I see it every time I go to my accountant’s office. Stacks of papers on a water cooler. Tax files filling every shelf. Dog toys stacked in the corner. Better Homes and Gardens, August 2005 on the table. Personal memorabilia (wow, an autographed picture of Sandy Koufax! And is that…a high school homecoming picture from 1986?) on the walls and tables. Traces of the stain on the rug where years ago, a baby I know did something unfortunate. My accountant has had a small, three-person office in the same location for decades. It is a comfortable, old-fashioned, nostalgic step back to a simpler time, and wholly inefficient. It was this office that popped into my mind when I spoke with Connie Anderson, Certified Professional Organizer (CPO), who specializes in helping small business offices like this one organize and take back control of their office environment.
Connie Anderson, CPO
Connie comes in and creates a clean slate for them. Her plan of attack is always the same: start with what she calls “the command post"—the owner’s desk. From there, she rebuilds an office space that makes all the employees look forward to coming to work every day.
“They’re aware that they’re not functioning to their full capacity, and they know there’s too much outdated stuff bogging down what’s important right now," Connie said. “Business owners are so busy and focused on keeping the business afloat; they don’t realize how bad it’s become. The tipping point is usually when they realize that they’re behind invoicing their clients, when they can’t find the tax documents they need, or they can’t remember who they invoiced and who is late in payments. The business owner panics when he or she doesn’t know where anything is."
“When there’s too much stuff, it’s impossible to be efficient. You don’t see what you need anymore."
“We clear off the desk completely," Connie says. “We clean off all the dust and coffee stains. I have the owner sit down, take a deep breath, and say, ‘how do you want to feel at your desk? What image do you want to portray when clients or co-workers walk into your office?’" She admits that it’s often an emotional journey for her clients. She points to a classic scene from the beloved film Office Space, in which an employee clings to a red Swingline stapler as his familiar environment is torn apart around him. “People resonate with that," she laughs. “People bring in items from outside of work that remind them there’s more to life than just work. They bring in something their child has made at school, certificates and awards they’ve received in years past, a plant symbolizes the outdoors, and freebees from conferences and trade shows—tote bags full of giveaways they’ve never looked at since."
Connie notes that there is a deeper meaning to all these ephemera. “If people need to be reminded of a life outside of work," she says, “they’re not getting out to do it enough. The point of office organization is to bring these people back into a place where they can reclaim their life instead of just looking at pictures of the way they’d like it to be."
She is quick to remind customers that she’s not there to throw away all their beloved office mementos and toys, but to help owners and employees find the items that they connect with the most. “I had a client last week who had a tape dispenser shaped like a martini glass, and another tape dispenser that looked like a high-heeled shoe. Why does she need two?" Connie does not, however, rule out the possibility of rotating favorite items monthly. “But when it becomes layer upon layer, things lose their power to inspire and give you that break you need to re-energize," she says. “This could also mean the type of pen you use. Does it feel good in your hand, do you like the color? Even the most basic of office supplies can be the source of emotional uplift."
Ready to go paperless? What about all the paper?
In the office, Connie helps her clients move to a more paperless environment, and presents them with options for offsite storage of paper and files that aren’t accessed very often, or that are kept for archival purposes. But first, it’s necessary to cull paper that simply isn’t needed anymore. “We recycle and shred papers in filing cabinets," she says. “We make sure the files are clearly labeled, and we review the flow of paperwork with the whole staff to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand again," she says.
Since everyone has a different opinion about such considerations, bringing people together to agree on an environment can be a challenge. Connie finds that generational work styles can be a challenge. “It’s typical of Millennials to work in a sleek, minimalist atmosphere," she says. “And that’s fine. Some people are strongly paper-based, and others just grow up with technology. There’s no one right way to organize." A caveat to that, Connie adds, is that every worker has to think about whether their work style projects the impression they want to give. “Younger workers are used to devices. They have no need to put pictures on desks or post-it notes on the walls. It’s all in their phones and electronic devices. If your file-and-paper systems stifle your productivity or reveal your age, it might be time to transition."
Connie is quick to point out that she understands that some people work better with visual cues and paper, and that’s okay. “It’s when desks are piled up with post-it notes that are nine months old that it gets to be a problem. When there’s too much stuff, it’s impossible to be efficient. You don’t see what you need anymore."
Negotiating for organized teams
What does being organized mean? That’s a question that business teams must tackle with Connie, and it’s a multi-faceted discussion. When organizing a team, Connie serves as an organizing coach and facilitator, bringing groups together into a cohesive unit. “We need to understand each person’s organizing style," she explains. “We need to consider learning disabilities that coworkers might not know about one another. Every team member has to buy in that organization is essential to the productivity of the team. Establishing that is the first step." Team organization is always an emotional experience. Negotiation plays a big part in creating a united organizing front, and yes, a lot of times, people have to learn to change some habits." Connie works with each team member to come up with their own solutions and systems that work within the newly-organized team processes. She also teaches employees to value the effort it takes to maintain organization. “We’re producing something every day," she reminds clients. “There’s no end to staying organized. That’s why there has to be a system in place."
The key, she says, is coming together to create and maintain efficient office systems that work for every style. Through discussion, Connie’s office clients come to an agreement that works well for each particular office. “Talking about organizing style isn’t usually a topic that’s taught in a business setting, so when they meet with me, it’s often the first time that people have thought about how they can have an efficient day rather than just being told ‘this is how it works here.’ I offer a variety of solutions to get their brains thinking. Not all my ideas will be a good fit, but if they can stimulate their own solutions, I consider that a successful organizing solution."
Keeping home offices professional
Many times, a small business is comprised of one person, and the office is in a home. Home office organization is just as important as a traditional office set up. Just because clients and employees don’t see the clutter, it doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting productivity. “You don’t see your own clutter after a while," Connie acknowledges. “And in a home, the ‘creep’ from personal items is much easier. The home office becomes the landing place for laundry, storage, pictures, and unsorted shopping items." That’s when bringing in a professional organizer like Connie can give you fresh eyes. “I believe everyone has an inner organizer," she says. “It’s my job to bring it out. You get there by talking about what organizing means to you."
Just as it is in the outside office, organizing a home office is an emotional matter. Connie helps home business owners to visualize the upside of organizing as a way to make them understand the importance of it. “What’s on the other side?" she asks her clients, meaning,
What will you get in exchange for taking the extra steps to stay organized?’ “Is it being able to get to hobbies you’ve been putting off? Inviting people over again? How do you want to feel when you open the door?" Considering these things helps people come to the conclusion that home office organization is not only necessary to productivity, but to the owner’s well-being.
“I quote Kacy Paide, who wrote The Inspired Office, all the time," Connie says. “Respect your space. If you don’t nobody else will."
Connie Anderson is a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, which connects customers with organizers all over the United States. Similar organizations exist all over the world. At www.organisemyhouse.com/need-help/ you’ll find a list of associations that can help find the right organizer for you in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Germany. Professional home and office organizers are also just a Google search away in Asia, South America, and Africa.