Category Archives: Barbara Hemphill

Why Clutter Hurts Your Leadership and What You Can Do About It

By Barbara Hemphill

Barbara HemphillIt’s a simple fact: Clutter is postponed decisions. Many entrepreneurs and managers have cluttered offices—unless they have an organized assistant. If you don’t believe it, just start looking around you. Begin in your own organization, and then look in places like the manager’s office of your local retail store.

Entrepreneurs and managers think “big picture,” but following through on details can be a struggle. They like to start things, but finishing them can be a challenge. Often the more brilliant a person is, the messier their office. Sorting and filing seems like a lower priority than creating a new product or serving your customer. But is it? It’s easy for observers to wonder, “If someone can’t manage their own office, how can they manage a department or a company?”

According to a 2010 study by Brother International, an office products company, the cost of messy desks and time spent looking for misplaced items in corporate America is about $177 billion annually. That price tag, figuring the time spent daily hunting for misplaced files, staples or documents, added up to 76 hours—or nearly two work weeks—a year. According to the same study, it is also taking a toll on pocketbooks, since nearly one-third of those surveyed failed to get reimbursed for a business or travel expense because they misplaced or lost a receipt.

What is the Problem? Getting and staying organized is not easy—if it were, there wouldn’t be so many highly successful, intelligent, creative people who struggle with it. Unfortunately, organization skills are not taught in school, so unless you were born organized or had a good role model for organization when you were growing up or in a job situation, you’re out of luck.

The combination of computers, and a desire to reduce overhead expenses, means fewer administrative assistants, and as a result, messier offices.

Solving the Problem: There are numerous ways an office can be organized, but statistically, most offices simply have too much stuff. Look at each item in your office and ask the question, “Does this help me accomplish my work or enjoy my life?” If the answer is “No,” but you’re still reluctant to get rid of something, ask “What’s the worst possible thing that would happen if I didn’t have this?” If you can live with your answer, “donate, recycle, or toss it”—and work happily ever after.

If organizing doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s unlikely that with even the best system you will have a continuously neat desk, but cleaning it off at the end of the day, or at the very least, the end of the week, will be a cinch if you simply have a SYSTEM (Saving You Space Time Energy Money).

Designing Your SYSTEM, the Magic 6: Half of any job is using the right tool. Here are six tools you can use to eliminate the clutter in your office, and accomplish your work and enjoy your life:

  1. In/Out/File: Place three containers on your desk within reach of your chair.
  • One for the items you have not yet looked at.
  • One for items you need to take somewhere else—another person’s office, the post office, etc.
  • One for items you need to file in a location within your own office that you can’t reach from your chair.
  1. Wastebasket/Recycle/Shred: Make it easy to get rid of what you don’t need. For example, if you have a shredder, but you can’t reach it from your chair, use a desk drawer, or a small box under your desk. Then develop a system for actually getting the paper shredded—whether you do it yourself or hire your child to do it!
  1. Calendar: One of the biggest contributors to a messy desk is papers that serve as reminders to do something. Keeping an open calendar on your desk for making direct entries can help eliminate this issue. While most of us are great at making appointments with other people, we’re not so good at making appointments with ourselves. We need to care for ourselves in order to meet the needs of others.
  1. Contact Management System: Another big source of office clutter is papers (and electronic files!) with contact information—names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mails, etc.
  1. Action Files: These files should be located close to your desk. They contain the papers you need to work on your current projects. They can be sorted in different ways:
  • By date (files labeled 1-31 for the current month, and Jan – Dec)
  • By type of action (e.g., “Data Entry” “Expense Reimbursement,” “Waiting for Response”
  • By name of project, client, or event

Most people have a combination of the three. For example, the August 15 file might remind you to write a new ezine, while the project file labeled “Ezine Ideas” would contain the information you need to actually write it.

  1. Reference Files: These files contain all the papers you may not need on a daily basis, but don’t want to throw away. They can be located in or outside your office. Your “To File” box will serve as a place to hold the papers that need to be filed.

Some projects may have both an Action File and a Reference File. The Action File will contain the papers you are currently using on a project, while the Reference File will contain the completed papers that you want to retain for historical or legal purposes.

So here’s your challenge: Set aside four hours. Clear your desk by putting everything on it in a box.  Set up The Magic 6 to stop future clutter, and provide a system for every new piece of paper in your office.

Maintaining Your Success: Organizing is an art! People often ask, “What should I do?” but the real question is “What will you do?”

