Organizing @ Work: Dealing with Co-Workers and Clutter

Posted By on March 23, 2014

© Monkey Business -

© Monkey Business –

Note: Happy Monday! Welcome to a new weekly blog series called Organizing @ Work where I will feature tips and strategies to help you with the wild world of work.

In my work as a professional organizer, I’ve had many clients “turned in” by their bosses or co-workers over the years.

It’s an awkward way to start a new work relationship.

These are the clients who are labeled as the office hoarder or are considered too disorganized by those who supervise and work with them.

Does it really matter if a co-worker is disorganized and has more stacks on their desks?

Whether you work in a small or large team, our work impacts the people around us on a daily basis. When one or more person is disorganized in an office setting, the impact trickles down to the rest of the team.

First of all, having a cluttered desk can impact your promotion. According to a 2011 Career Builder study, 28% of employers are less likely to promote someone with a messy work space, and two in five employers say paper piles covering a desk negatively impact what they think of a person.

I think a couple of things are going on with these statistics. First of all, shows like Hoarders and Buried Alive have drawn much needed awareness to hoarding and hoarding behaviors. However, people who have a tendency to be disorganized may being judged more harshly when compared to true hoarders. Not everyone who has stacks of stuff on their desks is a hoarder and have homes filled with dead cats and tunnels.

Secondly, it’s much easier for us to go digital at work and home – even compared to five years ago. With the advent of tablet computers, smartphones, apps and cloud services like Dropbox and Evernote, make it much easier to store, access, and handle your information and photos. It’s easier these days to have fillable online forms, electronic signatures, and PDF’s, and we do most of our communication via email or text. You simply don’t need as much as paper as you used to.

Finally, the sizes of individual workstations are shrinking. According to a Haworth white paper, the International Facility Management Association shows average office spaces in the 1970s were 12 x 12. By the mid-90s, the average shrank to 10 x 10. These days, the average size is 6 x 8. When you have less space, you need to have less stuff. It’s simple physics.

It’s Not Me. It’s Them.

Then again, it could be you. Several times, I’ve seen bosses or co-workers judge someone’s desk by their own organizing standard. If someone is hyper-organized and has practically nothing on their desk, someone with a bin of paper clips and a stack of paper is going to be considered a hoarder.

You may be judging a co-worker or your team member with skewed perception. Instead of looking at their desk, ask yourself:

  • Are they getting their work done in a timely manner?
  • Have they missed any deadlines? Or have they lost a document?
  • If you need something in their office, how long does it take for them to find it?
  • Are they causing co-workers and their boss any delays?
  • Have they renewed their licenses and certifications in a timely fashion?
  • Most importantly, are they violating fire codes and endangering themselves or others by having boxes and piles on the floor or near exits?

So how do you handle a problem like a disorganized co-worker? As a co-worker, there’s not much you can do since you don’t have the power to demand change. Here are a few ways to handle the situation:

  • If you’re sharing an office space, make sure your space isn’t invaded by someone else’s stuff.
  • Model organized behavior by making sure your area is organized and you’re getting work done.
  • Encourage your co-workers to go digital instead of having paper files.
  • Avoid teasing them, and never, ever buy them any sort of organizing tool or book.
  • Focus on deadlines and make sure work is getting done when it’s supposed to get done.
  • Encourage your department to develop department retention policies on how long documents are kept, who keeps them and if they can be kept offsite or digitally. What documents should we keep? What’s historical? What’s important? What’s not important? Everything has a time limit.
  • Have regular “decluttering” days a couple of times throughout the year. Bring in large trash cans and dumpsters, wear jeans and order lunch in.




One Response to “Organizing @ Work: Dealing with Co-Workers and Clutter”

  1. Reading this reminded me of yet another reason I’m happy to be self-employed! I had one job where I had to share my desk with two other people from other shifts. There were actually a number of people over the years, and a couple of them were terrible for leaving the desk in a mess at the end of their shift. It was so frustrating!