Ask Unclutterer: An entire agency uncluttering project

Reader Lee submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I work at an agency that has about 20 staff. In early July we will be renovating our space and most staff will have to pack up their offices to prepare for the renovations …

Without coming across as militant, how can I help my co-workers through the uncluttering process? I’m forever pointing out that they hold onto things they no longer need. For example, many of the print resources they hold onto are available on-line.

We have the ability to scan and store documents.
We have a client database where some information can be stored.
We have a pretty good timeline for the packing-up process.
We are renting Frogboxes to pack things into.

Lee, I’m oddly giddy for you and this experience. It’s so rare for an organization to have an opportunity for everyone to unclutter on company time.

The first thing I would do is help your coworkers to learn how to scan documents. If you’re in human resources, you can send out an email inviting everyone to a training session in a conference room and offer snacks (people like snacks). If you’re not in human resources, I’d still hold an information training session for your team. Suggest your boss get everyone lunch and hold the informal training session while you all eat. Even if everyone says they know how to scan documents and file them on the network, simply suggest it’s a refresher course to help speed up the process as they tackle their paper piles before the move. A training session also indirectly lets your coworkers know that the expectation is that they will get rid of some of their paper before the move.

Next, I would set a schedule for everyone on your team (or at the agency, if you’re in HR) to tackle group projects together. If your team shares a group filing system, schedule a two-hour time block when everyone on the team will help to sort, purge, and/or pack these shared materials. By having these set group activities on the calendar, you will be able to train everyone on how to unclutter. As a result, these group experiences can then help to encourage individual behaviors when your coworkers are working on their personal spaces.

Also, I’d communicate that there are a limited number of Frogboxes (such a cool service, I would like to add) and that people will only be able to pack what can fit into the boxes. If you’re in HR, you will know exactly how many boxes each person will get for his office and you can share that exact number. If you’re not in HR, just stay vague and say things like, “since we’re limited in how many boxes we can have to store our personal office items, learning how to scan nonessential documents is valuable.” This isn’t a lie — there is a limit of how many boxes Frogboxes will be providing to your company — you just might be implying there won’t be any exceptions, which there probably will be.

Honestly, I doubt anyone will think you’re a militant since all you’ll be doing is encouraging others to unclutter. As long as you stay positive and offer to help other people, I think your efforts will be well received. Avoid walking around and patrolling your coworkers, as it’s ultimately up to them what they decide to keep and purge. Simply encourage and train and hope for the best.

Thank you, Lee, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck with the office move and don’t forget to check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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.

22 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: An entire agency uncluttering project”

  1. posted by OogieM on

    Quick note the Frogboxes links are not working….

  2. posted by Beth on

    I understand the idea behind clearing out and getting rid of clutter but please remember that everyone has different levels of stuff they like to have around.

    Also, not everyone is comfortable with reading resources on screen, there are some of us that like to have paper (sometimes just to rest your eyes from using the computer screen all day). I do use an ebook for most of my reading but still am uncomfortable with proofing/studying documents on screen (could be my age / training also).

  3. posted by Debora on

    I have found some people don’t mind throwing out old stuff, but just don’t like the whole process of going through things. A few years back me and two colleagues had to move to another office. We didn’t really have room for the cabinet full of old course books and papers we had in out current office, but whether we could throw those out was up to one of my colleagues.
    I went through the process of standing next to the cabinet naming everything in it and asking if it could be thrown out. For every yes it went straight to the bin. I liked it because we got rid of about 95% of the continence, he liked it because he could focus half his attention on some other work and wasn’t bored by the process.

  4. posted by Ago on

    In terms of reception of the message by staff members, I would definitely make it clear which actions are required vs expected/hoped for. I would not go so far as to say “if you don’t do x, y, z no big deal” BUT if there is a certain mark they need to hit, and don’t because they thought all these trainings were just suggestions, but are now “in trouble” for not doing things that way, people will be MAD.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong in being clear and letting them know that:
    1. this (scanning/shredding/decluttering) is required of us all (not a fun, don’t YOU think this is GREAT guys type of statement, but a this is the goal everyone)
    2. Here’s how we’re going to support you in this process so you can succeed (insert Erin’s group clean-up/training + food sessions ideas!)
    3. Thank everyone for their cooperation throughout and at the end + if there’s money in the budget maybe some cool new office supplies when each person reaches their goal (not a competition for “most organized” just a little thank you/YAY gesture for each person as they finish)
    4. play music/encourage ipods while organizing?