No one likes to think about maintenance—but unless you figure out how you can maintain any system, you will fail. You can buy a Lamborghini, but if you don’t complete the necessary maintenance, you will soon have a pile of junk. You can go to a health spa and lose a lot of weight, but maintaining good exercise and good eating habits are essential if you don’t want to gain back everything you lost. One way to think of maintenance is “plan + habits.”

If you know yourself well enough to know you won’t maintain it, and you want your office to reflect the quality of the products and services you provide, hire someone to help a few hours a week. Your office will look better, you will feel better, and your leadership will shine! 

Barbara Hemphill is the Founder of Productive Environment Institute, in Raleigh, N.C., and author of Less Clutter More Life. As one of the country’s leading organizational experts she has helped many corporations, such as Staples, Hallmark and 3M increase their productivity and efficiency.


Why Open Space Offices Didn’t Have To Happen

By Barbara Hemphill

Barbara HemphillEstimates on time wasted by executives on searching for data ranges from 150 hours to six weeks per year. That means if an executive makes $200,000 per year, the company is spending anywhere from $16,600 to $25,000 per year, per executive, looking for lost information. Not only does it represent a dollar loss, but a time loss as that executive spends 8% to 12.5% of their time just finding what they need to work.

The figures for employees underneath the executives are even more astounding (probably because they’re looking for what their bosses need!). Studies show the average office workers spends anywhere between 25% and 35% of their time every day finding the information they need to do their job.

In a hypothetical organization with 1,000 workers, each drawing salary and benefits that together average $80,000 per year, the organization will spend $6 million on looking for information that should be readily available.

Research also shows that 80% of what we keep we never use, and the more we keep the less we use—because we don’t know we even have it, or we simply can’t find it.

Clutter is postponed decisions.

Prior to personal computers, organizations had a personnel structure that ensured decisions were made about what need to be kept. Executives had private secretaries. Departments had file clerks. Companies had file rooms, and file rooms had “Mabel” – a records manager who was the keeper of the records retention program for the organization.

The Pile-Up Begins: When computers showed up on everyone’s desks, support staff were deemed no longer necessary. When they left, so did the decision-making mechanism and the clutter began piling up. An administrator in a large Manhattan company shared that her company had ten floors with 1,000 file cabinets on each floor. In addition, there were banker’s boxes of full of files, and loose papers piled on desks and file cabinets. An evaluation of the problem quickly demonstrated unnecessary duplication of papers being filed. This same company was spending money to eliminate private offices and add filing cabinets, when the problem could have been avoided by simply eliminating the unnecessary files.

By nature, entrepreneurs and executives are not attuned to the issue of clutter. It seems a minor issue and employees being paid to organize their workspaces is not an efficient use of time and money. As a result, for the past several decades, clutter has been accumulating on desks, in file cabinets, in storage closets, and off-site. One IT manager said she used to look at her boss’s office and wonder how he could manage a company if he couldn’t even manage his own office.

Avoiding the Issue: When a major banking institution moves into its new multi-story building in Manhattan, their employees certainly won’t have any clutter. They also won’t have a door in their office, and most of them won’t have a desk. If they want to have a photo of their family in the office, they’ll have to lock it up every night, since they won’t have the same desk every day.

Company management says the setup will connect people face-to-face, raise energy levels and save money—by fitting more people into one space. People will learn to use headphones and talk more softly to enable privacy.

Other companies are doing the same. While researchers disagree about whether open offices foster communication or encourage distraction, the truth is the entire issue could have been avoided if executives would have started paying attention to the clutter that began accumulating in offices when Bill Gates put computers on everyone’s desk.

What Can We Learn? If companies had paid attention to the paper accumulation decades ago, perhaps today we could still have offices with desks and doors, because there wouldn’t be millions of files stored that no one needs or uses.

While it’s true that open offices solve the problem of paper clutter, the clutter problem has merely been transferred from physical to digital. For decades, companies have spent millions of dollars on software for their employees, but refused to invest in any training on how to organize the millions of files that are created daily. Now our computers and the cloud are filling up with clutter as surely as our desks and file cabinets have in the past.

As the familiar saying goes, “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to relive it.”

What We Must Do Now: While we can’t undo the past, we can certainly take steps to avoid repeating in the digital world the mistakes we made in the paper world. Here are five steps your organization can take now:

  1. Identify someone in your organization to take ownership for effectively managing information.
  2. Take a serious look in your office to see if there is a clutter problem you are ignoring.
  3. Create a user-friendly records retention program for your organization.
  4. Implement a training program to teach employees how to make decisions about what information they need to keep.
  5. Empower employees to eliminate unnecessary clutter by designating specific times for that purpose.

Barbara Hemphill is the Founder of Productive Environment Institute, in Raleigh, N.C., and author of Less Clutter More Life. As one of the country’s leading organizational experts she has helped many corporations, such as Staples, Hallmark and 3M increase their productivity and efficiency.



