Cleanliness is next to convenience

The amount of rubbish that can accumulate on and around a developer’s desk can be staggering, but there is a case to be made for keeping your desk clean, not because a clean workspace is conducing to concentration but because in Japan the one thing they like to do most is move desks.

Nary a yearly quarter goes by without an executive decision to rearrange the office. Sometimes it is done so that newly formed teams can sit together, other times it seems to just be the done thing. Or a new employee needs a space and in stead of putting them at the unoccupied desks available the whole team needs to be reseated to conform to hierarchy; leads sit at the top, producers or bosses have their desks horizontally, facing the rows of vertical desks of those working under them, and the newest recruits sit as far away from them as possible, usually next to the copier or other loud or inconvenient spot.
Unlike the west where nervous employers can be scared with shouts of “health and safety” or “job description” in Japan any move, big or small, is conducted by the staff. Carrying heavy monitors, or heavy devkits as the case is these days, and pushing and shoving desks into new and exciting formations is down to the employees with the boss keeping his hands clean to direct traffic. I don’t think I’ve ever sat at one desk for more than four months in all my time in Japan.

So why are Japanese developers so keen to move all the time? Is it a way to keep the workforce in check, never let them get comfortable? Or maybe it’s more benign; seeing as we spend 99% of our life at our desks, an occasional change of scenery is nice. Personally I think it’s due to typical indecisiveness and inability to plan ahead. I have certainly witnessed a team that was earmarked to be expanded moved into a new area of the office and then walled in by other teams only to have the whole process repeat itself when the inevitable new hires arrived a few weeks later. Or I have seen new shelves put in place only to be moved elsewhere a week or two later, with all the unloading and reloading that entails, for no other reason than somebody thinking it’d look better there.

With this dubious tradition in place, the less you have to move the easier it will be for you. There will be some Japanese colleagues though who have yet to learn this lesson. I once worked with a guy whose desk was the epitome of rubbish, a veritable landfill of crap; empty UFO instant ramen pots, undisposed disposable chopsticks, stacks of magazines and mangas, a bedroll stuffed under his desk, plastic models and papers everywhere.. His keyboard lay balanced on a few small stacks of magazines and his mouse, if it could be found, rested on some empty airfix model boxes. His chair couldn’t be pushed under his desk due to the piles of laziness stacked up there so his daily working posture was either side-saddle or cross-legged.
Whenever said colleague had to move desks it took him the better part of the day, carefully putting all his junk in big boxes and using a cart to wheel them to his new location, where he would unpack everything to recreate the explosion he had had before. And this would happen three or four times a year.

That said, not all developers are that messy. A lot of them are very tidy and a few are even as obsessive compulsive as me, though few go so far as to memorise the faces of those people that don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom and stop them from touching my keyboard or mouse, or use a towel to open the bathroom door. Though having a few magazines and figurines on your desk is a fairly normal occurrence, I myself shy away from those and focus on the bare necessities. My desk contains at most my PC, dual LCD monitors, tablet, keyboard and mouse, gel wrist pads for the latter two (my own, RSI and ergonomics have no Japanese translation*), a large box of tissues, a mug for tea and my mobile phone. All papers and pens and such go in the wheely drawers so they can be pushed to the new desk when necessary. And that’s it.
So unlike my more messy colleagues when the inevitable time comes to play musical chairs again I can be packed, unpacked and set up in no time flat, allowing me to focus on work and not waste hours of my boss’s ti….oh, hang on!

* Or perhaps they do but I don’t think I’ve ever worked for somebody who knew what they meant.

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