Ask Unclutterer: I’m organized but my workplace isn’t

Reader Anonymous submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’ve started to notice how disorganized my office is … not my personal office, but the office as a whole.

Some examples:

  1. Office supplies are disorganized, so no one knows where to find anything, which leads to ordering more of things we usually already have.
  2. Our shared computer folders are a mess — everyone has their own systems which makes it hard to find anything unless you ask someone for it.
  3. No one has cleared out the paper files for years. When people leave a position, their paper files (which the new person probably doesn’t need or has their own system) get shoved onto a shelf somewhere and pretty much never looked at again, but no one will get rid of them!

I’d like to find a way to help with these problems, but I’m struggling with it because it’s not really my job and I don’t want to step on any toes or take on additional work just because I’m the only one who brings it up.

Any suggestions? I’ve heard about some companies doing a 2x a year “office clean-up” day — I don’t know if my office will go for it, but I’m interested in hearing if others have experience with this method.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Anonymous, I think you could have entered your name as “Everyone,” seeing as most of the working world is in the same position you are. Companies waste so much money being disorganized in the exact ways you have mentioned. They’re doling out unnecessary dollars for wasted productivity, duplicate supply ordering, increased network storage, and offsite archival paper file storage. A little organizing and uncluttering could save companies thousands, but often these activities are seen as wasted time.

The first thing I suggest doing is documenting on a sheet of paper some of the troubled areas in your division or department. Don’t add commentary to the listed items, simply write notes like, “No inventory system on the office supply closet. Janet has two drawers of files she hasn’t opened in two years.” Then, track down your favorite human resources staff member and see if you can take him or her out for coffee or lunch.

During this casual meeting, talk about some of your concerns. Put greater emphasis on the positive benefits that result from a more organized workplace. Don’t complain or blame or bring up office politics — just focus on why you think uncluttering and organizing could save your company money and improve worker productivity. If all goes well, the issue will be pushed up the chain of command and eventually your HR department might make a twice-a-year organizing day a reality for the entire company. Every time I’ve worked with a company for such a project, I’m always contacted and contracted through the HR department, so my assumption is that this is how it would be handled at your company. If your organization is structured differently, go through whatever department is most likely to be responsible for planning such an event.

A few, rare and wonderful companies have regular organizing days. They’ll hire one or more professional organizers to come in and give a pep talk at the beginning of the day and then be on site to assist workers as tough questions arise. Some of these companies have organizing weeks if it’s the first time they’ve gone through the process. And, these uncluttering days usually help to build employee morale because everyone is working together to improve their place of employment. Happier, more organized, and more productive employees — I’m surprised all companies aren’t already doing it.

Regarding your specific examples, your office could save money by installing a more formalized inventory system for office supplies. Also, check out our tips for organizing a shared drive and the comments to the post for ideas on how to tame the data on your office network. Finally, before clearing out paper files (and there are lots of tips for how to do this in a corporate environment in Unclutter Your Life in One Week), talk with a lawyer. You might not be able to get rid of all of these documents based on whatever it is your company does.

Thank you, Anonymous, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck!

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.

27 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: I’m organized but my workplace isn’t”

  1. posted by Qwerty on

    No. You are better off putting an annual savings on the processes you want to optimize, and asking for a raise and an opportunity to put your efficiency program to work. None of this namby pamby soft sell to hr.

  2. posted by erinb on

    our office has an annual “purge day” – we also get pizza which leads to the jr staffers often referring to it as binge and purge day (what can I say, we’re juvenile.)

    its a huge help in keeping our files on track. we send boxes to archive and keep detailed descriptions of what exactly is going to archives. we also take the opportunity to organize the supply/mail room and recycle old papers that don’t need archiving. All meetings are suspended for the day – it really is a company wide event.

    My office is only 30 people so it’s manageable to do company-wide. For a large office I imagine it would have to be done on a department-wide basis.

  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Qwerty — Anonymous said he/she specifically doesn’t want to take on the responsibilities of planning the cleanup. And, if Anonymous isn’t in HR, it could actually cost the company money and productivity to have him/her plan such an event. If Anonymous is an aerospace engineer, think of all the time he/she might spend researching and writing about matters wholly not related to building a better airplane. In some companies, your suggestion is cause for dismissal. It’s the job of the HR staff to look after the employees and the institution, it’s the job of an aerospace engineer to design airplanes (or whatever it is Anonymous does).