    P.S. I used to work at a company where every required activity was poorly disguised as a “let’s brainstorm, but really you better all decide to do x and LOVE it, if not you’ll be reprimanded.” This was, needless to say, very bad for morale. I think adults will respect being treated as competent members of a team, so if you say that organizing/decluttering must happen, you’re not being militant or “bossy,” you’re just saying “next up: office move; let’s do this.”

  5. posted by Anita on

    I second Beth’s comment: always be sure to get feedback and understand your co-workers’ needs. Some people are more comfortable with having THEIR paper copies of reference documents (that they can annotate, highlight, earmark) than share a digital copy only.

    I have next to no paper in my office, and I by far prefer to have documents filed and organized digitally. However I still keep a small folder of printed reference documents for each of my projects, for several reasons:

    – ease of reference when someone walks into my office or when I don’t want 6 windows open at the same time

    – I can take them to meetings to refer to, and keeping a printed copy at all times means I don’t have to print a new copy for each meeting

    – my eyes are sensitive and I get headaches if I read long documents on screen

    All this to say, be prepared and accept that some of your co-workers will have different needs and preferences, and make sure your approach allows for them. When people feel that they’re being heard, understood and accepted, they’re a lot more amenable do do whatever you need of them.

  6. posted by chacha1 on

    Based on past experience as an office manager, ultimately people’s personal preferences need to be subject to the company’s requirements. The workplace belongs to the employer, not the employee.

    If people can only bring X amount of stuff to the new space, then they need to cope with everything they have that is X + Y. And by “cope with” I mean “get rid of.” 🙂

    And THEY need to do it, not leave it for a supervisor or co-worker to do.

    I would make this very clear if I were the supervisor of the group … at the same time I was doing my best to provide resources, training, and team time to do the necessary work.

  7. posted by LoriM on

    Doesn’t look they have the boxes with on wheels. We used these at our last move and they were GREAT. Stackable, too.

  8. posted by krystl on

    ummm… quick question: Is he a manager or a co-worker?

    These suggestions are GREAT if he is a manager in charge of a team. However, and I may be completely wrong here, if he is NOT a manager and just “one of the team” all of these suggestions could VERY easily come off as militant or be unwelcome.

    As a supervisor, I am a big fan of being honest and direct as stated above–no “great idea, right?” or “brainstorming” or fancy stuff–just direct honest communication: i.e. “As we move offices, we are taking the initiative to move into a more paperless environment(moving less)–to aid in this process we are implementing a), b), and c) and will be offering support wherever necessary as well as workshops on the processes we will be using. Some of you may be nervous or insecure during these steps. My door is open for any questions or concerns you may have. “Workshop A” is a “lunch and learn” on….”

    As a co-worker/team member–perhaps privately addressing this topic with the manager and accept their decision and way of going about it whether it is as streamlined as it could be or not. I am not cluttered but do not appreciate it when a colleague “points out” clutter to me or pushes “their way” unsolicited on others (whether doable, logical or not).

  9. posted by The Other Jen on

    Moving is a great time to clean out old stuff, and even the greatest pack-rats will normally dispose of things if there are the means to do so. If possible, and with whatever permission of management etc that you need, order shredding bags or bins, Clearly identify them as such (packing goes here, shredding goes there)and let people purge their stuff. Order it several days early, so they aren’t rushed, and they’ll do a better job. I’ve moved several offices or sections, and even a move from one side of the floor to another will usually be used as an excuse to clear old files (and I work for in a VERY paper heavy, strong retention policy type of firm.) Also, does your firm have an Archiving policy, either for records that go to storage and are auto-purged, or go to the Archives section, and are retained for historical reasons? Could be a good place to send extras that folks believe are to valuable to completely dispose of.

  10. posted by Pamela on

    Agree, if you’re a coworker, keep your nose in your cube. These things will make you come across as a busy body special snowflake. Yes resources are online but my print copy has my tabs and my notes of related sections etc. that makes it faster and more useful for me. What is clutter to you is a vital resource to me.

  11. posted by Julia on

    “I’m forever pointing out that they hold onto things they no longer need” – if this is true, than you are forever making this task more difficult.

    I, personally, despise people telling me how to manage myself – my space, my stuff, my tasks. I have a boss that tells me what the end product needs to be, what the budget is, and when it’s due. If he liked to tell me how to get there before I ask for help I wouldn’t be working here.

