More paper, less space keep workers battling clutter
By Lisa Skolnik
Special to the Tribune
November 6, 2002
Marty Festenstein, an interior architect at Gensler, is known for his expertise
in planning large-scale law firm interiors. He is also "known for his
piles," says his boss, Jim Follett, managing director of the firm's Chicago
office, referring to the huge stacks of documents, binders, blueprints,
periodicals and books that dominate Festenstein's office so totally that it's
difficult to navigate a path to his desk.
Some would peg Festenstein an office slob, but nothing could be further from the
case, he says.
"At any given time, I'm working on dozens of 10 to 15 projects and new
business proposals that all involve lots of oddly sized collateral
materials," Festenstein said. "I'm very meticulous and hands-on. If a
client calls, I can immediately access the necessary files and answer a question
in a matter of minutes. I couldn't do this if I had to go look it up in a file
or find it on the computer and get back to them."
Two competing trends are making it harder to keep offices clutter-free these
days. First, workers are using more paper, experts say, despite--or more likely,
in part, because--of society's move toward the electronic and high tech.
Secondly, office real estate is shrinking, so the average employee is working in
Combine the trends--more paper, less space--and it's a recipe for mess and
"It's unrealistic to think everyone is going to have a neat desk, and neat
isn't necessarily organized. Piles represent the process of active, ongoing
thinking and working, and there's nothing wrong with having them as long as
they're piles with a purpose. You should know where things are and be able to
reach anything you need in less than 30 seconds," said Harriet Schechter,
head of the San Diego-based Miracle Worker Organizing Service and author of
three books, including "Conquering Chaos At Work" (Simon &
Computers that were supposed to usher in the age of the paperless office have
had the opposite effect, say Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, authors of
"The Myth of the Paperless Office" (MIT Press, $24.95). They found
that although we have access to much more information thanks to technology,
"in order for us to read it and make sense of it," we need to print
it. The result: Paper consumption is steadily going up.
Sellen and Harper note that the reason paper remains popular is because
technology has produced nothing that can match it in terms of usability,
especially when employees have to work in groups. They also acknowledge that
once we file papers away, we rarely look at them again, but active information
has to be accessible.
Yet in the near future, it's entirely possible that companies will ask, or even
demand, employees to keep their work spaces clutter-free 24/7. Shrinking office
space and changing work patterns are making messy offices a serious liability at
some companies, and impossible to permit at others.
The average office space per person, a figure that includes common spaces such
as lobbies, washrooms, kitchens and copy rooms, dropped from 410 per square feet
per person in 1997 to 347 square feet in 2002, notes the Houston-based
International Facility Management Association.
For individual spaces, the drop is far more significant, say industry experts.
Standard offices for executives "used to be 250 square feet, and now range
from 150 to 180 square feet," said design principal Jaime Velez with the
architecture firm SOM Chicago. Expensive real estate accounts for part of the
downward spiral in personal office space, notes Craig Steele, a tactical space
planner for Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Agilent Technology, a former subsidiary of
But new technologies and the mobility they provide also have dramatically
changed many working environments.
For instance, if you have a substantial number of employees who are out of the
office frequently, which happens in consulting and financial service firms, you
start to realize the value lost in rent. Employees can occupy different spaces
during a day or week or even share offices.
"But it doesn't work if someone's personal space is a mess," Velez
Other types of alternative officing mean collecting clutter is no longer an
option. "A lot of companies are designing their offices to house only 70 to
80 percent of their staffs and providing hoteling or touch-down spaces for
employees instead," Velez said.
Hotelling spaces are permanent workstations that employees reserve in advance
through a company concierge, while touch-down spaces are work counters that are
more catch-as-catch-can for roaming workers, Velez explains. "There are
very few companies we work with right now where employees sit at the same desk
every day of the week."
So what will the average clutter-bug do? That remains to be seen, but certain
trends are already offering workers a glimpse of what to expect.
Many companies are forced to provide workers with off-site storage, the IFMA
reports. Agilent Technology's off-site program is so efficient that you can
access files the same day if necessary, or arrange to do it weekly, monthly or
Furniture manufacturers also are designing products to maximize storage space,
Wulf notes. Companies such as Steelcase, Knoll, Herman Miller, Haworth and
Technion have developed boutique lines with offerings that range from rolling
carts-come-workstations to cubicles with grooved or gridded walls where workers
can hang boxes, bins, shelves and other storage accessories.
Festenstein keeps his most important files straight with a new version of an old
"I have a Dateweiser wall-mounted, in-and-out box that runs the depth of my
office and holds weeks worth of documents until I'm ready to file them," he
said. "Every project is clearly labeled and immediately accessible this
But no matter how much storage space you provide, "people will always fill
it up and exceed it," Follett said.
Which is why Schechter advocates employee training programs, if the era of the
clean-desk policy is right around the corner.
In many cases, "companies will be forcing workers to put form before
function, which is rarely effective in anything. It's not fair to expect them to
do something that they don't have any experience in doing," she said.
"They need to know how to use basic organizational strategies, and then
office aesthetics and clutter management can come into play."
Purge the piles
If your office is dominated by piles and stacks, it could be time to schedule a
de-cluttering session. Here's a quick lesson from Harriet Schechter, head of the
San Diego-based Miracle Worker Organizing Service, on how to prune and file your
Make a date, between you and your piles. If you don't commit blocks of time to
the job, it won't get done. After an initial session, you'll have an idea of how
long the job will take. From there, schedule several shorter clean-up sessions
rather than one marathon one to keep yourself moving forward.
Do initial pile biopsies. Sample all your stacks with a quick once-over to see
what kind of categorical breakdowns you can make. Most people will need six to
12 categories. Now start thinking about the system or supplies you need to buy
to get organized.
Process the piles. With supplies on hand, start grouping papers and/or files
into categories, tossing the things you really don't need. The files you use
most often should be most accessible and easily identifiable. It's most helpful
to color-code these files; avoid a straight A-Z filing system, which separates
Control the flow. Papers and projects never stop coming in, so always keep your
system going to channel the flood. Avoid a general pile or file marked
"urgent" or "pending"--you'll have to spend 15 minutes
looking through it just to figure out what you have to do. Also, figure out how
much time it takes you to do paperwork and build it into your day, and weed file
contents regularly and discard or archive inactive files to keep your system
Copyright © 2002, Chicago
to: In The News
Searching Chicagotribune.com archives back to 1985 is
cheaper and easier than ever. New prices for multiple articles can bring your
cost as low as 30 cents an article: http://chicagotribune.com/archives