Ask Unclutterer: How to cope with a very messy shared office

Reader Suzy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I am an adjunct at a community college, and at the beginning of each semester, I have to sign up for one of five offices to use during my office hours. This semester, I ended up with the messy office. Papers and books are everywhere. Some of these are labeled and belong to adjuncts currently using the office, but most of them are unlabeled or belong to adjuncts not in the office this semester (they may be back next semester or they may not). What is the best way to get this space a little neater without disturbing the belongings of others? I would just suck it up, but I also think that I have a right to a neat place to meet with my students, even if it’s just one hour a week.

Suzy (a name I’ve given her, as she didn’t sign the email), I agree that you’re in a frustrating situation. Having to deal with other people’s stuff, especially when it interferes with your ability to do your work, is annoying and unfortunate. But, since you’re not a supervisor or someone in charge of this space, there isn’t a lot you can do about it.

What little you can do is send out an email to the other people who use the office and see if they’re okay with you doing some straightening work in the space. If everyone, including the person who overseas the room assignment, is on board, then maybe you can do some work to organize the office. If anyone objects, which likely someone will, you won’t be able to take care of the clutter on a permanent basis.

However, you aren’t completely out of options. If I were you, I would come into the office five minutes early each time you have your office hour and bring an empty box with you. Snap pictures of the desk, your chair, and the student chair with your cell phone or digital camera. Then, load everything off the desk, your chair, and the student chair into the box and set the box in a corner. Make the space functional and meet with your students for an hour. Then, after your office hour is finished, I’d use the pictures you took as a guide and return everything from the box back onto the desk, your chair, and the student chair so it resembles the pictures.

Is this option ideal? No. Can it help you to stay sane for the hour you use the office each week? Probably.

This type of thing seems to happen a great deal in academia. I remember a lot of my adjunct professors and teaching assistants during college having their office hours at the campus coffee shop because the shared offices they had been assigned were horribly cluttered or multiple people were scheduled to work in the office at the same time or the offices were incredibly difficult to locate. Since you likely listed your office on your syllabus as your location for office hours, you can’t switch to a coffee shop in the middle of the semester. Otherwise, I would have suggested you change locations and leave the mess for everyone else.

Even though your colleagues are being disrespectful and impolite by expecting you to work in the mess they have created, try your best not to feel animosity toward them about the space. They might be contributing to it, but they aren’t wholly responsible. Plus, you may need them as a professional recommendation or connection one day, and you won’t want to burn those bridges. Also, you only have a limited amount of emotional energy each day, and being frustrated and angry will zap that energy quickly. You don’t have to let your emotions be cluttered by this situation. It’s annoying, but you get to choose how annoyed you’ll be.

And, there is always the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you’ll get the go-ahead from your colleagues to straighten up the office. If you’re really lucky, some of them might even offer to lend a hand … but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Finally, be sure to put in your request now to your supervisor to be assigned a different office next semester. There is no reason you should be continually inconvenienced by your colleagues. If your request is denied, consider the coffee shop option.

Thank you, Suzy, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

15 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: How to cope with a very messy shared office”

  1. posted by @R on

    If you announce it to your classes, your supervisor, and post it on your door, you can probably change where you hold your office hours. I like to hold mine in our campus learning centre; the students like to study near by and ask questions as they come up.

  2. posted by guest on

    no! don’t put everything back each hour! Assuming you want to use this office:
    a)email the department to ask whoever used last year what they want to have done with their stuff. This is a shared office, they have no right to clutter like that.
    b) talk to the people who are currently sharing the office with you. divide up shelve space.
    c) people who are not in the office shouldn’t have ANYTHING left in there. Take a box, put everything in, leave in corner (if available with a name.

  3. posted by laura on

    Send out a note…it’s likely there is just no ownership and folks would be happy to clean up. I’ve worked in shared spaces for years and have found that people are generally blind to messes they think someone else should clean up.

    Establish a shelf, table, or box for storage…whatever is practical.

    Tidy up the obvious things without getting rid of items or *invading* someone’s space.

    After the note is sent, date anything sitting around with a sticky note. If the items are not organized, claimed or removed in a set period of time, they go into a storage box to be kept within the office. Within an established time period, the storage box is disposed of. Whether recycled, donated, etc…..

  4. posted by Michele G. on

    It is not reasonable for someone sharing an office with others to take more than their share of the space or to make the space unusable for its intended purpose. The other instructors are presumably adults who graduated kindergarten at some point, where they had to learn to share. They can keep the shared space neat enough for others to use. It is not an insult and it will not burn bridges to pursue some kind of agreement with the others who use the office to keep it minimally straightened up.

    I speak as a professional who keeps an office in a “co-working” space of a half-dozen open cubes. We have a shared entry to the space and have to negotiate office temperature, client meetings, radio volumes, etc. Asking a co-working tenant to keep their voice down on a phone call isn’t something that would burn a bridge — a person who’s gabbing on the phone at a level that disrupts others’ work should be embarrassed at their behavior, not sore that they were asked to tone it down a little. Same for the selfish office sharers here who are preventing the efficient use of the space.