    That said, I have been in this type of move. If I had somebody nagging me to get rid of clutter in my own work space, I would have stuffed the clutter into boxes (I’d find my own if the office was low) and take it all to the new office with me!

    So, I suggest you ignore everybody else’s workspace and start with public areas. Have everybody sign up to help unclutter one of the public areas. That’s your chance to share your uncluttering plan and some people will apply it to their own spaces too. Others will do what is required to be a team player and, in their own workspace, do whatever they want.

  12. posted by Julia on

    I should add, my suggestions are if the writer is NOT a supervisor.

    If he (she?) IS a supervisor, than I think krystl described it very well: Explain the expectations and offer help to achieve them.

    You might offer some Guidelines for choosing which documents to scan. But individuals need reference material stored in a location & form that they can/will access without breaking their workflow.

    If you’re going to tell people “you don’t need this anymore” you might as well do it yourself.

  13. posted by krystl on

    but do remember–if you do it yourself–you had better expect productivity to drastically drop. 🙂

    Thanks Pamela and Julia–I honestly didn’t know if I was really off base or maybe alone in my thinking. Or just had a bad experience or two.

    This type of move has happened to me 4 times… I like them, but then, I never worry about other people’s spaces–sounds like cluttered thinking to me. I have enough to figure out with my spaces.

    I had a colleague once “clean out the fridge” of clutter and toss literally everything he didn’t value–including a brand new expensive bottle of something marked with my name (to take home that day) because he didn’t know what it was and it “looked gross” (it was an exotic asian seasoning mix with grated ginger in it and Italians just don’t cook asian).

    It seems off-topic, but the same goes for almost anything–if you do not work with it, you cannot know the value of it for someone else.

    It may go completely against the grain here, but the stress of a move can be complicated by throwing new workflow measures in the mix. Be careful to not overwhelm employees and hold with those promises: “I know it has been really hard on everyone keeping daily work going and scheduling this move. As a thank you, let me offer…” and make it something everyone will love–no dorky mugs with the company logo on it or a “out of work paid day trip”.

    a) clutter alarm, b) who cares, c) exclusion can be counterproductive. One company I worked for (not wealthy mind you) chose to create simple gift baskets for each employee with a new elegant “company” mug, a nice “company” waterbottle, a quality picture frame with a personal thank you note, and a employee-appropriate snack selection. They also paid for lunchbreaks to be simply catered the week of the move when we were all stressed. I LOVED that company and the recognition we all received. The mug, and waterbottle stayed in the company office for over 90% of us. The snacks were of equal value but no sugar for the diabetic, the vegetarian didn’t get the meat and crackers–someone had spent the week before doing some quality investigation. The day after the move we were sent home at noon after the catered lunch no questions asked for a paid long weekend with our families.

  14. posted by krystl on

    ps: the 60 hour work week without paid overtime was not questioned and we were not overwhelmed and the decluttering lunchbreaks were accepted happily. Heck I’d do it again!

  15. posted by Joan on

    If you ARE, in fact, part of the team rather than the supervisor, I’d suggest you walk up to your supervisor and ask for permission to unclutter common areas and then do so, but do be sure to ask the appropriate team member what needs to happen to something if you aren’t completely sure you can toss it out (to avoid krystl’s asian seasoning situation). And stay out of others’ cubicles, that’s their space, not yours.

    The company I work for is also very paper heavy and we have a very strict protocol for this; everything related to one client and their business with us stays in one paper folder and this paper folder has one corresponding computer file in which the electronic files are kept, and no one is supposed to keep copies for themselves (because the folders circulate, and then you lose track of what’s what). If co-workers do wish to make annotations, they are supposed to write it up separately and tack this to the piece of paper it refers to, so others can use their notes, too. And as soon as that particular bit of business is over, the folder is handed to the interns who are supposed to purge it of all unnecessary copies of copies of copies etc. and of correspondence and keep only the bits of paper of importance to that bit of business, and file it away in the archive where it’s kept for a number of years. This keeps cubicle clutter to the absolute minimum, in that there’s only personal stuff, pens, post-its and a computer in there. In case of moving, the archive, the active folders, the computer and the furniture are all the company has to take care of. But this protocol took years to install, so it’d be unrealistic to expect something like this from your co-workers over the course of a move. You could, of course if it’s appropriate to your field of business, suggest something like it to your supervisors.

  16. posted by writing all the time on

    I’m with krystl and a couple other posters. Moving is the third highest stress producing event. Staff/employees will or maybe are already very stressed. Whatever underground rumblings there are may well pop out into the open.

