closed office

Did clutter crowd out the closed office?

A productivity expert cautions against downloading paper pile-up into digital storage
Friday, June 17, 2016
By Barbara Hemphill

Executives waste an estimated 150 hours to six weeks per year searching for data. That means if an executive makes $200,000 per year, the company is spending anywhere from $16,600 to $25,000 per year, per executive, looking for lost information. Not only does it represent a dollar loss, but a time loss, as executives spend eight to 12.5 per cent of their time just finding what they need to work.

The figures for employees underneath the executives are even more astounding. Studies show the average office workers spend anywhere between 25 and 35 per cent of their time every day finding the information they need to do their jobs.

In a hypothetical organization with 1,000 workers, each drawing salary and benefits that together average $80,000 per year, the organization will spend $6 million looking for information that should be readily available.

Research also shows that people never use 80 per cent of what they keep, and the more people keep the less they use — because people don’t know we even have it, or they simply can’t find it.

Clutter is postponed decisions.

Prior to personal computers, organizational structures ensured employees made decisions about what they needed to keep. Executives had private secretaries. Departments had file clerks. Companies had file rooms, and file rooms had “Mabel” — a manager of the records retention program.

The pile-up begins

When computers showed up on everyone’s desks, support staff were deemed no longer necessary. When they left, so did the decision-making mechanism, and the clutter began piling up.

An administrator in a large Manhattan company shared that her company occupied 10 floors with 1,000 file cabinets on each floor. In addition, there were banker’s boxes of full of files, and loose papers piled on desks and file cabinets. An evaluation found that employees were filing unnecessary duplicates of papers. This same company was spending money to eliminate private offices and add filing cabinets, when the problem could have been avoided by simply eliminating the unnecessary files.

By nature, entrepreneurs and executives are not attuned to the issue of clutter. It seems a minor issue and paying employees to organize their workspaces is not an efficient use of time and money. As a result, for the past several decades, clutter has accumulated on desks, in file cabinets, in storage closets, and off-site.

Avoiding the issue

When a major banking institution moves into its new multi-story building in Manhattan, its employees certainly won’t have any clutter. They also won’t have a door in their office, and most of them won’t have a desk. If they want to have a photo of their family in the office, they’ll have to lock it up every night, since they won’t have the same desk every day.

Company management says the setup will connect people face-to-face, raise energy levels and save money — by fitting more people into one space. People will learn to use headphones and talk more softly to enable privacy.

Other companies are doing the same. Researchers disagree about whether open offices foster communication or encourage distraction, but the entire issue might have been avoided if executives had started paying attention to the clutter that began accumulating when computers arrived in offices. Perhaps there would still be room for offices with desks and doors, because there wouldn’t be millions of files stored that no one needs or uses.

Lessons learned

While it’s true that open offices solve the problem of paper clutter, the clutter problem has merely been transferred from physical to digital form. For decades, companies have spent millions of dollars on software for their employees, but refused to invest in any training on how to organize the millions of files that are created daily. Now computers and the cloud are filling up with clutter as surely as desks and file cabinets did in the past.

What to do now

It’s impossible to undo the past, but it’s possible to take steps to avoid repeating in the digital world the mistakes made in the paper world. Here are five steps an organization can take now:

1. Identify someone in the organization to take ownership for effectively managing information.

2. Take a serious look at the office to see if there is an ignored clutter problem.

3. Create a user-friendly records retention program for the organization.

4. Train employees on how to make decisions about what information to keep.

5. Empower employees to de-clutter by designating specific times for that purpose.

Barbara Hemphill is the founder of Productive Environment Institute, in Raleigh, N.C., a nationally-recognized speaker and author of Less Clutter More Life. As one of the country’s leading productivity and organizational experts she has helped many corporations, such as Staples, Hallmark and 3M, increase their productivity and efficiency.

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