Less is More: The 7 Information Management Questions Every Organization Must Address to Thrive in the Digital Age

By Barbara Hemphill

Barbara HemphillMany companies continue to experience cutbacks in workforce, but not in workload. For the remaining employees, accessing valuable company information becomes increasingly complex, whether it’s a password, an email from a vendor documenting price agreements, or crucial information about a client contract. The computer has allowed us to generate information as never before, thus increasing our ability to create a mess. Poor information management creates inefficiency. Inefficiency costs money, causes unnecessary stress, precipitates poor customer service, and directly costs untold thousands of dollars.

Michael Dell says that by 2020 the world will generate 35 times as much data annually as in 2010. Unfortunately, many companies never learned to manage paper, and most are not doing any better with electronic documents. Particularly frightening is that if you have 1000 pieces of paper, you can hire someone to sort through them looking for specific words, and eventually they will find them. If you have 1000 electronic documents stored in a variety of places from employees desktops (not backed up!) to external drives, they may never be found — and when they are, the company may no longer has the capability of reading the data!

It’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN the information management meltdown will take place, unless you address the issue now. The following are seven essential questions to address about the information in your business.

What Information Do We Need To Keep? Start with your company’s mission and goals. What business are you in? What information do you need to reach those goals? And, of course, what information do regulators require? You can jokingly state that the word “archives” should be spelled “our-chives” since so many companies keep information that actually belongs to other organizations.

In What Form? Most information today is already in digital form. In many organizations, that information can be stored in more than one program. Consistency is the key.

Only a small portion of the information that exists on paper today is worth converting to a digital format. As the quantity of information received and generated by business increases, electronic storage options become essential. It is simply not cost effective to use paper for long-term storage of business information.

For How Long? Employees are scared to throw anything away, because the boss may ask for it, and many bosses won’t take the time to make a plan for records retention. When they do, the decision often breaks down in the implementation. The advantages of electronic storage can become disadvantages, as companies painfully learn when called to account for e-mail messages sent years previously. Regardless of the reasons, the results are the same: overstuffed filing cabinets and hard drives.

Many companies hold file clean-out days, and but often fail miserably. Why? Because management has failed to create the methodology, mechanics, and maintenance to enable and empower its employees to make the decisions required to eliminate unnecessary information.

Who is Responsible for Filing It? One client was spending thousands of dollars annually on file storage. When they looked into the situation, they identified that one big source of the problem was that multiple members of the team were filing the same information for the same project. The problem was quickly resolved by identifying a specific member of each team to be responsible for filing the appropriate information.

Every large company has an information systems person. While some large companies have a person in charge of records retention, they are often brought into the picture only after the files are full or the information is no longer used on a regular basis. Small businesses often ignore the issue entirely. Why not put someone in charge of making and implementing decisions about current information? It is essential to create a system so if a person leaves suddenly, the company is not left in jeopardy.

Who Needs Access to It? A major challenge in information management relates to the liability created if/when unauthorized people access private data. An advantage of an electronic filing system is the ability to determine who has access to what documents. It is unnerving to walk into offices and see paper and electronic documents accessible to people who have no reason to access them!

How Can We Find It? The three components to an effective filing system are:

  1. File methodology – what documents are to be filed
  2. File mechanics – how documents are filed
  3. File maintenance – when documents are eliminated

If any of the components are weak, your filing system will be an ongoing frustration instead of the resource it can and should be.

How Is It Backed Up? A client lost 30 years of research because of a miscommunication with the IT department. A survey by Adobe of 5000+ professionals found that 43% have lost important electronic documents, and 70% of those losses were caused by a computer or hard drive failure. Having a backup plan that is checked on a consistent basis is an important part of an information management system.

Clutter is postponed decisions. Countless companies are faced with the problem of hundreds, even thousands, of boxes of “archives” in storage rooms or off-site locations. Unfortunately, when management realizes the cost and the risk involved, and finally decides to do something, the people who created the paper are long gone, and current employees have little energy or motivation for making decisions about something that doesn’t affect their ability to leave work on time.

While there is no quick fix for years of postponed decisions, avoiding the problem in the future is easy. Today’s mail is tomorrow’s pile, so to get results, ignore the mistakes of the past. Create a system today to enable employees to make good decisions about the information they receive.

Barbara Hemphill is the Founder of Productive Environment Institute, in Raleigh, N.C., and author of Less Clutter More Life. As one of the country’s leading organizational experts she has helped many corporations, such as Staples, Hallmark and 3M increase their productivity and efficiency.