  5. posted by peachfront on

    In my teaching days, I would definitely use R’s suggestion — meeting in a different location. The picking up, photographing, and replacing of items and papers wouldn’t have worked in my department, where thefts (and accusations of thefts) appeared to be part of the culture. In any case, as an academic, not a housekeeper, you should not be asked to clean up and move around other people’s stuff — and if you take that on yourself anyway, it just opens you up to accusations. Yeah, yeah, you have the photo, and you can show what you moved and put back. But once the question is even raised, you have lost, because you are involved in one of these time-consuming departmental fights that do no one any good. The position of adjunct can indeed be a very unhappy one, but the least ugly solution is simply to have the meeting somewhere else. There is probably some political maneuvering that resulted in you getting the “sloppy” office, but we sure can’t fix academic office politics from here. I think moving around other people’s stuff is definitely NOT the way to improve your position, though. Just my opinion though…

  6. posted by Dusty @ Wine Logic on

    @R Suggestion is great. I had teachers who did that and it really made them more approachable.

  7. posted by eccoyle on

    I love the suggestion of meeting at the campus center if there is a semi-quiet area that would work. Students are much more likely to approach you there than trekking to the departmental offices.

    If that’s not an option.. is there some sort of shelving or filing cabinet in the office? Would people really get upset if you moved the items there?

    It’s very strange to me that people leave items in a communal area and expect them to stay there.

  8. posted by Bren on

    I agree with ‘Guest’, just pack things up in a box and don’t put them back. If anyone really does want back their belongings, they’ll find everything they might be looking for neatly packed away in that box. And seriously, who would leave things in an office that they’re not actually using at the moment and expect to have them back at some point? Even if it’s something that’s labeled, if it was important to them, they would have taken it with them and would be keeping the item safe in their own office or home.

    And yes, most people are blind to others’ messes. But, unlike Peachfront, it has been my experience that people are actually positively surprised if all of a sudden the mess is gone. And bonus points for you if you have a designated space where all the stuff is temporarily kept, having sent out an email I everyone potentially involved, saying that anything that was strewn around the office can now be found in this one particular place, and that everything unclaimed will be thrown out in e.g three months.

    Good luck “Suzy”!

  9. posted by susanna on

    So if we’re going with the logic that no one is allowed to touch other people’s stuff even if it’s not labeled, you end up with potentially the same stuff sitting there, in the same place, until next year the person who left it there *might* come back?
    Are you ever there at the same time as someone else? can you just ask: “Hey do you happen to know who this pile of paper belongs to? Do you think they’ll mind if I move it?”

    Or you can just “accidentally” knock over a pile of papers, apologise profusely and then request that everyone checks their stuff in case something has gotten mixed up ;)

  10. posted by katrina on

    Small bits of cleaning or tidying can work with fewer arguments if you make the tidying about saving someone’s stuff from a possible terrible fate (like being lost, stolen or misappropriated).

    So, for example, you could group the items on the desk by likely owner and leave an apologetic note, maybe somthing like “sorry about moving these I had a near-disaster with my coffee and rescued them.”

    You just don’t mention that the near disaster was that you were so annoyed with the messcthat you considered pouring your coffee over their stuff :-)

  11. posted by Tawnya on

    I am an adjunct currently sharing with 5 other adjuncts and T.A.s. When I moved into the office, I realized quickly that no one had taken any initiative to tidy up the place in at least 6 years (I found course papers from people no longer with the program and a box of dry food items which had all expired). I just sent an email out to the folks sharing my space and asked, “does anyone care if I throw this out?” Additionally I told them that I was going to haggle with IT for a newer computer with updated software, and warned them to save any work that they didn’t want to lose. Pretty soon I had other adjuncts in my office coming to me with their office-improvement ideas: paint the wall! Hang nicer prints! I have a rug we can put down to make it cozier! Now our office looks amazing, with everyone sharing space equally, and producing a calming environment for work and meeting with students. Of course we still have one office-mate who likes to leave her class papers and books all over one desk, but we just move them aside when we need that desk space – no complaints. Hope this helps.

  12. Avatar of

    posted by susanintexas on

    The life of an adjunct is precarious — it’s very possible that the absent people who left their stuff expected to be back this year and didn’t have their contracts renewed. Their failure to pick their stuff up might be caused by anger, embarrassment — or even a hope that leaving their stuff their will somehow mark their space for a renewed contract next semester. It can be a psychological minefield.

    I’d have no compunction however, in moving their stuff neatly and respectfully into a box to get it out of the way.

  13. Avatar of

    posted by mad_scientist on

    The adjunct has a right to a clear desk and two empty chairs. In her shoes, I’d move everything off the desk and two chairs at the start of each of my office hours. I would not put anything back.

    I agree with “Guest” about how to handle the messy office situation. Copy paper boxes are free and good enough. If you have not seen Adjunct X around for a semester or two, send a quick email asking when he/she will be coming to pick up the materials in the office or if the books and papers should be recycled. Send a photo of the stuff.

  14. posted by Her from there on

    I work in a school and our upper mezzanine storage area was full of stuff that had been there for years. Solution? One of the deputies brought everything down and placed it out the front of the staff room that everyone went into at least once a day. He then announced anything still there at the end of the week would be disposed of – and then he went through with it. Nobody even knew who half of the stuff belonged to as staff members had moved on and not remembered to take their things. We didnt even recognise a couple of the names on the boxes. Now we have a much cleaner and better organised storage space and, as far as I know, no complaints from anyone that their stuff went missing.

  15. posted by Hanna on

    That’s quite a situation. Even if you get the go-ahead to clean up, they might make it a habit to let you do all the cleaning-up. I hope your workmates gets to read this by chance or this lesson about office organizing.

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