    One thing unclutterers should do is recognize when they have a good idea, but then keep the clutter out of their lives by passing on the good idea to the best person to carry out the action.

  4. posted by Dorothy on

    First, I agree 100% with Qwerty: Your best bet for selling anything to the bosses is to put it in financial terms — how much will it save them, or how much will they make if they implement changes.

    Also, I’d be very hesitant to name names. Calling Janet out will make her an immediate opponent of your project.

  5. posted by Sarah on

    The section of my office that has to maintain long-term but immediately-accessible files seems to unofficially celebrate retirements by dedicating all of their free time the next few weeks to thinning the collection. Now that it’s become such a tradition, it’s just accepted that rather than standing around drinking coffee, you stand around, drink coffee, and remove excess staples, duplicate information, and out-of-date business cards. The biggest thing is, they know how much less annoying it will be the next time they have to pull out that file.

    Back when I was a temp worker living in dad’s basement, I had several jobs where I was brought in to weed files. You might present it as “hiring a temp/intern for X weeks to clear out these files will cost [obscene amount]; on the other hand, if we just weed a file every time we stop for coffee or a bathroom break, it’ll take longer, but it’d be free, and it’d be done by someone we can trust instead of an outsider we’d have to train.”

    Honestly–and this seems so simple–I think one of the big differences between the situation where I work now and the situations where I temped is that here, there’s a big, convenient work surface right by the files. And a coffee machine. If you pull a file, and it’s in bad shape (or even better, the file just in front of it is in bad shape), it’s not a big deal to take half a minute to straighten it up.

  6. posted by jay on

    oh my goodness. I wish I could attach pictures here because you all would not believe the clutter I work with every day. I consider myself a pretty neat/organized person and my boss is decidedly not. For that and other reasons, going to work every day makes me cringe. Still thankful for having a job, though.

  7. posted by KateNonymous on

    @Erin Doland: Based on my experience in the corporate world, nothing that saves money and is legal is cause for dismissal. Yes, businesses want to maximize what they get out of you. But these days employees are doing lots of things below their pay grade, such as managers making copies (not new, BTW; I’ve seen this for the better part of two decades).

    And such calculations don’t have to be thorough to start. If Anonymous spends six hours a week trying to find supplies, files, etc., and greater organization could cut that to an hour and a half, then some simple math based on Anonymous’s hourly income is a decent starting point.

    But I wouldn’t underestimate the challenges of changing a workplace environment like that. Although most people in my office are reasonably organized, we do have one or two hoarders. And although we were able to implement a periodic “Clean out your files” day (our office manager arranges for extra-large recycling and trash containers to be dropped off in the morning and picked up in the evening), we were unable to implement an online workflow and file sharing system. That tells me that we’re also not going to get any uniformity in how we save and archive electronic files on the shared server.

    And I say this as someone who did get her boss to purge enough back files to reduce his filing cabinet space to 1/3 its original volume.

    That said, the other issue is that someone who comes up with an idea often is expected to implement it. It’s often tough to delegate unless you’re the boss.

  8. posted by Marjory Thrash on

    In my 1st secretarial job at a state university, the “secretary” had been taken away by nice men in white coats who had a white coat for her too (yes, really). It was a hoarder’s nightmare! The grant administrator was new also; replacing someone who had been retired for a year. I couldn’t even pull up to the desk – the knee area was full of papers; papers under the typewriter return; papers stacked in boxes on the desk. No rolodex. No office supplies that we could find. We approached it like an archeological dig – decide what we’d need to hold the stuff, where we’d process it, and where the debris would go. It really helped us to concentrate, because we developed a working area and didn’t move stuff around.

    It took us 4 days; we found many checks that had never been deposited. We also found several bills that had never been paid, and personal information everywhere. I recall 4 boxes of cosmetic sales brochures under the desk. We never did find a stash of office supplies; possibly the previous secretary never figured out to actually order any.

