Secretarial: The secret life of desks

Your desk says more about you than your CV - and bosses know it.

Are you prone to workspace customisation? Are there so many photos, pot-plants and Jarvis Cocker posters surrounding your desk that the phrase "taking work home" might as well be replaced by "bringing home to work"? Or is your desk in such excellent nick that you can actually see your own reflection in it?

Whatever the answer, it probably says a lot more about you than you think. A recent study by recruitment agency Adecco Alfred Marks claims that, simply by analysing a desk's contents, employers can learn more about their employees than by studying a CV. "Desks can reveal their owners' innermost secrets, inhibitions, lifestyle and professional ambitions," explains psychologist Donna Dawson, who carried out the study. What's more, your worktop is very often the first impression that people get of you - and, in business, first impressions count.

According to Dawson, there are six principal "desk personalities", two of which win hands down for tidiness. But since they are almost opposites in terms of character, it takes close analysis to differentiate them accurately.

"First, the desk of the `super-organised' desktop personality is functional and neat with no fuss or frills." Likely to be inhabited by a super-efficient PA or secretary, this desktop is largely taken up by essential office equipment, leaving little room for clutter, save for a few neat piles of paperwork.

Sounds like someone completely lacking personality? Well, you would be wrong because, according to Dawson, personal relationships are a priority to the "super-organised". "This personality wants to feel needed and is charming and helpful when relied upon. But the no-nonsense neatness also masks a small chip on its owner's shoulder due to perceived lack of appreciation."

The "show desktop" personality, on the other hand, has obliterated any signs of personality. Also ultra-neat, this desk differs from "super-organised" by its size - if only because its owner is likely to be a departmental head or high-flying PA who is either emulating her boss's desk or projecting an image of what she believes the boss's desk ought to resemble. Don't be too surprised if you see this person straightening up pens on your desk.

Bare space is essential to this personality largely because space spells affluence. Think of the acres of space on the desks of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton when they are photographed seated behind them. Dawson explains: "Although friendly within their own social group, once behind the `show desk' they adopt a professional mask and forced bonhomie where necessary. This personality is astute and good at assessing strengths and weaknesses so can never be caught off guard."

Then there are the two narcissistic personalities. Most offices have at least one "trophy" desktop personality who insists on displaying certificates of accomplishment, whether it be on the rugby pitch or the latest Windows course. The odd photograph taken in some luxurious holiday resort or ashtray from the Middle East often sneak their way in, too. "On the surface this desk appears slightly haphazard," explains Dawson, "but each trophy will be strategically and deliberately placed for maximum effect.

"These people are natural leaders and motivators because they think big, but they need to be appreciated or they are prone to discontent, tantrums and sulking."

The "personality extension" desktop personality, however, doesn't care where her postcards and ashtrays are from. In fact, it seems she doesn't care where any of her personal belongings come from, provided they cocoon her entire workstation. Here you'll find more make-up than a Boots cosmetic counter, not to mention all the cuddly mascots and flowers that get turned into potpourri at a later date. Mini larders appear by PCs along with sachets of sugar, despite being freely available from the office kitchen. "These personalities are always on the go," explains Dawson. "They need constant entertainment, and, although friendly and talkative, are not always discreet."

Finally, there are the chaotic types. The "organised chaos" desktop personality would love to be tidy but panics if everything isn't to hand. "He or she uses a filing system consisting of many different piles of paper, overflowing on to the floor and under the desk," says Dawson. "Crucial deadlines are remembered by a sophisticated, multiple-sticky-note method."

This individual is a workaholic, but the chaos leads to stress and worry, meaning coffee and fags are often needed as constant stimulants. Despite the hysteria, however, this person likes a good chat to break the monotony and is a good, flexible cross-thinker.

More interesting clutter surrounds the workstation of the "creative chaos" desktop personality - books, for instance, or drawings and photos revealing an agile and creative mind. Dawson says: "Though occasionally distracted, this personality is a great lateral thinker and a good source of ideas. Like the `organised chaos' desk owner, this type needs to have things at hand, but only knows vaguely where everything is, and work is often misplaced. Modern technology does not feature strongly on the creative chaos desk."

But what about the recent widespread introduction of clean desk policies? Some companies do not even allow employees to keep personal items in top drawers, so how on earth can they reveal anything about their owners? Judi James, a well known business trainer, claims that this just means bosses look more carefully in other areas, a favourite being under your desk where you put your feet. "It's a bit like standing in front of someone in a smart business suit and checking out their shoes. They often say a lot more than the rest of the image put together - in terms of whether they are new, polished or colour co-ordinated."

But the most obvious personality giveaway in the millennium office, claims James, will be the screensaver. "Flying Through Space is a sure sign of a dull personality while the changing shapes which resemble complex building scaffolding can show high intellect.

Then there are the ego-maniacs who have their names scrolled across the screen in various sizes and, of course, the restless and insecure workers who change theirs every five minutes." Even the most orderly employers, claims James, will never obliterate clues to personality altogether. "It's just not in their interests."

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