Clean Desk Policy: What, How, & Why

A clean desk policy requires employees to clear their desks of documents and data storage devices at the end of the workday. The goal of a clean desk policy is to reduce the risk that sensitive data might be stolen or seen by the wrong person.

How a Clean Desk Policy Works

Clean desk policies establish well-defined rules that outline how workers must treat written information. At the end of a workday, employees are expected to clean off their desks, ensuring all sensitive paperwork or data storage devices – like thumb drives – are out of view and properly stored.

In some cases, the instructions may be relatively straightforward. For instance, a basic clean desk policy may simply require that documents and data storage devices be put into an appropriate desk drawer.

However, others are more comprehensive. Along with requiring a desk to be free of paperwork and data storage devices at the end of the day, it might dictate where specific types of information must be stored. For example, it could describe situations where an item can simply be in a drawer or when it must be in a locked cabinet in a specific storage area.

These requirements vary based on organizational needs, and can even differ from one employee to the next based on their position.

Often, clean desk policies also contain guidelines regarding the destruction of documents or storage devices that contain sensitive information. For example, paper shredders may be provided to employees along with directions about when shredding is required.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that proprietary information, login credentials, and similar records won’t be seen by others, such as building visitors or cleaning staff. It effectively controls data leakage in regard to information contained on physical items.

Benefits of a Clean Desk Policy

The primary benefit of a clean desk policy is that it enhances security. Its main function is to ensure that sensitive information isn’t left out and accessible. As a result, the chances of accidental data leakage are far lower.

Similarly, clean desk policies make compliance with various security standards easier to achieve and maintain. It allows companies to meet the requirements set forth in ISO 27001, the Health Insurance Accountability and Portability Act (HIPAA), and similar best practices and mandates.

Clean desk policies may also lead to better password management. Generally, writing down login credentials is discouraged by employers, but many people rely on sticky notes to track their passwords anyway. With a clean desk policy – preferably coupled with strict password management requirements and password management technologies – workers may be less inclined to write passwords down on notepads, ensuring login credentials aren’t stolen.

Further, clean desk policies inadvertently encourage the use of digital storage over physical paperwork. As a result, it can make it easier for a company to work its way toward being paperless, a move that can lead to some significant savings, simplify data retention, streamline operations, and lead to a greener workplace.

Finally, a clean desk policy results in a more organized and attractive workplace. Issues like clutter are far less common, as taking a moment to tidy up at the end of the day becomes common practice. Plus, by also outlining where information can be stored, it keeps critical records in the right place and accessible to other employees who have the authorization and need to access them.

Drawbacks of a Clean Desk Policy

Many companies have concerns involving visual control, which ensures that all involved parties in a project have visual access to specific information quickly. Usually, prime examples of visual controls are items like scrum charts. Often, these items are difficult to store and can’t simply be replicated on a daily basis, potentially negatively impacting efficiency.

Similarly, employees that rely on the same data daily may find themselves having to store and retrieve the same files repeatedly. Again, while the time impact may be minimal, that all depends on the required storage procedures and location.

Finally, cleaning workspaces takes time. That means employees have to allocate work hours that were previously spent on other tasks to tidying up, which could slightly diminish productivity.

However, since the exchange is heightened security, the inconveniences are usually considered worthwhile tradeoffs. Still, companies should search for solutions that allow them to minimize the impact on productivity, making a clean desk policy as convenient as possible.

How to Create a Clean Desk Policy

Generally speaking, clean desk policies aren’t hard to create, even if a company is starting from scratch. Most touch on the same key points, so you can use the following sections as a framework for a customized policy.

1. Overview

The first main component of a clean desk policy is an overview. This serves as an introduction to the new requirements, including the primary goal they’ll achieve, the basics of what’s involved, who must adhere to the rules, and whether it’s mandatory to follow it.

2. Purpose

Usually, the purpose section features a handful of bullet points that outline the primary reasons for having the policy. Essentially, it’s a quick reference that discusses the benefits the policy provides, effectively covering how it mitigates relevant security risks.

3. Responsibility

The responsibility section formally outlines which employees are subject to the policy. For mandates of this nature, it’s most common for them to apply to all staff members, employees, contractors, or other parties operating on behalf of the company.

4. Scope

In the scope, companies outline when employees are expected to follow the rules. Some clean desk policies apply solely to the end of the workday, ensuring nothing is left out overnight or during non-workdays.

However, some also make clearing one’s desk mandatory during extended breaks or long periods away from the workstation. That can include lunches, as well as meetings in conference rooms that last longer than a specific amount of time.

5. Action

The action section outlines precisely what is expected of employees. This can include everything from planning the required time to adhere to the policy, as well as what items must be stored and how. Ultimately, this part will vary depending on organizational needs, but it may include:

  • Filing paperwork
  • Storing data devices in a locked cabinet
  • Locking all desk and filing cabinet drawers
  • Scanning paper items and storing electronic copies securely on computers
  • Locking computers when away from desks to ensure screens aren’t visible
  • And more

6. Enforcement

Finally, the enforcement section discusses any ramifications for failing to follow the policy. This should include an outline of potential disciplinary actions.

Why a Clean Desk Policy is Wise

Ultimately, a clean desk policy doesn’t just promote organization and cleanliness; it keeps company information secure. By having a formal policy, companies can outline expectations and set up clear protocols for employees to follow, ensuring everyone knows what’s required.

Additionally, it can ease the transition if your company is going paperless, effectively encouraging employees to rely on digital resources. Finally, it makes security and compliance easier to manage, reducing the risk of an incident.

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