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How Many Personal Items on Your Desk Are Too Many?

This article was written by in Career and Work. 22 comments.


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What does your office, cubicle, or desk look like?

In my day job, most of my time is spent in a cubicle in front of a computer monitor and a small portion of my time is spent at home in front of a notebook computer sitting at my coffee table. In the office, I have only a few personal items displayed on my desk. I’m not interested in making my cubicle feel like home or comfortable; it’s a place of work and I don’t particularly want to stay there longer than necessary.

A study shows that having any more than one out of five objects on your desk of a personal nature rather than professional could affect your reputation. American managers in the study show a differentiation between professional and “unprofessional” employees, and expect significantly more personal objects to be on display for those they deem “unprofessional.”

On the other hand, having more personal items on a desk could increase an employee’s level of happiness, which could then result in higher productivity and good performance. In a boring cubicle farm, where everyone’s workspaces are identical by default, increasing the sense of individuality is important to creating a more human environment.

How many personal items on your desk are too many?

Fortune Magazine

Published or updated November 30, 2010. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jaya

I’ve seen the offices of Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro, and I’ve previously worked for Apple. I’ve seen what the offices for Zappos look like as well as the offices for PIXAR. The 5 personal item limit is broken in all these cases. It’s an environment I prefer. In a recession, it is more difficult to pick and choose employers, but I hope the more culturally-oriented corporations win out over the older conservative cubicle environments. Any worker, however, would be pragmatic to adjust their own practices to the environment they’ve signed up for… at least until they’re performing at a high enough level where people don’t even care what they’re stocking their cubicle with.

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avatar Money Reasons

On my desk itself, I just have a small radio I brought in.

I do have a small shelf in my cube that I have pictures of my kids on though…

I think it look professional, I don’t any toys or quirky stuff in my cube.

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avatar Tom Dziubek

Re: “On my desk itself, I just have a small radio I brought in.”

LOL…at the risk of making an obscure reference, the first thing I thought of was….”I was told that I could listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven, I told Bill that if Sandra is going to listen to her headphones while she’s filing then I should be able to listen to the radio while I’m collating so I don’t see why I should have to turn down the radio because I enjoy listening at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven. “

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avatar Evan

Tom…GREAT MINDS. I was already thinking about where to find the quote lol.

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avatar Wojo

I keep my red stapler on my desk. ;)

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avatar Susan

I have my coffee cup & some hand cream. That’s it. After many years at my last company, I got to carry out all my personal items in a series of boxes after a layoff and I swore I’d never do that again.

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avatar Julie

If someone’s cube is *too* non-personal, it makes me wonder why. One foot out the door? Neat freak? Just a temp? Etc. I think you can go overboard, but I notice the lack of personal items more than too many of them. Of course, I’ve also worked in more “creative” environments – and people’s cube’s can become a natural extension of their personalities when they like their jobs and the work they’re doing.

I also wonder what are considered “personal items” – bringing in my own green pen cup vs. the standard-issue metal one is one thing; stuffed animals are another. The difference between customization and personalization, I suppose, so people can avoid being “just another cog.”

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avatar The Financial Blogger

I very much agree with your comment. I have some (2-3 a the most) family pictures, my own coffee cup, some personal equipment such as pen, business card holder and the disposition of my desk differs from some others. It still looks very professional and I think it only ads some humanity to my skills. Makes me feel just a little comfortable but nothing like home either.

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avatar Stevedh

Other than my coffee cup, my brain book, and a couple of company awards (little airplane thingys) the only personal item on my desk was my lunch – and it was gone by 1:00.

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avatar TakeitEZ ♦549 (Dime)

I have a bare bones cubicle. Only have the papers and files I need to do my work. I always get comments from my co-workers about the neatness of my desk and the minimal design. I like it this way and if I need to see my son or wife, I just check out their pics on my phone. I guess I just like a definitive boundary between my personal and professional life.

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avatar Jackie

Hm, I have more than “one out of 5″ personal items on my desk for sure. Wouldn’t you have to have barely anything on your desk to have less than that? Considering the only work-related items on my desk are the monitor and phone…

Hey, I guess the number improves if you count each paper in the stack of papers I’m working on ;)

At any rate I think it depends on the environment too. Folks at my company tend to be at one extreme or the other, and it doesn’t seem to correlate to professionalism or lack thereof.

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avatar Briana @ GBR

I think if your desk looks like your home, there’s a problem. I sit at a shared desk, so I have 2 post-its on the wall in front of me, and share a desk organizers where I put my notebook. All of those things pertain to work. Everything else is on the computer, since that’s where I do all of my work. Although, I do envy the people with cubicles outside, I still feel pretty productive without pictures of my entire family and every mantra I believe in posted up.

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avatar jim

I couldn’t care less how many personal items people have on their desk. What matters is if they do their job and do it well. I think its sad that there are workplaces that have strict rules about not allowing some personal items in peoples workspaces. As long ast stuff doesn’t smell, offend people, make noise or pose a hazard it should be OK.

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avatar eric ♦1,549 (Half-Dollar)

A bit too many. Items just accumulate over time and I have to clean my desk every once in awhile. It’s a vicious cycle, I tell ya.

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avatar Barb Friedberg

I have a photo on my desk of my spouse and on my file cabinet I have my magnet collection of places I’ve visited. But…. since I telecommute, it really doesn’t matter :) Plus, no matter how hard I try, within a few minutes of working my desk is covered with papers!

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avatar Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer

I have a few photos and a few desk toys (that everyone who comes in has to play with). I am always struck by people who make their office “homey”.

Some people are just nesters; I’m not.

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avatar Wojo

Most of my desk is work things, but I keep two frames of family photos, a plant, and (most recently) a miniature Christmas tree. I’m with Julie on this one, and when people’s desks are too sterile, I start to wonder why (though my own area looks pretty minimalistic to the average passerby).

Mostly, when I look at other people’s desks, I notice general cleanliness and order rather than the ratio of work to personal items. Honestly, how can you just stare at your computer for 8-12 hours a day without some personal things around?

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avatar Penny Frugalista

My desk has a few personal effects — 2-3 small photos and a promo card from a book I wrote. Other than that, I keep it neat and professional, because, well, that’s just me.
Someone who has too many personal items could either be perceived as a hard worker who is at work so much that s/he needs these things to remind them of home, or as an ‘unprofessional’ worker, as you put it. It’s in the eye of the beholder (manager), I believe.

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avatar tigernicole86 ♦55 (Newbie)

I’ve been told that my cubicle is too personalized. 1 pic of the boyfriend and then the pictures of my siblings(I have 4 siblings so sue me.) So, I took down the individual pics of my sibs and put up 1 of all of us together. And I asked, why was my desk so clean, was I happy with my job. Just can please everybody.

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avatar faithfueledbennetts ♦264 (Nickel)

I think if an employee is doing a great job, let them have as many things on their desk that helps to promote that. Individuals are not meant to all be the same, even when it comes down to what is on your desk.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

In my office I had on family picture. I tried to keep my personal life and business life separate.

I have to say when I see a bunch of doodads on someone’s desk, that person is brought down a mental level.

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avatar Embarrassed

What do you all think the limit should be for a receptionist?
I think they should be limited to 1. Is that too harsh?
“our” receptioinst embarrases me. I took a quick look and stopped counting at 15. The highlights: a rather large Maxine doll, hair brush, several prescription bottles? Really? You really want people wondering what the meds are for? I have a few thoughts and I hope I am wrong.

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