Why I Need People More Than A Clean Desk

I once worked for a company that was designed around six reports. By using these six reports, the owner of the firm could manage his $300 million business, and avoid most unpleasant surprises.

One year, my division's goal was to generate revenues of $100 million. We generated $100,010,000. To come that close to the owner's goal, we had to push two weeks of customer shipments into January. Yes, we deliberately slowed shipments so that the owner could have a company whose sales he could predict with great precision.

I left this firm after three years, because I did not enjoy a job in which my main task was to manage my desk well.

To please that sort of an owner, managers had to:

a.) Spend 97% of their workday in the office.

b.) Be incredibly organized, and maintain a fastidious filing system.

c.) Be tough as nails with suppliers and employees.

d.) Do everything the owner said, even when he was insulting and rude.

Perhaps you've worked for such a boss? One who values results more than people, who abhors chance and wants to reduce everything down to proven formulas?

Truth be told, this approach can work. It's not dissimilar to the way assembly lines work.

I just don't like it. Life is too short to reduce it to numbers, tickler files, and an empty Out box.

I'd much rather work in a culture in which people matter, and talent is something to be cultivated rather than rented. Growing by 12% a year, 20 years in a row is not my aspiration. Growing to my full potential - and helping others do the same - is so much more important.

For a time, my perception was that quitting that job was the dumbest thing I ever did. My entrepreneurial venture that followed was an up-and-down battle that never paid off financially... or even personally. But now it's clear that there was no other alternative. You have to know who you are, and I need human relationships more than a clean desk.

A few years ago, I solved the Messy Desk Problem by abandoning my desk entirely. At first, it served as a lovely place to store outdated digital devices, pretty rocks, and interesting toys. Then I just threw it out.

I now work out of the Eames Chair you see here. It has the advantage of lacking a flat surface on which to store stuff, which means I can't clutter it with, well, anything.

By the way, that's Hadley above, one of three 70-pound dogs I own. She's what my son calls an Aussieman, which is his made-up name for her dubious heritage as an Australian Shepherd/Doberman mix. She doesn't use a desk either.

When I shifted to my no-desk strategy, I also shifted to an all-digital filing system. All my articles, drafts, research, presentations, and speeches are in a neat (yes, neat) system that lets me find things quickly and easily. The best thing about this system is that iced tea glasses, lunch plates, review copies of other people's books, my extra jacket, and old newspapers don't fit into it.

In other words, I may be a bit messy on the outside, but inside I'm pretty focused.

This is the perfect balance for me, and perhaps for you, too.

In the real world, I can't control what people leave in my office (a lot). I can't always muster the energy to decide whether I might, possibly, maybe need a paper copy of the last 48 documents I signed.

In the digital world, my filing system expands endlessly but stays organized. "Clients" always contains one folder for each of my clients, and all their articles are in this folder. I won't bore you by going on and on, but it is EASY to stay organized in the digital world. For one thing, loose dog hair - which is everywhere in my real world - is nowhere to be seen in my digital space.

As a person with many different interests and modes, I thrive on this sort of distinction. My physical space needs to be relaxed and informal. But I can't tolerate imprecision when it comes to refining my work, serving clients, or simply organizing the ideas that matter most to me.

By the way, for those of you who think, "I could never just use a chair," think again. It changes the whole character of an office. People react differently when they enter. Your space becomes a social setting. Plus, instead of slouching at a desk, you can sit with your back supported.

(Personal plea: if Eames Chairs are bad for your back, or if they do not provide proper support, please do NOT tell me. I am very happy with the status quo.)

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