    If the OP is in a management position that has charge of the move, then please carefully plan your messages. Again, krystl’s approach of a neutral, clear “This is what the expectation is and this is how we proceed” is the best way.

    If the OP is NOT in management, keep your nose in your own book. Yes, moving is a great opportunity to unclutter. AND, it’s also a great opportunity for tempers to flare, productivity to plumment, and new feuds to arise.

    In general, I think that if someone else’s clutter doesn’t affect my performance, it’s none of my business. If it does affect me, then I need to exercise every diplomatic muscle I’ve got to deal with it.

  17. posted by Sara on

    You have got to be kidding me. Unless the paper documents are causing an occupational health and safety hazard, leave other people’s clutter alone. Even if you are a supervisor.

    If I was told to get rid of my office papers (particularly hard copies of documents I refer to daily or weekly in order to do my job), I would be be brushing up my resume and actively looking for a new job the next job. That’s just ridiculous micromanagement. All that matters is that a) the office environment is safe and healthy and b) people get their jobs done.

  18. posted by snosie on

    Wow my recent office move was unstressful! And it’s the second I’ve done with this company. We packed our own desks (i did the two of the absent staff – empty cause they moved divisions, so yeah, minimal). Not only that, I did it an hour before ‘home’ time Friday (another company physically hauls it, then we unpack it). I suppose I declutter!? But it’s a great way for even clutterers to reevaluate, provided they have the time to do it stress free (ie enough warning, which we did). The most recent move was ‘easier’ cause it was office based – the one prior included plant/a depot worth of stuff! But we got paid OT to do it in a weekend, and of course, we managed it!

    PS, whilst frogboxes might not have wheels, they might stack, and then have a trolley for the base, that’s my experience.

  19. posted by Amy on

    Re: Sara, this can depend on the company. The one I work for has clearly defined records retention timelines for different types of documents, after which they are to be shredded. Not doing this can lead to loss or theft of proprietary information or regulatory/legal/certification issues. Knowledge is power, especially in a competitive corporate environment and companies have to take steps to prevent “identity theft”. In practice I have not seen it heavily micromanaged, but all employees receive training and the expectations are clear.

  20. posted by ChrisD on

    I think it is a fair point to not tell other people what is clutter and what they want to keep. On the other hand most people are probably NOT reviewing their paper on a regular basis, so even the most cluttered person will find lots of stuff they don’t need after even two or three years (let alone more). As long as they have time and motivation to go through things rather than stuff it into a box without looking at it everyone will find lots to chuck (if I was running a business I would have an annual unclutter day). I think this is an excellent opportunity to encourage everyone to LOOK at what they put in their boxes, yet leave the decisions to each person.
    When we cleaned out our lab we found random items that belonged to someone who left three years ago and kits that had expired years ago (not in my space as I cleared and sorted it when I arrived) plenty of people ignored the storage space under their own bench, and said it was ‘not their job’ to take care of this space or deal with the items (which were not hard to deal with, it wasn’t toxic waste, you just had to ask someone).

  21. posted by katrina on

    I was involved in a very large office most (1000+) people who work in a field that requires paper records are maintained for 7 years from creation. Our managers encouraged a clean-out of clutter by setting a few guidelines.
    The guidelines were things like –
    everyone has 2 moving boxes;
    all office stationery, except essentials, was handed into a pool and became the new stationery supply for the building;
    any paper files not opened in the last year had to be archived, or if informal copies were recommended to be recycled;
    the office adopted a paperless desk policy – all paper had to be packed away off the desk at the end of the day. Soon people were only making prints of essential documents and the paper clutter began to disappear. This was sold as a Commercial Security idea and not as Decluttering.

    It didn’t all work but a lot of old junk didn’t move with us.

  22. posted by Keri Peardon on

    When our large company moved, they organized a series of three purge days, spread out over a 6 month period. People were allowed to come to work in jeans (otherwise never allowed) and they were expected to do only absolutely essential work, then spend the rest of their time purging.

    Gift certificates were awarded for “most unusual,” “most valuable,” and “oldest” items found.

    Boxes were set up in the hallways where you could throw away paper (it was taken by a shredding company and recycled), throw away non-paper junk, and then there was the “office supply recycling box.” Our mail room recovered thousands of binder clips, paper clips, and pens by people just cleaning out their hordes.

    The company presented the purging as a necessary component to the move since they were paying the moving company by the pound and didn’t want to pay extra to move waste. They also saved money by recycling those office supplies.

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