A pile of important documents, another folder with more papers that will keep until next week, three family holiday photos, a tube of hand cream and a half-eaten bar of chocolate – that’s what a lot of desks look like these days.

But lots of companies want to change that – at least in Germany, where a so-called Clean Desk Policy mandates that all documents are ordered and put away each night to leave a bare desk.

“A clear advantage: You lose a lot less time in searching for things,” says Christine Hoffmann, an office organisation coach.

Another advantage: If someone is off sick, colleagues can more easily take on their workload. And not just because they find a clean workspace at the ready.

“If all employees work in the same structures and follow a predetermined structure it’s possible to get a stand-in without doing a handover,” says Hoffmann.

In offices where hot-desking is the norm or teams change all the time, it’s not just bare desks that make up a clean desk policy – it also involves rolling drawer units in which personal documents can be easily transferred to a new desk.

Employers can also benefit by becoming “empty deskers”, as Marc Schmidt, a consultant and author, puts it. “The chaos that I failed to remove at night isn’t there to greet me in the morning,” he says.

He says that disorganised desks are really a question of self-organisation. “Things get chaotic when I don’t know what I can do with a piece of paper, or whom I should go to with it.”

You put the document to one side, creating one pile, then before you know it there’s a second. “Even though lots of employees claim there’s an order to it, that is no way to organise a work space,” says Schmidt. Those who want an organised and bare desk should first carry out a thorough clean-out. Then you need to develop a system. In individual companies people should work on it together – for it to work long-term bosses have to convince their teams that it makes sense.

If employees are only half-hearted when it comes to the new system, there’s a danger that the problem will simply manifest itself elsewhere. “The desk might be bare,” says Schmidt, “but the chaos is hiding in a drawer.”

A clear structure with a bare surface area does have some advantages: Experiments show that lots of stimuli at work lead to unusual solutions.

Clean-desk critics therefore claim that disorganised desks make people more creative.

But Siegfried Preiser, a professor at Berlin Psychological University, says that the effect is limited. “You can create a stimulating work environment without a desk covered in rubbish,” he says.

Employees can keep postcards, newspapers and pictures in a drawer if they want to stimulate their creativity, he adds. A view from a window can also help the mind move in unconventional ways.

“What’s important is the variety of information, sensory input and memories that stimulate lots of areas of the brain to connect with each other and enable new thought constellations,” says Preiser.

So it’s also important to give employees the space to organise their own work flows. – dpa