A Clean Sweep: What Your Desk Says About You

By Shelagh Donnelly


Is your desk orderly, or do stacks of documents give it the feel of an archeological exploration into the ancient history of the organization for which you work?


If you’re reading this from your office, take a quick break from your computer. Stand up; give yourself a good stretch and then step away from your office or workstation. Take five minutes for a walk. While this is something we assistants—aka sedentary workers, if you talk to an occupational therapist or a kinesiologist—should do repeatedly throughout each workday, I suggest it now so that you can take a walk down the hallway and take a look at others’ desks and offices.

I’m stating the obvious here but, unless you work for, or closely with, your CEO or another senior executive, you don’t want to stroll into their offices. Nor would you run your finger along a VP’s bookshelf checking for dust whilst inwardly salivating over the artwork or views… or in any other way give colleagues the wrong impression about why you’re patrolling the corridors. You can, though, conduct an unobtrusive environmental scan, as it were.

Without being intrusive, check your impressions of colleagues’ offices or workstations. Are they pristine, cluttered, or somewhere in between… and what impressions do such appearances provide you about the people therein?

After eyeballing the executives’ offices, turn your eyes to those of their EAs or PAs; then have a gander at some of the work stations of the office manager or other administrative professionals who work in or near the C-suite. Artwork aside, how do the assistants’ environments compare with the executives’ work areas? Next, make your way back to your digs and view them as would someone visiting you at work for the first time.

What does your office say about you, and your work habits? Would you be comfortable having your significant other or a good friend see the environment in which you spend most of your waking hours?

In other words, does the organisation of your office help or hinder your personal brand? If you’re an EA with an impeccably organized office, good on you. If you’re cringing, though, at the realization that those assorted stacks of reading materials, expense claims and must-read articles more closely represent a barricade around your desk than anything else, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath whilst simultaneously kicking that box of shredding materials beneath your desk and mentally adding yet another item to your to-do list of jobs to tackle.

Some admins may consider a pristine work environment, with a clutter-free desk, a sign that you haven’t enough work to keep you busy. Others may subscribe to the Laurence J. Peter school of thought: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk?” Further compounding the matter is the fact that many assistants are recipients of frequent piles of paper from others in the office. Many of your executives’ offices are spotless, thanks to you—thanks, in part, to routine shifting of folders and papers from her or his desk to yours!

If you’re among those EAs who bury themselves in making others look good, to the detriment of your own reputation, make a point of developing new habits.

Some admins schedule periodic purge-and-declutter dates in their calendars. If you’re among those who have been optimistically hoping for some quiet time, perhaps at the cusp of the upcoming holidays, to purge and reorganize, why wait? Invest a bit of time on a weekly or daily basis, beginning now, to tame the beast that is your office. If you’re looking for ideas, check back next week; I have eight steps you can take to an organized office.

The author:
Living in beautiful Vancouver, Canada, Shelagh is the founder and publisher of Exceptional EA. She writes from a position of extensive experience and engages with a high performing, international audience of administrative professionals.


A compelling international speaker and trainer, Shelagh walks the walk. In addition to working with a board of directors and its committees, she’s the founder and publisher of Exceptional EA. Through her website, Shelagh engages with a high performing audience of administrative professionals from more than 100 countries. Her Real Careers interviews with EAs and PAs around the globe are hugely popular, as are her Weekend Polls.


Shelagh is the Past Chair of the CICan:GPOP Board of Directors, has served as a mentor and launched internal networks. Passionate about inspiring individuals and teams to perform at high levels in careers they enjoy, Shelagh speaks pragmatically about the admin career. She draws on her extensive experience in both the private and public sectors, and brings insight, empathy and humor to her presentations.


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