What Does Your Desk Drawer Reveal About You?

What do you keep in your desk drawer at work? Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway recently investigated what was in her colleagues' desk drawers, and wrote a column about her findings. She talks to Renee Montagne about some of the items people have, and why they hold on to them.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And here we are at the end of the year, which always seems like a good time to clear out all your accumulated stuff and at least try to start anew. In the workplace, that can mean digging deep into desk drawers.

Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway recently did a little investigation of the contents of her colleagues' desk drawers and wrote a column about what they revealed. We reached her in London to hear the details.

Good morning.

LUCY KELLAWAY: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What prompted you to peer into one of your colleague's drawers?

KELLAWAY: Well, I was wearing a new pair of shoes that was slicing into the back of my ankle and I needed a Band-Aid. And so I asked around the office and a colleague pulled out her drawer and I looked inside and there were pills, there were lots of plastic spoons and forks, they were pair of tights, there were all sorts of things in this giant tangle, and eventually she did find a so slightly crumpled Band-Aid with a leopard skin print and handed it to me. And I thought, my god, there's some serious (unintelligible) in there about our workmates that we never really think about.

MONTAGNE: You mean data about who the people are that you work with. For instance...

KELLAWAY: Yeah. There's all sorts of clues about people. There was a colleague who I've always thought was really rather uptight. And in his drawer he's got a neat little sewing kit that's clearly been used a few times. And so he had rumbled himself as the sort of guy that if a button falls off his shirt he immediately fixes it at once. And I thought that told me quite a lot about what he's like in a colleague, which is really jolly decent, if maybe a tiny bit lacking in imagination.

MONTAGNE: So you decided, I gather, that you could really shortcut opinions about your colleagues, people that you might have developed a sense of who they were over the years, you could pretty much just open the drawer and that says a lot.

KELLAWAY: Yeah. Well, it's like if you go to somebody's house, a little bit of a rumble through their bathroom cabinet can tell you rather lots of secrets.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLAWAY: So it's the office equivalent of that, I guess.

MONTAGNE: When you decided to think about this a little more in-depth, I gather you asked any number of your colleagues to report back about what was in their drawers, and people did.

KELLAWAY: Yeah. I sent out an email saying, open your drawer right now and tell me the weirdest thing that's in there. My email system practically crashed with the responses coming in. And my god, there were some surprising things. Someone had a rubber duck. Another person had a sort of peach-colored feather boa. A man had five pairs of women's shoes - work that one out. But most terrifyingly, one guy owned up to having a strip of lead piping in his desk drawer. That's really sinister.

MONTAGNE: Although, did they own up to putting it in the desk drawer?

KELLAWAY: No. Well, you see, that's just the lovely ambiguity of the desk drawer because in the modern office everyone moves around all the time. So quite often when you go to a new desk, you may claim that you've inherited various unsavory items from your predecessor.

MONTAGNE: Well, I know that when I moved into this office here 10 years ago, I did open a door and it was just filled with piles and piles of people's business cards. And I thought oh, poor people, you know, he never had any intention whatsoever of keeping up with them.

KELLAWAY: Well, when I went through my own office drawer, I found masses of business cards that I'd collected, that I have never looked at from the minute someone gave it to me. I can't even remember who any of the people were. But even so, I'm sort of reluctant to sling the whole lot into the bin. It seems, as you say, something as if you're saying that none of these people matter. So for some completely irrational reason I cling onto a lot of them. There are hundreds in there.

MONTAGNE: Well, we here at NPR, our D.C. headquarters are moving a few blocks away, so for months, staff in Washington have been cajoled into emptying their drawers - in some cases, drawers filled with things that have been there for at least a couple of decades. I mean, how do you deal with something like that?

KELLAWAY: Well, I think it's a real shame to throw it all out. I mean, office life has changed so much in two decades. I find it quite comforting to open my drawer and just sometimes remind myself of how things were. I mean, I have such old-fashioned things as newspaper clippings and, you know, the first BlackBerry you ever had. The BlackBerry long since broken but the packaging survives. And letters from the days that readers used to send in actual normal letters. I've got all of those. And although at home I'm an incredibly draconian checker out of things, there is a side to me that wants to play the office historian and wants to keep these relics from an office past. I find them kind of soothing, I guess.

MONTAGNE: Lucy, thanks very much for joining us again.

KELLAWAY: It was a pleasure

MONTAGNE: Lucy Kellaway writes about the workplace and management for the Financial Times in London.

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