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Clean, neat and organized desk by Melissa Walbridge.
The Effortless Office

How to Declutter and Organize Your Office

By Devon Bohm
8th March 2018

Spring is just around the corner and so are the inevitable plans for spring cleaning. Each year, we take the changing of seasons as an opportunity to refresh and renew our homes and workspaces by both cleaning and organizing the places we spend the majority of our time. But even if an annual spring cleaning is on your calendar, how can you ensure your office stays that way? Or, in other words, how do you make organization last?

The reasons for decluttering your workspace are clear: innumerable studies suggest that a neat and organized space makes for happier, healthier, and thus more productive workers. But the methodology for creating a space organized enough to positively affect productivity is harder. Here we break down a process that will help not only you declutter, but help you build a workplace culture that supports a clean office.

Take stock and tidy together

To organize the office and, above all, keep it organized, everyone needs to cooperate. In an interview with Quartz at Work, Marie Kondo (author of the new cult classic The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) shared her thoughts on office spaces: “My suggestion would be for co-workers to tidy up their workplace together. There are many benefits to organizing your desk space, including increasing your efficiency by spending less time looking for the things that you need, being able to more quickly prioritize your workload, and even feeling better as a result of working in a clean environment.” Make sure your office knows why you’re organizing, whether it be productivity, professional gravitas, or the well-being of everyone in the office, and enlist their help.

The first step of any plan of attack is just that: create a plan. Assess your office and find where the problem areas lie. Take a walk around your space as if you were walking through for the first time: does the reception area look neat? Is there a clear path when you walk through the office? Do the desks look uniform or haphazard? Is the kitchen counter clear or covered in random dishes and snacks? Make a list of every problem area and schedule time to tackle them one by one. Approaching cleaning and organizing strategically will increase your chances of success.

Once you have made a cleaning schedule, share it with your colleagues and let them know when you will need their help. You’ll especially need their help for the next part of the process: purging what you don’t need. Ask employees to take home all personal items they don’t need and give them a deadline to do so.

Plan a few Friday happy hours or take a full, dedicated day, get everyone together to rid the office of anything you don’t truly need. Getting rid of unwanted items as a group gets everyone invested in the continuous fight against clutter, and helps everyone be more conscious of what can be put away or thrown away. For the big clean out day, try removing all personal trash and recycling receptacles in lieu of one, common area to dispose of trash. It’s easier to move around and rearrange desks if need be and builds camaraderie.

Reducing visual clutter: Personal spaces

Beyond the productivity benefits, Sam Gosling, psychologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, believes that a person’s desk is more than just a place to work; it’s a way to send a message about their personality to co-workers and managers. Gosling claims that “people with organized desks tend to be more conscientious, meaning that they are reliable, task oriented people who plan well and get their work done on time.” While on the flipside, Gosling’s noticed that “when people see a messy office, they infer that the person is disagreeable… My hunch is that the mess is unpleasant (to look at), so they assume the person is inconsiderate.” It’s then possible that having an organized desk can not only help your productivity, but help your career.

From an office manager’s standpoint, there are some simple ways to help the employees in your office present a better self to both management and clients. The Balance recommends having every person in the office complete “the reach test” to make sure everything they frequently need is only an arm’s length away, then finding new places for the superfluous items. To aid with desk to desk organization, have everyone clear their space of everything but the necessities: their computer and two trays for to organize loose papers however they see fit. Everything else, such as pens, staplers, and tape, can go in drawers with the help of some easy to buy-or-make drawer dividers leaving clean workspaces across the office.

Don’t forget about under the desk—cords can be a hassle and an unsightly mess. Outfit everyone with products like the ones you can find in the Container Store’s numerous options for cord management or, for a more budget friendly version, some binder clips, tape, and labels on each cord.

This isn’t to say that all personal items need to be removed from each desk, but rather that starting from a place of uniformity desk to desk will make for a cleaner office. Each workspace and each worker has different needs—it’s up to you to find a balance where everyone is comfortable. You can ask everyone to commit to a minimalist approach for a time set time, such as a month, as an experiment and then ask for feedback. You can use that feedback to set guidelines one what will help create the most productive personal workspace environment for everyone.

Reducing visual clutter: Common spaces

While each person can control their personal space, there’s still the clutter around those personal spaces to consider. On their blog Snacknation notes that “the appearance of clutter signals to your brain that there’s extra work to do. When your brain feels overwhelmed by all this (actual and perceived) work, it triggers a stress response. Organizing your workspace reduces the frequency of that stress response, and gives you a feeling of control.”

