilities.

I'd Rather Be Anywhere But Here

A couple of office appropriate vacation photos are fine, and give that faint bronze glow you're sporting some context. But a countdown calendar to your next getaway (272 DAYS!) or a predominance of souvenir drink umbrellas in your pencil holder might indicate that you're more invested in the cruise brochures pinned to your corkboard than to next week's new business presentations.

Confirm you're committed to the present and open for business by minimizing indicators that you'd rather be elsewhere.

A Clean Desk is Good, but a Sterile Workspace is Creepy

While it's reassuring to know an employee isn't likely to max out his or her sick days, an overload of air fresheners and sanitizers could indicate an unhealthy obsession. Clean is commendable. Sterile is scary (unless you're in a medical or food field, in which case, as you were...). 

And please, no antibacterial hand washing while others are present. They'll either wonder where you just were or where you think they just were.

Fewer Toys. You're Not a Kid Anymore

There is a bit of a double standard when it comes to office toys.

The stuffed monkeys, bobbleheads, lava lamps and mini basketball nets that often claim the desk space of those in creative fields can amplify that sense of an imagination at work. On the desk of a financial type, however, such toys may indicate a lack of focus (or potential toddlers lurking under the desk).

Take your cue from respected peers and your boss. In any case, don't replicate a toy store unless you have the inventory to back it up. Your desk should say "works well with others," not that you have more toys than a fifth-grader.

Sticky Notes = Lack of Technology Skills

If a light breeze would pose a threat to your task organization, it's time to pull down the sticky notes and start compiling your lists in a way more befitting the 21st century. 

The problem with paper lists is they quickly become part of the landscape. They put down roots, colonize and quietly clutter your space without your realization, creating an illusion of control for you while projecting a picture of disorganization to others. Digital organization is the answer and calendar alarms will be ever more effective than even the most emphatic "Don't Forget!!!"

Avoid Desk Decoration Overload

If your desk is always a visual reminder to buy pumpkins, string lights or to hard-boil some eggs ASAP, others might begin to wonder wherever you find the time to be so festive. Your boss may question your priorities if she finds your cubicle draped wall-to-wall with evergreen garlands with the company newsletter on delay. 

Your desk should demonstrate a commitment to company success that doesn't change with the seasons.

Limit the Number of Inspirational Quotes

Quotes are cool and can be motivating in moderation, but aim them at yourself and keep them down to a couple of key inspirations.

If your walls are plastered with sunrise sayings and wise perky critters, you've crossed the line between offering polite encouragement and using your outdoor voice in an improper manner.

Better to focus on inspiring yourself. And as a side note: better not to look as if you need tons of motivational support to do your job well.

Wait...Who Works Here Again??

We've talked a lot about not overdoing it with personal effects on your desk, but there's also the other end of the spectrum to consider.

If your desk is so barren that nobody would know who sits there if not for the nameplate, that's something you should remedy at once. Just like too many family photos, framed diplomas and industry awards can be off-putting, the absence of all these things sends another message in and of itself.

Loosen up a little. Allow those professional journals a little shelf space. A diploma or two might fit up there as well. Don’t think of them as clutter but rather as conversational cues. No one needs to know you're a closet Trekkie and ComFest devotee, but it won’t hurt anyone to know where you earned your MBA or whether or not you're devoted to your family. 

Besides, if your boss sees a barren desk it might look like you're hesitant to settle in and get comfortable because you're looking to jump ship.

Keep Family Pictures to a Minimum

A framed family photo or two says something positive about your values. But keep the pictures current and limit their number.

Yes, Jimmy was a real cutie at two months, two years and when cradling his own son for the first time. But your desk should not be a jaunt down memory lane. If you have a senior picture of your daughter, her fairy princess photo from first grade is overkill. And your desk should never parade your hairstyles of the past decade.

Make it a point to update photos. Don’t simply add frames.

Take a Pill...in Private

Do you take fish oil capsules? Wheat germ? Good for you. But keep them in a drawer and out of sight. Your assertive health choice is Gabe from accounting’s guilt trip and lands solidly within Mindy from marketing’s "Ick Factor" file.

And don't even consider the neti pot at work.

Also, pharmaceuticals belong far from sight. It's great if your desk shares your general sense of healthy well being, but the nitty gritty details are unnecessary information and should be kept private, not put on display so everyone knows your ailments.

If You Keep Office Plants/Pets, Keep Them Healthy

Want a verdant desktop terrarium or lively fishbowl? Be ready to commit.

Optimally, your desk will project professional growth and accomplishment. Healthy greenery or happy active fish can send a positive aesthetic message, but dusty and withering plants and scummy fish tanks with wide-eyed floaters on the surface are visible failures. These desktop squatters have no right to be in your professional workspace.

Be realistic about what you can maintain, and maintain it well.

Don't Flaunt Your Popularity with Event Invitations

Be cautious about displaying event invites or announcements. Pinning up a holiday celebration or graduation party invitation lets people know you're in the loop. But it may also clue others in to their own unfortunate disconnection, and you don't want other members of your team feeling like losers.

Engage in the non-excluding sort of skills your mom taught you way back in middle school. Those rules are still in play at the office. Don't be a conduit for hurt feelings. Consider this to be preventative maintenance that will avert unwieldy office politics and unflattering office gossip.

During Business Hours, Stick to Business

We get it. Lots of people have side businesses or hobbies that end up taking a lot of time. And occasionally that creeps into working hours.

But you need to make sure your desk highlights your dedication to accurate spreadsheets rather than the availability of sparkly jewelry pieces that can still be ordered in time for next week delivery? Be very careful about giving other side businesses or even your kids’ school fundraisers desk space. Many companies have explicit policies against such activity.

Even absent such clear guidance, save the order forms for after hours.

Declutter & Decaffeinate

Wow, it was a late night going over the annual report figures, but I'm still going strong! I came in at six, and won't possibly have time for lunch, but lattes give me life! Don't you just love pumpkin caramel skinny lattes? And these energy drinks are amazing! How fast do you think I can spin my desk chair? C'mon, just take a guess! Start counting…now!

A desk cluttered with empty coffee cups and energy drinks reveals a life lacking in balance. Protect company assets by taking care of yourself. Your desk shouldn't reveal a dependency on anything but personal excellence.

Like It or Not, Your Desk Is Part of Your Personal Brand

Your workspace is a snapshot of you and an encapsulated view of how you do that magic that you do. If you check your teeth for vagabond spinach (you do) and your shirt for wayward stains (you should), give a moment's attention to the launch pad.

Ideally, your work should speak for itself while your desk remains on mute. But just in case anyone is listening to your desk's silent but eloquent messages, give it something good to share.

Recommended Reading

Is the mess on your desk out of control? Check out our suggested reading list for tips on decluttering and organizing your work life:

  • Organize Your Office: Simple Routines for Managing Your Workspace
  • The Office Clutter Cure: Get Organized, Get Results
  • Organize Your Office in No Time
  • Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office & Your Life
  • Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life: A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck