Four organizational experts share their field-tested strategies for creating order in the office
BY KAREN FRITSCHER-PORTER
If youíve ever watched the organization show
Clean Sweep on The Learning Channel, you know that it often takes an outside
observer to give you the best ideas for organizing your home or office space.
OfficePRO has rounded up several organizational experts who can help you
create an office that not only looks neat, but enables you to find what you need
when you need it to get your job done. Wouldnít you rather be clocking out at 5
p.m. rather than searching for that elusive report you need for a project due
tomorrow? Re-evaluate your organization system with these tips from professional
Barbara Hemphill is a professional organizer and CEO of Hemphill Productivity Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina (www.productiveenvironment.com), author of Taming the Paper Tiger at Work and Taming the Paper Tiger at Home, and co-author of Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter Free Forever. A 25-year office organizing veteran, Hemphill swears by a random numerical filing system for paper filing, which she sells as part of Taming the Paper Tiger software (www.thepapertiger.com). The software includes features such as templates for spreadsheets, forms, and reports and automatic data-transfer options. But if youíre innovative, motivated, and have the time, you can create a basic similar system using software like Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access, she says.
The concept? Label each file folder, binder, compact disc, book, or equipment with a random number. Then, in your software system or spreadsheet document, type that number and what it means using keywords (e.g. company name, contact name, topic, etc.). Then when you want the file, you do a keyword search on your spreadsheet or database, and up pops the information you need. Though this random numbering system may appear haphazard on the surface, Hemphill says it solves many common filing system dilemmas, such as filing company or vendor files with multiple name changes due to corporate merges; files that need to be cross-referenced (e.g. the company on file is a vendor and a donor); files whose names may depend on the interpretation of the various people filing (Does auto insurance get filed as "auto," "insurance" or "State Farm"?); offices with employee turnover (even a temporary employee on day one can do a keyword search to locate a file using this system); and file cabinets and storage cabinets in multiple locations (a keyword search for company A file will tell you itís in the cabinet in Johnís office). Keep a print copy of the file directory in various sorted formats in a central location.
When it comes to schedules and calendars, Hemphill says, "Half of any job is having the right tool. She prefers a paper calendar called Planner Pad (www.plannerpads.com)óan 8.5-by-11-inch wire spiral-bound, half-inch thick planner. Each week is presented on a two-page spread divided into three sections. Hemphill uses the top third for fixed appointments, the middle third for flexible appointments, and the bottom third for projects. A year-at-a-glance calendar is located in the front of the planner. Thatís where Hemphill puts one-word descriptions of nonnegotiable appointments; she puts more details at the individual date entry. Hemphill and her staff also include general entries everyone needs to know into an ACT! software database.
Finally, Hemphill offers a few clutter-clearing tips. Start with the mail, she says. "Todayís mail is tomorrowís pile," Hemphill says. And "clutter is postponed decisions." She advises admins to use "FAT": File, Act, or Toss. She also recommends admins learn the art of "waste basketry." Ask yourself whatís the worst possible thing that could happen if you discard something.
Eileen Roth, professional organizer and owner of Everything In Its Place in Scottsdale, Arizona (www.everythinginitsplace.net) is an office organization consultant and speaker who conducts workshops for conferences and onsite corporate training. She also is the author of Organizing For Dummies and creator of the desktop tickler system called Take Action File.
Roth likes to file by category. "I want to go to a drawer, and without having to look at the index, find the file I want," says Roth, who recommends creating an index as a backup system so that if you canít find the file you want, or youíre going to create a new file and you want to see if you have it, you do have a reference list. "You donít need more than to 15 major categories," she says. "But you can have as many subcategories you want."
When you have about 10 different folders, create a subcategory. "For instance, you may make travel arrangements for someone else. If that person hardly ever travels, all you need is one travel category with a couple file folders (e.g., airlines, cars, or hotels). But youíve got several bosses, you may need subcategories," she says. Alphabetize within the categories, but donít alphabetize the categories. That way, if youíve got rarely used files in a category beginning with letter A, you can put them in the hard-to-reach bottom drawer and keep the frequently used category that starts with letter V in the drawer above it thatís more convenient to reach. Also, write the names of the categories in a drawer on a label on the outside of the cabinet.
Electronic filing should match your paper filing system, Roth says. "If you have a Ďmarketingí folder in your paper files, you should have a Ďmarketingí folder in your electronic files with the same subcategories." But donít totally duplicate, she warns. You may have electronic documents that you donít need in your paper files. For instance, if you routinely send out a confirmation or thank you letter to individuals, just keep an electronic template for re-use and only keep the actual electronic letters until the event is over. Then delete them. Or keep your electronic airline tickets in an e-mail categorized folder and delete them after the trip. Likewise, if you do print a letter and file it, then go ahead and delete the electronic copy. An exception is for documents you know will change annually, such as a marketing plan or company goals, and you want to be able to edit it on an ongoing basis without recreating it each time.
In terms of schedules and calendars, Roth advises that "if you work for three or four bosses, or if you need to share your calendar, then you need to use an electronic calendar even if youíre using paper for yourself." This also allows others to see your availability, and you can see overlapping appointments of multiple bosses. If your company has numerous outside clients, explore a contact management program (such as ACT!, TeleMagic, or Goldmine), which offers more options than just a calendar, such as writing sales notes or merging and sending letters.
If you donít need the contact management features, then a calendar like Microsoft Outlook might be sufficient, she says. If youíre a paper person, you could use a paper calendar for yourself, but then youíve got duplicate calendars, which can be dangerous, warns Roth.
An advantage of an electronic calendar you can set a timer to go off 15 minutes before a meeting. You can also print page of the calendar daily so you have an immediate backup if your computer system crashes. Otherwise, you or your boss may miss an engagement because you donít remember it and canít see your calendar.
Youíll never again use 80 percent of the papers in your file cabinet, Roth says. Keep items you must retain for legal, tax, or audit purposes plus items of historical value. Otherwise, pass the WASTE test:
1) Is this information worthwhile (fax cover sheets)?
2) Am I going to use it again (staff meeting agenda)?
3) Can I easily find this information somewhere else (another department)?
4) Toss (if no need to check with record retention) after asking, "If it has been here more than a year, will anything happen if I toss it, and will I need it ever again?"
5) Do I need the entire item (keep pages with notes only of proofs)?
Focus on Files, Not Piles
Diane Hatcher, professional organizer and owner of Timesavers Business Services in Cooper City, Florida, (www.timesaversusa.com), is a proponent of alphabetical filing using these rules and concepts:
1) The entire filing system should be alphabetical-based.
2) When you have groups of related files in file folders, type a category name on a plastic tab that attaches to a hanging folder and put the individually labeled file folders inside the hanging folder(s). These groupings of file folders should be in alphabetical order amongst themselves. The labeled hanging folder containing them should be in alphabetical order amongst the other category folders or file folders not part of groupings. For example, the category-grouping hanging-folder tab may say "credit cards" and within it are individually labeled file folders of credit card accounts.
3) Files that arenít part of groupings or related files do not need category tabs and are placed in hanging folders filed alphabetically amongst the category tabs.
4) Category groupings can be color-coded, such as using green hanging folders for a "credit card" category and using red hanging folders for a category called "donors," which perhaps contains individual folders of corporate donors. Once youíve used a different color hanging folder for each "category grouping" in a "rainbow" order, repeat the same "rainbow" color pattern so youíll never run out of colors, Hatcher says.
Hatcher suggests using an electronic filing system similar to the paper filing system. Simply learn how to use the electronic filing systems part of common software programs such as Microsoft Word. "Category files are made within the program to store related topics," Hatcher explains. "Subcategories can be made within the categories, just as within the paper copy files."
Hatcher believes that whether you use a paper or electronic calendar is a personal preference. Whatís important is that you use your calendar consistently. Use only one calendar, if possible, to prevent errors that can occur by forgetting to transfer information from calendar to calendar.
To keep clutter under control in the office, Hatcher says:
1) Have a home for everything and use when done with items. Papers can go in trays or colored file folders labeled To Do, To Read, and To File.
2) Clear your desk before leaving work by putting things back into their homes.
3) Act on the motto "files not piles."
Janet Barclay, professional organizer, time management consultant, virtual assistant, and owner of the Organized Assistant in Hamilton, Ontario, (www.organizedassistant.com), is an advocate of color coding by category. For instance, depending on the nature of your business, you may have five categories: customers, suppliers, finances, forms, and information. Your finance category might include green folders of individual income and expenses. Your customer category can include red folders of individual persons. Within each category, label folders and file alphabetically.
But what do you do with the odd document? "Donít fall into the trap of setting up a Miscellaneous file or stuffing it with loosely related topic," Barclay warns. Instead, place one unlabelled file at the back of each category section for filing orphaní items. Before adding something to this file, check its contents to see if there are any related items. Set up a new file whenever you have two or more related items," she recommends.
"Donít leave read messages in your inbox," Barclay advises in regard to electronic filing. "If it were a printed piece of mail, where would you put it?" Delete read messages or move them to an appropriate electronic folder. Label paper files, e-mail folders, and documents on your hard drive or server using consistent labeling system. Back up electronic files to a CD monthly or more; label the CD with back-up date; file back-up CDs together; and keep a copy off site. Then delete electronic files that arenít currently in use because you can retrieve them if needed from the backup CD.
Like many other professional organizers, Barclay believes that "a personís choice of calendar system and the way they use it depends very much on their personality type." But whatís a whole department or group to do? "The system that will be effective for a particular group will depend on the work styles the individual group members," Barclay explains. "However, one of the drawbacks of any group calendar system, from a simple chart on which each person writes his or her schedule by hand, shared electronic calendars on a corporate network, is that if even one individual fails to update his or her schedule, the system is of little use," she says.
For an individual, "record professional and personal activities on one calendar that you keep with you at all times, and you wonít arrive home at 5:30 p.m. only to discover that you missed a medical appointment at 5:15 p.m.," she says.
To keep office clutter in check, Barclay suggests:
1) Clear all paper off your desk at the end of each work day.
2) Donít print needlessly. Instead, keep electronic files well organized (and backed up) for easy access and reference.
3) Have a central filing area for general information shared by all members of department to save storage space and individual filing time.
So which is the best way to organize your office? Clearly, every professional organizer has her favorite tips and organizing systems. In the end, though, itís about what tips and system work best for you. What system will you and your coworkers not only implement, but use consistently? Create an organizational system that helps you and your professional peers find documents, items, phone numbers, etc. quickly. Free more time to work on projects and spend less time helping others find things. And though it probably wouldnít be in your best interest to continuously change organizational systems, you shouldnít feel obligated to stick with any system method that isnít working.
Karen Fritscher-Porter is a freelance writer based in Bloomingdale GA.
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