Why you should spend some time to declutter that desk

  • Living
  • Monday, 29 May 2023

The time spent organising your work space is time not wasted looking for random objects. — Photos: dpa

ARE YOU sitting at your desk at the moment? If so, take a look around. Are loose sheets of paper piling up, sticky notes poking out all over and sundry objects scattered about your desktop?

It might be high time to declutter. A well-ordered workspace not only looks good, but makes your work easier too.

”An orderly workspace gives you a certain clarity,” says social scientist Ralph Conrad, a member of the corporate excellence division of the Dusseldorf-based Institute of Applied Industrial Engineering and Ergonomics (IFAAA). “You’ll also be able to find things more easily.”

”I thrive in creative chaos!” you might counter. Really? Order is often conducive to concentration though.

”If your surroundings are tidy, you’ll have fewer distractions at your job,” says Conrad, speaking from personal experience too.

The biggest benefit, however, is that “being structured and organised is an enormous time-saver, since you don’t have to search for things any more,” remarks Petra Hermann, an organisation coach for business and home offices.

What does a well-ordered workplace entail? That depends on the kind of work. In an industrial setting, it may largely have to do with the set-up of machines and tool trolleys. In an office, it’s about documents, records and files, be they in electronic or paper form.

”Many offices still don’t work digitally, but with binders, lots of paper and files,” Hermann notes. To keep things in better order, she suggests using various filing trays, or hanging space-saving suspension files - in which folders, for example, can be organised - on your desk or the door.

There should also be a place for the post, as well as for magazines that are regularly sorted out.

”The same goes for digitalised offices. Everything on your PC and display surface should be structured,” says Hermann, explaining that it not only saves you time having to look for things, but also makes it easier to break in co-workers or have them fill in for you.

She also advises clearly labelling digital documents so that you can quickly find them later. If it’s a claim for travel expenses, for instance, the file name should say exactly that, “after which you can always add the date,” Hermann says.

Even those who work from home can benefit from the 5S method. The first thing you have to do is throw things away.Even those who work from home can benefit from the 5S method. The first thing you have to do is throw things away.

Structured approach

To bring long-term order to a chaotic workplace, what helps most of all is a structured approach, especially if all team members are to navigate it smoothly. For businesses, experts often advocate the “5S” process - “made popular by the production system of Toyota,” the giant Japanese automobile manufacturer, Conrad says.

The five guiding principles are typically translated into English as: sort, systematise, shine, standardise and sustain.

”Experience has shown that they result in production gains of at least 5% or so - in manufacturing, at any rate,” according to Conrad. Although they come from the industrial sector, “it’s worthwhile to apply them yourself,” he says, be it at your workplace, when you’re working remotely or even to keep your home shipshape.

So what do you have to do?

It starts with sorting – at your desk, on the shelves and in the drawers. You go through all the items and decide whether you really need them. It sounds easy but can be tricky, particularly if your co-workers take part. Maybe someone still wants to browse through an old magazine, or thinks the 2020 calendar might come in handy.

”You’ve got to tackle this with lots of discipline,” Conrad says. “If you’re unsure about some items, you can give yourself a deadline.”

This means putting stickers on them with the date and - after a specified time period, for example six months - giving them another look. “Did you really use these items during that period, or not?”

Sorting doesn’t mean removing all family photos from your desk, by the way. And arranging things in an orderly fashion doesn’t mean, say, that binders have to be lined up exactly 5cm from the edges of shelves. “What’s important,” Conrad says, “is that you can find them when you need them.”

The third principle, shine, isn’t self-explanatory. While systematising a workplace creates a place for everything and ensures that everything stays in its place, “shining” is a refining step that means cleaning the spaces, tidying up items and eliminating any deficiencies you may have overlooked.

All on board

When it comes to standardising, you and your co-workers need to put your heads together. “You set standards by, for instance, making a rule that at the end of the eight-hour workday no loose sheets of paper remain on the desk,” points out Conrad.

As regards your computer, it can mean checking individual files every three months. “Do you still need a certain file, or can you delete it? Might it be better to put it in a parent folder?”

While the first three 5S principles are relatively simple, the last two are “Champions League” calibre, Conrad says. In sustaining the process, “you’ve got to exercise self-discipline to maintain the standards,” that is, “make sure that after six weeks everything hasn’t reverted to how it used to be - or got worse.”

”This,” Conrad says, “could mean repeating the first three S’s at regular intervals” - in other words, sorting, systematising and shining every six months or so.

If the 5S principles are applied in a business, managerial staff must see to it that the standards are kept. Most importantly, in Hermann’s view, they must set a good example.

Patience is necessary too. “You’ve got to give yourself between eight and 12 weeks to implement the changes,” she says, and if the new order doesn’t work straight away, “give yourself a little more time.” Then you can decide whether you’ve chosen a system that meets your needs, and change it if need be.

How much work is required to institute the 5S process? “Putting it into action for the first time takes between two hours and one workday, depending on its extent,” says Conrad, adding that you should look at it as an investment. – dpa

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