Ensure that your employees have places to put their personal items and dispose of what they don’t need. Crazy Egg co-founder Neil Patel recommends the following for organizing workspaces:

  • A credenza or tray for documents
  • Shelves, hooks, and a box in which to place important items
  • Trashcans

Ensuring employees have easy access to the above will reduce clutter spread throughout the office. Consolidating mess will not only look better, but make for an easier clean up. Once you have decluttered, consider how you could further streamline your office’s common spaces. Snacknation suggests adding wheels to all your office furniture to make it easier to clean and rearrange the office. While not possible for every office, the idea is one all can employ: a clear enough space that furniture can be easily shifted.

In addition, assess your storage space. Are you underutilizing any spaces? Could more shelving go up? Could you hang something off the back of a door? What about areas that are less visible—could a bookshelf with everyone’s reference manuals go into the corner of a conference room? To decrease stress and increase productivity, focus on clearing up the spaces you and your team look at every day.

Reducing hidden clutter: Physical

But decluttering isn’t as effective if you stop with the visual—after all, just throwing everything into the coat closet until next winter isn’t actually organizing. While having plenty of storage spaces can be a positive, it can quickly become a negative if those spaces become a dumping ground to hide clutter. That’s when a label maker will become your best friend. To add organization to hidden shelves, closets, and cabinets utilize this basic tool and, if needed, some simple baskets or dividers. Sometimes simply directing your employees to where the copy paper and sharpies go once they open the supply cupboard is all that’s needed.

It also may be time to have a serious conversation about whether your office can go paperless. For every kind of paper you’re filing away, there’s an equivalent app or website that can help you digitize your office. Internal announcements and reminders? That’s what Slack is for. Billing? The Huffington Post suggests Sighted and Due (among others.) Note taking during a meeting? It can be easily done on Evernote. (And those are only a few examples of innumerable options.) The paperless office doesn’t need to stop there—the user guides for your printer, coffee maker, and phones can be accessed online. While the needs of every business are different, there are many options worth exploring to reduce clutter and increase your office’s environmentally friendly practices.

Reducing hidden clutter: Digital

In our digital age, decluttering the physical office is only the beginning. According to an IDC white paper published in 2012, in a global survey of 1200 information workers and IT professionals found that they spend an average of 4.5 hours a week looking for digital documents. Especially as the office become increasingly paperless, decluttering computer desktops, files, shared drives, and e-mail is turning into a necessity. While it’s now easier than ever to save information, having all possible information at your fingertips means there’s a lot more to sift through.

In a Medium post about productivity and efficiency in the digital age, Diamond.Io is quick to point out that “the crux of the problem is that efficient storage isn’t the same as effective storage. Computer or, more recently, cloud-based storage are efficient methods for shelving information away. Whether it’s trivial or absolutely crucial, it’s theoretically all in one place. But between our hard drives, email, iCloud, Dropbox, and the dozens of other major cloud storage options, it’s like having a whole office full of unconnected filing cabinets.”

The Special Library Association (an organization of information retrieval specialist) reported as recently as 2013 that some professions are spending up to 13% more time retrieving data since 2002. Just like a filing cabinet, this digital disorganization can be combated by creating a standardized system for organizing digital files that everyone understands and follows. While this is particularly important on a network drive, it’s equally important to keep each individual desktop, hard drive, and e-mail organized for the sake of saving time (and frustration.)

Spend some time devising your own system for your own files, and share real life examples of how their data can be organized in a more efficient manner with your team. Not sure where to start? Phd candidate Heather VanMouwerik lays out a process for organizing your documents and files with an archivist's eye towards longevity and detail, whereas the Times Telegram lays out more general practices for streamlining your digital life.

In the end, organizing the office is both a necessity and a group project that continues after these first steps are done. It’s possible to bring the tradition of spring cleaning to a stop by establishing ground rules and good practices for keeping your space organized year round. Perhaps the last half hour of every Friday is a time for everyone to declutter and it’s a good way to walk into a fresh, clean space each Monday. If you need extra hands to help with office organizing, hang new shelves, haul trash, or deep clean the office after you declutter, Managed by Q can help you find the right service provider in your city. In Marie Kondo’s words: “When you organize things, you put your life in order too.” So why not your office?

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Clean, neat and organized desk by Melissa Walbridge.
About The Author
Devon Bohm
Devon Bohm is a freelance writer and professor of English based in Hartford. She holds degrees from Smith College and Fairfield University and you can read her most recent work in Spry Literary Magazine.
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