(Credit: Olivia Howitt)

What the state of your desk says about you

Whether you're a clean freak or a slob, your workspace may reveal a lot about your personality

Do you have trouble locating your computer screen amid the jungle of old coffee mugs and scattered papers? Or is your workspace a minimalist’s dream?

Every office worker has a particular type of desk they keep, and a number of studies suggest that how you keep your workspace might affect how you work, from the idea that disorderly environments produce creativity — to the idea that too much clutter can interfere with focus.

Deliberately or not, we’re constantly making statements about ourselves through our personal presentation, says Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of the book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About you.

“One of the reasons physical spaces, including one’s office desks, can be so revealing is that they’re essentially the crystallisation of a lot of behaviour over time,” he says.

Lily Bernheimer, an environmental psychology consultant and director at UK-based Space Works Consulting developed five personality desk types for UK co-working company Headspace Group, drawing on the work of Gosling and other personality and environmental psychologists.

A research fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK, Bernheimer came up with an evidence-based breakdown that combined insights from personality research, environmental psychology and ‘big five’ personality traits: extroversion; agreeableness; conscientiousness; neuroticism and openness to experience.

So, what does your desk space say about your personality?

What does your workspace look like? Send us your desk photos and we’ll feature the best on our Facebook page next week.

The clutterer

The clutterer’s workspace is chaotic, colourful and often covered in knick-knacks and personal effects. Bernheimer says clutterers tend to be more extroverted and welcoming of colleagues. “If they have a choice in where they sit, they’re more comfortable and happy being at the circulation crossroads in the office.”

The downside? They’re often so busy and active that they may not have much time to tidy up as their less social colleagues. But their messy space is much more welcoming than the sparse minimalism or oppressive piles of papers of their less outgoing counterparts.

The minimalist

Love a routine and a post-it note? You might be a minimalist. But just because minimalists don’t enjoy clutter, it doesn’t mean they’re not extroverted, says Bernheimer: “An extremely tidy and organised workplace doesn’t indicate that you're introverted.”

Instead, a minimalist is more likely to be high in the traits of conscientiousness, discipline and cautiousness. They are hardworking, reliable, achievement-oriented and thrive on structure and planning, she says. Be warned though, if you’re not making at least a small personal mark on your desk, your lack of human imprint might indicate you don’t plan to stay long in your role.

The expander

Expanders love to stake a claim on their area of the office. “People who are more dominant personality types are more defensive of their space,” says Bernheimer. In fact, over time, their personal effects may start to encroach on other people’s spaces; a coat on a spare chair or debris radiating out from their desk onto that of others. “They may try to mark more and more territory for themselves by moving their coffee cup and their sandwich out further to claim more territory.”

Expanders love a spot in the centre of the room and may be more aggressive about carving out their physical space. Should you be worried? Well, sitting next to an expander might make you thankful for that partition. And, if you work in a hot-desking or co-working space, they’ll likely feel more defensive and territorial of their work area and could seek to claim some of yours.

The personaliser

Do you have a curated collection of books or magazines on your desk? What about artwork, travel photos or mementos? You may be a personaliser. “A simple, stylish or unusual workspace tells people that you’re high in the trait called ‘openness’, which means you’re likely to be high in creativity, intellectuality and openness to new experience,” says Bernheimer.

Personalisers are curious, extroverted and creative, says Bernheimer. They’re also more likely to be satisfied in their jobs, psychological well-being and physical health — a benefit for both the employee and the employer.

The surveyor

Hate having your back to the door? Feel insecure if your desk is in a high traffic area? There’s a good reason for that. “Evolutionarily, it would have been advantageous to us to situate ourselves in places where we had a good view of potential threats,” says Bernheimer.

Surveyors prefer their personal space — too much distraction, stimulation or interaction can throw them off their game. They may prefer to sit with their backs against an office wall and to work alone. They might even be a little grumpy.

But don’t judge too harshly: while surveyors might be introverted, they are also highly creative and productive, says Bernheimer. Just leave them alone to get on with it, and don’t sneak up behind them when they’re working.

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