Buried Alive

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 less space.

Combine the trends--more paper, less space--and it's a recipe for mess and stress.

"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 & Schuster, $15).

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 Hewlett Packard.

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 said.

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 annually.

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 standby.

"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 way."

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 piles:

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 documents.

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 working smoothly.

--Lisa Skolnik

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune

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