Inherited work clutter – what will your successor have to deal with?

In my last post, I wrote about inherited family clutter. But there are other places we inherit other people’s clutter and the biggest one is at work.

Let me give you an example. Where I work, my former boss had been in her position for almost twenty years. Her mind worked better in paper. She liked to be able to touch things and look up information in books and files. After retiring this summer, she did me the mega-favor of coming in on her own time in September to clear out her office and leave me with what she considered to be the right amount of information.

I, however, don’t work the same way. As I think I might have mentioned once or twice, I hate paper, filing cabinets and bookcases full of books that nobody references.

This has meant that whenever I’m not focused on daily operations or moving the organization forward, I tackle a shelf or a handful of files. I have also rearranged furniture and eliminated several non-matching pieces that just begged to have unused paper piled on top of them, and in the process taken a sort of informal inventory of what we have.

Some areas of the office are bit chaotic since I haven’t been able to devote whole days to a beginning-to-end purge and reorganization, but I am bit-by-bit transforming the office, bringing it in line with the beliefs and habits of the staff who are paper-haters like me.

This process has raised questions for me about my own work habits and although I have just started in my position with the intention of staying in it a long time, having to go through the inherited clutter of my boss, I have been asking myself about succession planning and what someone who comes in after me will think of the way I’ve left the office.

Before I go any further, therefore, I’ve decided to formalize the organization and to depersonalize it. In other words, I am going to use the organization’s mission statement and objectives as my guide for what we end up keeping, what we get rid of, and even where and how we store it.

In doing so, if and when I move on, my successor will have a clear understanding of what is where and why.

In the end, I will have cleared out four bookcases, two small filing cabinets and what’s left over, the staff will able to use because they know what it is, where it is, and what it can be used for.

So, now my questions for you:

  • What information do you store at work?
  • Are you clear why you are holding onto it?
  • Are you making your organizing decisions based on personal preference or are they tied to the cultural beliefs and mission of the organization?
  • If you won the lottery tomorrow and stopped working next week, what would your successor have to deal with? Could he or she sit down at your desk and start working without too much trouble?

8 Comments for “Inherited work clutter – what will your successor have to deal with?”

  1. posted by Dorothy on

    It would be great if you’d share your “manifesto” with us.

  2. posted by Gail Burlakoff on

    Excellent article! Thank you. My thoughts, as an 80-year-old who retired a year and a half, is that your tactics can easily be applied to my piles and files here at home! I am trying to clear the decks, so to speak, for the next phase of life. That may be a BIG move (from the East Coat to the Soutwest) or the even BIGGER move to The Great Beyond, but in either case I have a lot of work to do 🙂 I will adapt your process to my situation, with pleasure and gratitude. (Unfortunately, my habits are more in tune with those of the person whose position you now hold–but I am reaching the point where I don’t “hate” paper but do realize that I have way too much of it!)
    Ever onward, and mil gracias!

  3. posted by Holly Hendricks on

    Speaking as an archivist, your organization might strongly benefit from a records management and retention program.

  4. posted by marie on

    If you work in an office I would say it’s hard to avoid paper altogether but at least you can review things periodically and maybe shred what is not useful anymore? I drafted a memo for my new colleagues a while ago so they would have useful (the bare minimum!) information at hand when they needed it. The rest wasn’t relevant so I just tossed it. My policy since I got my current job has been to stay away from paper as much as possible. Plus, you can’t “Ctrl+F” with paper!

  5. posted by Heidi F. on

    Good questions!
    I store as much info as possible, mostly non-paper for easy lookup. When it’s paper, I keep it in binders for vertical storage and easy reference, or scan it. When someone gives me a task verbally, I enter it in an appropriate place on the computer, like my own task list (accessible by anyone with lateral and higher permissions) or the company task program (if it is a larger project).

    Many paper things are currently held onto because I haven’t allotted the time to to through and get rid of them!

