It’s the Little Things…Noticing Unwritten Rules at Work (or, Set Up Your Office for Success)

Each office has its own unwritten rules of conduct. There are the rules that everybody knows but doesn’t say, such as how long you can acceptably chat with coworkers or how casual you can be on casual Friday, and then there are the rules that everybody might not realize they know but they still follow. One of these unwritten rules in my office is how the computer screens are set up and how clean the desk is. It might seem like a little thing, but I can guarantee that the bosses and supervisors subconsciously take note.

The Unwritten Rule About Desks and Screens

At my job, you can decorate your office however you want. For example, 1 senior-level employee in my office has very few personal touches, though there are a few family photos and some sports memorabilia. Another one has framed family photos hung prominently around his office. Yet another has her kids’ drawings taped to the walls and a few plants. The point of these examples is that the decorations are all varied. However, these 4 people have something in common: in each office, the desk faces the door, the computer screens face away from the door, and the desks are clean.

From the bosses all the way down to the entry-level employees, there’s an unwritten rule about how you set up your desk and how clean it is.

For the senior employees, e.g., the bosses, supervisors, and executives, their desks are nearly spotless and become cleaner as they move up the organization. Additionally, their computer screens are hidden from view, typically because they review sensitive information that not just anybody can see.

A senior-level desk (yes, there is paperwork, but that’s because this executive had been out of town and had paperwork dumped on his desk)

Mid-level employees have their desks set up differently than the senior employees do. For them, their desks have a segment that faces the door, but their computer screens are against a wall so that almost anybody walking by can see what they’re doing. Additionally, their desks are typically covered with papers.

My mid-level desk! Note the computer screens that anybody can read and all the papers strewn about my desk

Lower level employees and support staff are set up so that their computer screens cannot be seen from the hallway. Their desks have a few pieces of paper on them, but nothing much.


Entry-level employee desk – can’t see the screens and the desk is spotless

There are some exceptions to these rules, such as a mid-level employee with access to confidential information may have 1 screen visible and 1 screen hidden so that she can view the confidential information without anyone peeking. However, this is the exception!

How Does This Help You?

The desk/computer screen idea is a very specific example of a very broad concept. The broad concept is that there are so many little ways that we signal things to other people – little ways that few people rarely consciously note, yet almost everybody follows. Nobody walks around my office telling people how clean their desks should be or the direction that their computer screens should face. Instead, it’s something that everybody subconsciously follows. Becoming aware of this unwritten rule can help you project an image that you like or help you be more conscious of your actions.

If you have control over how your office is set up, observe others around you and set up your office for the job you want. If you’re happy at your current level, then leave it! If you want to move up though, look around you and try to note the consistencies in the offices one level above you. I say one level above because you risk sliding backwards on the hierarchy. If you’re a relatively new employee with a clean desk whose computer screens are hidden, it looks like you have nothing to do and you’re hiding the time you spend on social media instead of looking like your boss. If you’re a mid-level employee who wants to rise up, then maybe clean up your desk a little bit and keep those screens visible until you’re promoted to a senior-level role.

What Unwritten Rules are in Your Office?

What subtle clues can you find around you? What unwritten rules exist in your office? I love to hear what other people notice!

2 thoughts on “It’s the Little Things…Noticing Unwritten Rules at Work (or, Set Up Your Office for Success)

  1. I work in academia and I read an article recently that commented on the two main decorating styles professors have: “I live here, and my place is posh” and “I live here and I’m a slob/too busy to clean/ can’t be bothered with prosaic things”. I never intend to start in the second option, but drift there throughout a semester. I’m currently waiting for a meeting with a student and I think I’ll take a few to clean up my desk 🙂
    The thing I notice is varied “dress codes” between administration and faculty, as well as faculty from various departments. It’s all an “unwritten” rule, like in your example.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha yes! I remember the various professor offices. In the engineering department, there’s a very clear division between the “posh” offices and the “slob” offices. These are great examples! Thank you for commenting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.