During this stressful time of the COVID-19 pandemic, one place where we can exert some control in our lives is in our office space. As with anywhere else on the farm, if everything has a place, we feel more in control and more capable of taking what gets thrown at us.
That’s the experience of Samantha Kristoferson, a partner in KW Professional Organizers in Waterloo, Ont., and it has helped hundreds of her clients to create functional spaces.
If you can find things when you need them, it reduces stress, says Kristoferson. On the other hand, clutter overloads your senses, leaving you frustrated, less productive and feeling squeezed for time.
Whether you’re carving out new office space or need to revamp an existing space, Kristoferson, and Rhonda Erb, a partner in Baden, Ontario’s Heart of the Matter Professional Organizers, have helpful tips and ideas.
When working with a new client, Kristoferson has a five-step process she follows. Before you buy any shelves, bins or baskets, you need to spend some time thinking about how you will use the space, she says. What do you need the space to be for you? Do you need filing space for paper? Do you need access to electrical outlets? Do you need a landline phone? Does the Wi-Fi work in your location?
The second step in Kristoferson’s process is to critique the existing space you’re using. What do you like about it? What do you hate or what frustrates you about the space? Are you a visual person who likes to be able to see everything or do you like things tucked away? Although it may seem obvious, this is a step many people miss, she says. “You want to protect what you love and eliminate what you hate.”
Erb agrees about the importance of taking the time to reflect on your needs. This will save time and money down the road and result in a more efficient workspace, she says. Ask yourself what has worked in the past and what hasn’t, she says. “Don’t fight against your personality; it’s about what works for you. There is not just one way of doing things.”
The third step, Kristoferson says, is to create an inventory of what you have in your office and then embark on a decluttering process. Clutter costs us, says Kristoferson. It costs us money when we buy duplicates of things we already own but can’t find, and it costs us the time we waste looking for things we can’t find.
In an extreme, it can cause even injuries when we trip over things or things fall on us, but all of us have experienced how it can cause stress, anxiety and conflict, which drains our energy.
Set aside some time for decluttering when you won’t be interrupted, says Kristoferson. Pick up each item and ask: What is this? Why is it here? Can I let go of it? Do I need to give it a new home? Many clients have things stashed in their offices that don’t belong there, she says. They may be things left over from previous occupants, stuff they are storing for other people, things that are broken, or objects that don’t fit the space. “Take out anything that doesn’t belong in the space,” she says.
Erb follows a similar approach for decluttering: Look around your office and evaluate what you use and how often you use it, she says. Make sure the stuff that is within easy reach, the prime real estate, includes the things you use every day. Things you seldom use, or are holding onto “just in case,” can be stored further away, in another room or building.
If it seems too overwhelming to tackle an office makeover all at once, Erb recommends giving 15 minutes a day to work on it. “You don’t need to set aside a whole day. It’s amazing what you can get done in 15 minutes at a time,” she says, adding that once you get started you may want to keep going.
Step four is the stage where you can start looking for products that can help you maintain order and improve the efficiency of your work space, continues Kristoferson. If your office is messy, it may be that the system in place isn’t right for you, she says. Do you need a better filing cabinet or a better cork board? “Take measurements and don’t buy on a whim,” she cautions.
If you are looking for inspiration, Kristoferson suggests searching Google images for key words such as “small office space,” for example. “This will show you ways of hanging things, ways of storing things differently, ways to create space,” she says. “But set a timer,” she warns. “This can be a rabbit hole.”
And before investing in new storage solutions such as filing systems, look on YouTube for independent reviews, suggests Kristoferson.
Maintenance is the fifth and final stage in Kristoferson’s organizational process. She recommends setting calendar reminders to check in at one month out, six months out, and one year out to see how it’s working for you. “It may not be the right solution. Or, it may need tweaking.”
To maintain a new system, Erb also suggests using your calendar to schedule regular tidying breaks. The right frequency for tidying up will depend on the individual’s natural tendencies. For some people, they will want to tidy up once a day; others may want to set a timer to remind them to tidy up for five minutes every hour.
Because it takes 27 days to form a new habit, Erb suggests also setting reminders on your phone to prod your memory until the new habit becomes automatic.
Another way to up your level of commitment is to create accountability, continues Erb. Putting the item on your “to-do” list means you are committed, but telling someone else, i.e. your accountability partner, that you are going to do it is an even higher level of commitment.
Erb shares some additional practical tips she has learned in 16 years of helping clients bring order to their living and work spaces.
The first guiding principle of organization is that everything needs a home, says Erb. “When everything is in its home, you know you can find things when you need them.”
The second guiding principle is to label where things go, continues Erb. “When things are labelled, there is less stuff to keep in our heads.” And if you’re off-farm, someone else will be able to find things, she adds.
In Erb’s experience, using hanging file folders makes it easier to keep up with filing. “You just open up and drop it in,” she says, adding, “It’s faster and easier which means you’ll be more apt to use it.” And using colour-coded files, such as green folders for financials, makes it easier to find them on your desk.
If you use an inbox or even just a tray for receiving paperwork, get one with multiple sections for different types of paperwork to avoid wasting time re-sorting. Keeping like things together is a good practice, she adds.
To avoid being disturbed while on a Zoom call, or to create blocks of time for doing work that requires focus, Erb suggests using a door hanger that indicates your availability. With multiple family members working or schooling from home during the pandemic, this can help reduce the stress and lost productivity of too many interruptions.