    I make most organizing decisions based on personal preference because my workplace’s organization in my department is non-standardized and hoarder-ish (it’s a red-letter day when something gets thrown away or deleted, even a manual from 1999 to a tech implement we no longer own). I’ve helped standardize several areas that I use frequently (like having everyone put associated materials in one folder, instead of starting up their own Misc. folders scattered all over the server).

    I keep shortcuts to the dozens of frequently-accessed server folders and documents in a Helpful Shortcuts folder on my computer, subfoldered by project or task type.

    I recognize my own workflow and storage could use improvement, due partly from a bad habit of rushing from project to project without allotting cleanup/closure time, multitasking other to-dos, and frequent interruptions. I’ve been making more efforts like throwing out old paperwork, trying to keep things onscreen instead of printed out, and using a whiteboard (kept current) instead of drifts of sticky notes.

    At this point, a successor or temp would be somewhat lost as to where to find everything, I do have a document that lists an overview of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly tasks that I work on, and a folder of how-tos continually added to for my own reference as much as anyone else’s. I remember in my own temping days that was a happy rarity to find.

    My goal is to be replaceable. Hey, maybe I might find something different to do or become independently wealthy. It’s a helpful motivation to make my work more efficient, with the bonus that *I* have an easier time doing it, too. I was thinking of people who live in crummy houses for years and only fix them up to sell them – why should the work only be nice and organized for the next person when I could enjoy that now?

  6. posted by Lisa on

    I work at a school, and have had several positions over the last 8 years. One of the things we are required to do is have a “sub folder”, so that someone assigned to fill in for us when we are sick will be able to do our job. Also, the school board in its wisdom alotts no time for training for a lot of positions lower down on the totem pole. The sub folder is the only document to tell you how to do your new job, and most of the time you are the only person at that school who knows anything about your new position. I have made it a point to expand the sub folder for each position I have held as I moved up the ladder: Information for short-term replacements, and expanded information for a long-term replacement. The people who inherited the jobs have been extremely grateful. I have left a physical binder in one position where access to a computer is not part of the job, and a file on the shared drive on the computer network for other jobs.
    At my current job, I have been slowly getting rid of outdated paper copies, and binders full of outdated stuff.
    One of the benefits of having recorded instructions in my shared drive file, is that some tasks I only need to do once I a year, and I thank my last-year self for making careful notes on how to do the task.

  7. posted by Kenneth in Virginia on

    I work in accounting and have essentially been doing the same thing for the last 45 or so years in different companies. Over the years I’ve seen accounting systems go through all sorts of computer hardware, starting from when most things were being done on paper. The irony is that, more paper output is produced when you have a computer. It doesn’t have to be but it’s virtually unavoidable. But if nothing else, the cost of the paper has gone down over the years. Now we use just plain copy paper, not sensitized multi-copy forms.

    The problem is that we naturally maximize the usefulness and capabilities of computer-based systems. We want and use the ability of a computer system to quickly, almost instantly, create reports and records. It has its drawbacks, however, but the production of excess paper clutter isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) one of them.

    The chief problem of computer systems, in my experience, is the critical points of failure, which means being unable to retrieve data or to use the system at all. And the more the processing moves off-premises, the less control one has over your system. More and more people are required somewhere to keep the whole thing going.

    But we wouldn’t go back to the old way of doing things for nothing.

    I will be 71 in August and plan on retiring, if I live that long. So I will be going through all of this before long, handing things over to somebody else who will have their own ideas of how to do things and we’ll all be happy.

  8. posted by Odette on

    My association has a formal records management/retention policy which requires a lot more be kept than what I personally would keep. If I were to leave my job today though, I think the records/paper I left behind would be easily accessible and understandable. It’s the procedures that I’ve put into place that would be more difficult to reconstruct. We do have a hoarder in our midst. He will have to work on his office 24-7 to get it ready for our move in June. It’s cause for celebration when he pitches ANYTHING!

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