  9. posted by chacha1 on

    If Anonymous’ company doesn’t already have a records retention policy, that is a suggestion that could be made whenever his/her department meets. Generally speaking, as long as you have a policy and can show that you follow it, you can’t be held liable later on for failing to produce paperwork in, e.g., a litigation. Until there is a policy in place, it’s actually safer to do nothing. But storing useless paper costs TONS of money (my firm’s offices spends $100K+ apiece per year on file storage!) and if it’s on-site, it’s in everyone’s way.

    As to office supplies, I’d think that could be best addressed by a suggestion to HR with an emphasis on the employee time and supply budget that is currently being wasted. An accessible, central location should be set aside for all such supplies and THEN everyone in the firm invited to clean out their desk and office areas, take everything to the central location, and let a temp sort it all out and make an inventory. And then designate a person to receive supply requests and take care of orders.

    Finally, as to the network files/computer folders, all that needs to be done is for the officers of the company to agree on a format, communicate the format to everyone in the firm, and let the employees know that compliance will be considered in their reviews henceforth. If the officers don’t want to deal with this (many consider such things trivial, which is stupid of them, but there you go), then a responsible person should be designated to design a system. The company’s tech support person is the obvious first choice.

    I used to manage a four-partner law office. Can you tell? 🙂

  10. posted by WilliamB on

    @KateNonymous: I know someone has seen a then-Deputy Secretary of Defense coalating binders for a meeting. (I believe this person because ze was shown this as a life lesson, the moral being “If the DepSec is doing this then there’s *nothing* that’s beneath you to do!”)

    In my experience a significant contributing factor to file and office supply mess is that they aren’t someone’s responsibility. Instead they’re rated and responsible for other things. The opportunity cost of, say, organizing the supply room, is too high compared to, say, making payroll. (BTDT.)

    So if you want to make this pitch, saying that disorganization will cost isn’t enough, you also have to show that the cost of disorganization is greater than the benefit of whatever is being done instead of organizing.

  11. posted by infmom on

    My husband and I share a home office. What we do not share is a philosophy of organization. We simply can’t find common ground.

    I have done most of the work of organizing and filing, because I have the time, but the way I do things annoys him. And vice versa. Our approaches are like oil and water. Neither one of us can figure out how to fix this because our brains are organized differently and what works for one person often drives the other nuts.

  12. posted by Sonya on

    You might look into 5S. This is a sort of organizing process that a lot of big manufacturing companies (especially those using Lean or Six Sigma) use to get rid of waste. It can be adapted for any type of environment; we use it in our IT department.

  13. posted by KateNonymous on

    @WilliamB, that’s a good point–it’s also a good next step to my “starting point.”

    And neither calculation has to take away a lot of time from anyone’s regular duties. For example, in about 10 seconds I concluded that reducing my file-and-supply searching time by 4.5 hours would equal the cost of one of our fairly common printing orders each week. The cost of having our administrative assistant spend two hours organizing and 10 minutes a week maintaining our supplies would be much less than that, and would take less time by the end of week 2.

  14. posted by Lisa on

    Here’s the funny thing – I am self-employed!! I have client files galore. You may say scan them, but I am NOT feeding 200 pages of some document through my baby scanner.

    My problem is that clients have to sever my contracts for a myriad of reasons but usually try to hire me back at some point. Cool, right. Except I keep all their paperwork and if they do call back, I spend 2 days going through it all to refresh my memory. Which TOTALLY impresses them, so I need to keep this stuff.

    My solution is that I scan what my patience and my scanner will allow, archive my email folders, and write every to a CD/DVD. Then I box up the paper, put a binder clip on the corner of the CD envelope so I can find it, and store it all together.

    I’ve kept this stuff for over 10 years now, and I have actually gone back to the boxes in order to get samples for new clients. So I guess I can’t really get rid of it, but I try to keep the space constraints to a minimum. And I am more aggressive about asking for electronic copies than I used to be.

  15. posted by Vanesa on

    Lisa – Pay for it. I totally understand the frustration of trying to scan massive amounts of stuff in one go using a small scanner, but in your situation I think having completely electronic files would be very valuable. So, pay someone to scan what you have right now, then just regularly scan your future files in at a more reasonable pace. Yes, it will be cost a chunk of change to do this initial scanning BUT 1.) you’ll never have to pay for it again if you keep up with future files and 2.) you won’t have to keep 10 years of files in your office.

