How to Deal with Messy Coworkers in 3 Simple Steps

Messy Person painting

You’re trying to get on with an important task but you can’t help but get distracted by something. You also can’t help noticing that your workstation is getting smaller and smaller by the day - then suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, you realise that the main reason for this is one of the worst of all office pests - the messy co-worker.

Of course, you want to nip this issue in the bud before it becomes a real problem as it’s now hindering your ability to do your work, but you don’t want to offend as this could lead to an even more unpleasant working environment. You can’t start throwing someone’s things in the bin without their permission or lay down a trap with some cheese attached and hope that they eat it - so what do you do? Before we get into that, here are a few loosely related facts to get you in the mood. 

  • Every 12 in 1000 people in the UK suffer from some level of OCD (that’s 1.2% of the population)
  • According to research, office books and documents are one of the biggest hot spots for germs
  • A staggering 33% of people only sanitise their work desks once a year

Right, so now for the solution in three simple steps...

1. Establish contact

In a situation like this, communication is key. In order for positive changes to be made, you must establish contact with the culprit and it is best to do so in a more private setting - perhaps at the end of a working day when people are going home, a meeting room, or even a pub if you feel like extending the invite.

Once in your setting of choice, politely cut to the chase - don’t beat around the bush but make sure that you’re not forceful or aggressive in your approach. Let them know you’ve been having trouble focusing at work recently and that their messy work station spilling into yours ‘might be part of the problem’. This is a good way to break the ice and avoid things getting personal or heated.

2. Set spatial boundaries

Now you’ve established contact and got into the issue, you are sure to be at the point of the conversation where you want to start making progress - but tread lightly and be careful how you choose your words. Avoid using any terms that may make you sound like you’re having a pop at your messy co-worker; words such as lazy, slack, chaotic or selfish should be steered clear of.

Remind your co-worker that their ‘things’ are cramping your own workspace and ask if you can set some boundaries in terms of where their possessions should go both over and under the desk - an invisible line between you and them if you will. While in the process, also set a couple of common areas for you to share such as a filing unit or stationary drawer - this will show them that you want to work with them and not against them.

You’ve made contact, worked out rules and boundaries and established an understanding with your messy co-worker, so all that remains is to get things in motion.

Offer your assistance, not as some sort of cleanliness therapist (this will come across pretty patronising), but to help them maintain the boundaries you’ve both set. For example, get hold of a small bin that fits in between your desks, suggest digital organisational tools to help get rid of that pesky paperwork and encourage them to do a bit of a spring clean with you - these will get things off to the right start.

Other top tips

  • While discussing the issue, if your messy co-worker is reluctant to take your advice, offer to buy a few novelty office tidying desk gadgets which you can both share. These gadgets will more often than not give messy people an incentive to keep things neat and tidy - after all, none of us ever really grow up!
  • If you’re a senior member of staff and the culprit hasn’t improved their ways, start a fortnightly departmental clear up so that it is compulsory for everyone to take part and avoid the risk of the messy one feeling victimised. This will make for an overall cleaner and tidier office environment. To make things even sweeter, you could provide food and drink during the bi-weekly office tidy - just make sure no mess gets left behind!

So, if you are sick of the person’s mess directly to your left, your right or even in your eye line, there are bits of paper, apple cores and unwashed mugs everywhere, the ball is in your court - don’t put up with it, follow these three simple steps and things will improve in no time.