Three bits of universal organizing advice for traditional office environments

Today we welcome a guest post from Janice Marie Simon, MA, CPO, a Project Director and in-house organizer at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she helps researchers and clinicians with productivity, organizing, technology management, and life management. She has a blog at and is the Organized Auntie at

As a professional organizer who works inside an academic medical facility, my clients work in offices, cubicles, laboratories, and patient clinics. No matter what their space is, some things are universal to their workplace environments: The look of their workplace matters – especially to the boss. And, too much paper and too many ineffective meetings are a daily part of work life. These three things aren’t relevant only to my clients, but to all employees who find themselves in a traditional office environment.

The Look of Your Space

A Career Builder Study shows two out of five managers are less likely to promote someone with a messy desk. Messy offices were once a sign of creativity or busyness, but shows such as Hoarders and Buried Alive have brought serious clutter issues out in the open. Standards have changed.

Since I began organizing, I’ve always had clients who were encouraged (sometimes very strongly) to call me on the recommendation of their bosses. In the past couple of years, the number of those clients has definitely increased.

In a few cases, the boss may be “hyper-organized” where even an organizer looks like a hoarder to them. In these cases, the boss is judging other’s spaces through a skewed lens.
Most cases, however, the client’s boss identified normal cluttering issues. Since presentation is everything, we focus on making long-term changes to their spaces. Simple steps we take:

  • Remove all sticky notes and papers taped on the computer, printer, overhangs, and walls.
  • Confine any papers and pictures to the borders of bulletin boards and the pushpin space of the cubicle wall.
  • Have only one container for pens and markers. Put the extras in a drawer.
  • Items such as the tape and stapler can go in a drawer if they’re not used every day.
  • Toss any trash, including half-filled coffee cups.

If you look organized, you feel organized. It also makes the boss happy.

Go Digital and Go Paperless

It’s easier than ever to go paperless. You can use a scanner or many office copy machines now come with the ability to scan documents into PDF format.

While converting to digital, start where you are with your current work. There’s no need to go back and scan everything in your office. As you go forward, you can grab a handful of older papers to see what needs to be tossed or shredded and what should be scanned. Remember: not everything is scanworthy.

Detach attachments from your email and keep them with your digital documents. Email systems are not the best way to file documents since the files take up a great deal of space. If it’s important and you want to keep it, save the file to a documents’ folder, and rename it if necessary.

Have More Efficient Meetings

Make meetings more productive by having a detailed agenda you email out beforehand. Outline action items that require decisions so people attending the meeting know what decisions they need to make. This really helps introverts who like to have time to think about decisions ahead of time and be prepared. My fellow extroverts and I talk to think instead of thinking and then talking.

During the meeting, stick to the agenda and keep the action moving. If someone brings up a topic not on the agenda but requires additional time and research, put the item in the “parking lot” to be discussed next time.

Banning smart phones during meetings is becoming popular. This keeps people from multi-tasking and checking email instead of paying attention and participating in the meeting.

When you get back into your office after a meeting, capture action items on your to-do list. Sort the handful of paper you more than likely received, toss the items you don’t need, and scan in the ones you do.

By clearing your desk, ditching the paper and having more effective meetings, you will work smarter, not harder.

9 Comments for “Three bits of universal organizing advice for traditional office environments”

  1. posted by JudiH on

    Any advice for those of us whose offices overflow with months or even years of clutter — mostly paper — that needs to be sorted and cleared? I just get demoralized when I walk into the space.

  2. posted by Leslie on

    Years ago, I worked for a global publisher. Paper and lots of it was the norm. In fact, if there weren’t (neat) stacks of manuscripts and papers on our desks, it was viewed as ‘not busy enough’. However, post it notes and scrap paper WERE frowned upon. So much so that the company invested in having everyone trained in a particular time management program and the first thing the trainer did was take away all the post-its. It was viewed as an inefficient means for keeping track of things and our Editorial Director/VP (who kept an immaculate desk) hated them.

  3. posted by David on

    I’m not sure I understand some of your reasoning. You say that 2/5 managers are less likely to promote people with cluttered desks. For the remaining 3/5 was it a non issue or did they look at having a clean desk negatively? Shows like Hoarders seem to be a little bit more extreme than a sloppy desk so I’m not sure about that linkage either. But maybe this is all because I’m sitting at my extremely cluttered desk right now! :)

  4. posted by Liz on

    @JudiH: I was faced with a similar situation a while ago. I just took a small pile at a time and set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes. Even if I only sorted for one 15-minute period each day, everything did get whittled down into something manageable. And now I refuse to allow the paper filing (my downfall) to pile up!

  5. posted by G. on

    Another reason not to use email as storage – many companies are implementing systems to delete mail of a certain age, unless tagged as needing to be kept for legal reasons or corporate requirements. And even those emails have various lengths of time to be kept before being deleted.

  6. posted by Pat on

    I’ve saved email attachments. But how do you detach them from the email itself, which sometimes needs to be saved?

  7. posted by Ms Hanson on

    Good advice packed into a brief piece!

    “Email systems are not the best way to file documents since the files take up a great deal of space.” Explains why my Gmail fills up my cell phone. PDF it, for Pete’s sake.

    “While converting to digital, start where you are with your current work. There’s no need to go back and scan everything in your office.” Realizing this helped shrink my To Do list enormously.

  8. posted by Viv on

    JudiH, I highly suggest putting it in containers first. At least then it is somewhat sorted and the piles don’t fall over. Just grab 10 containers (we use Useful Boxes at our office) and start sorting. Mark one as urgent so you don’t bury current work. Do it quickly until you have a tidy office filled with containers. Wipe everything down or leave a note for cleaning staff to do it. Then work on the containers.
    This can actually save money. When we got a new receptionist who cleaned out the pigsty of an employee who left, we found 7 staplers.

  9. posted by liz on

    I have issues with papers related to my financial records as well as those related to my aunt,my parents and various trusts. I wrote up a retention plan for each person and cleared it with the family attorney. I made sure that the destroy date was clearly identified.

    I bought clear plastic boxes that can hold legal size papers. There is one box for each person that is the permanent box. The other boxes are labeled by person and year. They boxes are stored in a closet, to be reviewed at my leisure. At least my home office is cleaner.

    I work on thinning the papers after tax time, box it and store it the attic.And if I don’t get to a few of the boxes,it will be ok – most will be destroyed with seven years. Not the fastest of methods, but least stressful at this point in time. The eventual plan is that when last year’s papers arestored in the attic, I’ll bring down the oldest box and shred.

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