  16. posted by Kate on

    When I started a the marketing director for a company, I “inherited” boxes of historical files – photos, memos, slides, newspaper clippings, etc. As a newbie to a company very proud (and rightfully so) of their history, I did not feel qualified to make decisions on what to keep and what to throw away/recycle. So, I organized a group of long-timer employees and formed a historical committee. This groups meets once a month for an hour and sorts the stuff. I’m happy to report they are excellent purgers. I’m happy to file/store what they keep.

  17. posted by terriok on

    I commented to a boss once that paperwork was never eliminated, they just kept adding on more.

    My boss was under the impression i could not handle the paperwork, hardly the case.

  18. posted by Rue on

    I second HATING unorganized coworkers. (Okay, not hating the person himself, but hating his lack of organization.) I had a coworker who never filed anything and kept EVERYTHING. He was laid off recently and it fell on me to clean out his office so another of my coworkers could move into it. Fortunately, he was still here for another week or two after he received the news that he was being laid off, and I was able to ask for his advice on what to keep and what didn’t need to be kept.

    In that meeting with your buddy from HR, I would also suggest implementing a rule that when someone leaves their job, before they go they must sort and purge and leave everything in order for his/her replacement. That way you don’t have this problem again in the future.

  19. posted by Joy from Just Plain Joy on

    @Kate. I love the idea of a “historical committee.” I think that’s also a great management strategy for making people feel valued.

  20. posted by Kylene on

    @Sonya Yes! 5S! I’m the leader of a 5S empowerment team in a department at my company (a fortune 500) and over the last 4 years, it’s gone from absolute chaos to organization that most people can live with. And we have audits to check on it monthly, so it doesn’t get bad again.

    Anonymous, if your company hasn’t started looking at Lean Six Sigma, and 5S (a foundation for Lean), then you might just push them to start looking at that. It’ll save the company SO MUCH MONEY in the end. There are people who are specifically trained in how to get businesses organized, both in their processes and how they organize their offices. It can completely change how a company works. For the better, of course!!

    Good luck!

  21. posted by Marc on

    As somebody who has been a boss and worked for bosses I think it would be horrible idea to bring the issue to an HR representative. Best case: they take your issue seriously and address the issue; worst case: your boss gets called to the carpet for wasting company resources and you are the whistle-blower. I would much rather hear my employees suggestions than have a peer meddling in my departmental affairs–even if I like them. If you see an issue in your own department try to address it there first.

    “Think global, act local” really makes sense if you want to make an impact.

    If you really see problems that are resulting in corporate waste try to quantify them and argue the value of a much less cluttered environment or take on a personal special project to pitch a process improvement to the boss. Make a win for your self and your boss and learn how to communicate the value of your work so it will hopefully be replicated.

  22. posted by mr on

    Usually lurk, but am jumping in because Reader Anonymous (RA) is getting really bad advice here.

    I’ve worked in many corporations and small businesses and managed to make changes in policy even when I was a temp collating binders on a project. I don’t have any information about how large your company is, but this advice should be good anywhere. One point, if you are in a department within a larger organization, is your department messier than the others, or is it a company-wide problem. If so, you will be much more constrained in effecting change.

    The key is to realize that your company (YourCo) is producing a product X, of which you are being paid to produce .0000x%. This counts even if there is no physical product. YourCo has provided you, RA with resources it believes are adequate for you to complete this task. This includes salary, a desk, office supplies, a phone and computer, as well as a certain amount of time. This time allotment includes not only the time to do your job, but for overhead like filing and keeping things tidy.

    So… if you go to HR and say “Things are too messy,” what you are saying is that you can’t do your job with the resources YourCo believes should be sufficient. Not a good idea.

    So, what is the solution? First, be the change you want to see in the world. Keep your work area organized, be able to quickly find things when they are requested. Manage your time well, be a person of your word. Even if there is no overall naming convention for shared files, develop one of your own and consistently use it. Evangelize for it. Gain a reputation for being a hard worker and a team player, so that when you start make suggestions they are listened to.

    Also, be observant. All of your complaints are about things, when they are really about people. Before making suggestions, find out who these people are that you want to make do extra work for no other reason than you can’t do your job. (From YourCo’s point of view, this is literally what is happening. These other people are getting their jobs done at the current level of mess, why can’t you?) Don’t worry, this does become the solution.

