Professional Development: Office Clutter? Don't Agonize, Organize!

Guest Contributor James O'Connor claims a little bit of desk tidying goes a long way towards being clutter free.
Guest Contributor James O'Connor claims a little bit of desk tidying goes a long way towards being clutter free.

Professional Development: Office Clutter? Don’t Agonize, Organize!

Professional Development: Office Clutter? Don't Agonize, Organize!

By James V. O’Connor
Published in the July 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Before desktop computers and today’s emphasis on cost efficiency, many professionals could focus on matters critical to their success while time consuming details were handled by an indispensable personal secretary. These aides still exist in some companies and are now called administrative assistants. Typically, however, only the higher echelons of command work with personal administrative assistants. Other workers must share assistants and vie for their attention.

Computers can do wonders even for managers only familiar with a fraction of what can be done with toolbars. Unfortunately, “print” is clicked more often than “save,” contributing to an overflow of paper that secretaries used to bury somewhere—recovering it if needed in the future.

The out box still exists, but now it serves as an inadequate file drawer. The in box is any space on a desk where the pile does not slip to the floor when it is topped off with the day’s mass of mail.

Studies have shown that business people spend as much as an hour a day searching for documents, phone numbers, and even staples. What’s needed is there, but where? Why do professionals agonize instead of organize? The lost productivity might be less costly than hiring an assistant, but is it possible to attach a dollar amount to the cost of mess stress?

The solution to clutter control starts by knowing that having and keeping a workspace organized is part of a job, and that an employee’s salary is more emotional than monetary. Many organizational barriers are psychological.

If the work area is chaotic, a system must be established before the clean up can begin. Three things are needed before starting on such a project: some uninterruptible time, common sense, and faith in the golden rule of organizing-there’s a place for everything, and everything should be in its place. If employees know where items belong, they will know where to put them and also where to find them.

The best time to organize is on a weekend when co-workers or vendors are not a distraction, and the “real work” that needs to be done is less of a concern. Before leaving Saturday morning chores and errands behind, employees should make a time commitment of at least four hours. This will promote more motivation and perseverance to complete the task at hand.

The common sense factor to organizing is making certain that necessities most often are closest to the desk and in plentiful supply. That includes a drawer equipped with the basics of pens, writing tablets, scissors, a stapler, a calculator, and whatever additional tools the job requires. Proximity doesn’t mean that all current projects should be on the desk where they can be seen. Items get lost in desktop rubble if “out of sight, out of mind” becomes a fear; the result defeats the purpose of getting organized. Employees should get in the habit of putting things away and maintaining a to do list, preferably on the computer’s desktop. This behavior plus keeping the immediate workspace as clear as possible are excellent first steps.

Next, staff members should be asked to create and label a manila folder for each ongoing project. If the project is large and complicated, they can include sub-folders for each aspect of the job.

Most desks have at least one drawer that holds hanging files; that’s where active files should be placed. Another option, especially for immediate projects, is a vertical file holder on the desk. The best ones have slots on different elevations, allowing the labeled tab on each file to be seen. When a project is completed, the employee can move it to a file cabinet.

There are various ways to organize file cabinets, and everyone needs a system that works in that particular facility. Using common sense helps; the files needed most often should be more accessible than records and documents that belong in archival files. Archives can be kept in a storage room, providing more drawer space.

If the current system is a mess, a list of mandatory items needs to be made. Managers can identify the major categories, such as customers, and then subcategories, such as current, prospective, and former. Employees can estimate how much file space will be needed for each major category.

Cramped drawers discourage filing. For example, an entire drawer just for vendors might be necessary. A big wastebasket is almost as important as a good file cabinet. When the mail arrives, employees should be on the lookout for junk that can be tossed without being opened or read. Everything that comes into an office or cubicle cannot be acted upon, but it can be sorted. Most material worth keeping fits one of three categories: action, read, and file [See “From Where I Sit: Messy Desk=Messy Mind? Not So Fast!” by Tim Springer, published in the April 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager].

Action items are important, and some may even be urgent. Some personnel may find it more practical to keep stackable trays on the desk for different categories of action required, such as bills, review, and answer. Reading material, such as trade magazines and newsletters, should go in or near a briefcase if they are being read at home. If these journals stay in the office, employees should be urged to keep a reading pile somewhere other than on the desk. If the stack gets too high, then they should be prompted to purge the pile or simply toss the less current issues.

It’s fine for co-workers to have a file pile—work can’t be stopped just to file things every time they arrive—but a regular time of the day or week when filing is done helps. First, staff members must decide if each piece is really worth saving. If the answer is yes, then they must determine if a category for it already exists in the filing system.

An important tip for facility managers is to have filing materials—manila folders, marking pens, hanging files, and plastic tabs—in a desk drawer. Odd as it seems, many people might not be willing to get up to file something, but they will put it in a folder and label it before adding it to a file pile. Perfect order isn’t possible, but don’t let chaos flood the facility. Get employees to practice periodic purges and order will be preserved.


O’Connor is the owner of Clutter Control, an office and home organizing service in Lake Forest, IL.


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