    YOU HAVE NO PROBLEMS. However, as a good employee you notice YourCo’s problems and try your best to solve them. (And remember, corporate problems are always people, not things.) Things are done the way they are for a reason. No naming convention? Could be that there was one, but some underling insulted a VP for not using it correctly. Or renamed something to the correct convention, and the VP went to an important presentation with the wrong slides. Or you have stubborn users and no one is willing step in to be the filename police.

    On the messy office supplies – who orders them? What budget do they come from? What I would do is find this out and then quietly ask how the office supply budget is doing, because you noticed that they aren’t well organized and things are being ordered in duplicate. Either they care or they don’t. Either way it’s above your paygrade. One suggestion on organizing – needing the space where things are, and decluttering when moving them is a good way to clean stuff up without becoming the “cleaner-upper.”

    Sorry to run so long with this, but… where you work sounds like a pretty normal company and you sound young. Advice – develop a set of good practices that you can take with you to every job. Deal with the paperwork from the person you are replacing right away. Don’t be afraid to ask for an appointment with your boss to ask how to handle it. Show up with an organized list of materials and ask how long they should be retained. If you don’t deal with this quickly, it will never happen. Actually, if you are young and this is an early job, or a significant shift in company size, ask for a meeting with HR to make sure you’re doing things right. It’s always better to go into a meeting asking for help with a situation you are facing rather than having a complaint as the meeting topic.

    One example to leave with. Allegedly there was some really dead end project at Microsoft that would not die. Why do we still have this running, can’t we dump it? The answer was always no. Turns out that it was the bit of software Bill Gates’ wife was working on when they started dating. Problems are people, not things.

  23. posted by leansimulations on

    5S is the solution here. Many companies employ 5S methodology across there manufacturing processes, but neglect the office. Lots of information about 5S and Lean is available on the Internet, including my own blog.

  24. posted by ac on

    Every few years, the cube farm where I work does a re-org of some type that usually results in a cube shuffle as well. Two weeks before move day, the dumpsters come out and we are encouraged to toss everything that isn’t worth moving.

  25. posted by Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér on

    I have to protest against some of the points here, and that is actually where the shared-drive article is essentially wrong while actually having the possibility of solving the problem.
    When you talk about people being unorganized, it is almost always a case of being unable to understand how the others organize, different angles. The simplest example: One person had a workflow where looking up the client folder with a breadcrumb paper trail client order-correspondance-order-invoice-payment-receipt, the other needs the time frame so needs to time stamp, and the third needs orders in one folder, invoices in the next. If it gets really horrible, people will put a paper copy in every relevant file, which is terrible.
    This is part mindset, part taskset.
    This is actually a case where modern software can help. Document Management Systems like KnowledgeTree can tag after case, client and purpose context. File names are needlessly inflexible, and the sorting is just as linear as in a physical folder. What one needs is a structural database where the one who knows the time frame and the relevant client kan input those two, and people who work differently can use those parameters. It should be possible to throw all files into the same folder; as long as the metadata are correct, the system will sort them out.
    People know this from media libraries – like having your mp3 library read the ID of the song as saying that it is by THIS artist from THIS album. In a DMS you can associate freely, so there is no problem if a file concerns several cases and several clients.

  26. posted by Zaheer Master on

    @ Morten I agree with your point about the shared drive. It is impossible to enforce a consistent naming convention using just the standard windows tools. We’ve implemented the Laserfiche document management software for dozens of companies and they have all seen great efficiency gains. This is due to the ability to full-text search documents, so even if you forget what you named something, you can search by the contents. Also we have metadata so if you want to enter additional information about a document, such as a project or client ID, you can search on that as well. Learn more on our blog at

  27. posted by Lee Kirkby on

    A document management system puts the structure into filing and records that adhoc systems never do. As more and more people are being left to do their own filing, putting a tool in place to make it possible for them to structure their information so it can be found is not only a good idea it should be a necessity.

    Using simple index fields it is possible to do very sophisticated searches which can satisfy anyones need to access. That said we have been building these kinds of systems for over 15 years and we still find that the people ready to adopt the process are fewer than those who cling to the old way.

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