A common misconception held by school transportation professionals is that a messy desk is a sign of hard work. But even in a fast-paced industry dependent on time-sensitive documentation there are ways to maintain order. Although a buildup of paperwork and clutter may at times seem inevitable, an organized office is an attainable goal. In fact, you will find that a clutter-free office will increase productivity and make your job easier. When you make the decision to get organized, be careful not to fall into the trap of searching for a quick solution. Too often we look for potential cures without analyzing the situation or determining what the actual problem is. For example: buying storage containers without knowing how much you have to store, purging your office to create space without weighing the importance of what you throw out or adopting organizing tips without knowing if they suit your individual needs. Instead of taking a hasty approach, look at the bigger picture, focusing on the specific ways in which your office lacks organization. Once you have identified those weaknesses, here are some strategies for addressing them. 1. Clean out your desk
To launch your office makeover, you may want to start with what’s right in front of you - your desk. Sort everything on your desk into three piles: things you use every week, things you use every month and things you never use. Get rid of the things you never use and move all pictures and other decorations out of the way of your immediate workspace. Keeping only the things you use weekly on your desk, you may be surprised at what is left. Next, go through your drawers and separate everything into individual divider trays. Keep the drawers neat by placing pens, pencils, paper clips, tape, rubber bands and thumb tacks in their own containers. Deciding what to do with the overwhelming bulk of papers, folders, files and supplies in your office can be a colossal chore. Keep things simple and avoid being a paperwork “packrat” by storing old magazines, newspapers and other items you may never use. Instead, cut out individual articles and stories that you want and keep them in a file of important “to read” items. This will do away with excess paperwork and make your required reading feel like less of a burden. Larry Morris, transportation director for Northwestern Lehigh School District in New Tripoli, Pa., says that the influx of papers, mostly from routing, contributes to messiness. “My desk is known as the ‘black hole.’ Drivers know that if they put something there, it is at their own risk.” Eliminating clutter requires sitting down and taking stock of what you have and what you want to do with it. After that, you can decide how to store it. Try to stick to one area at a time when you are cleaning and sorting. If you are working on your desk, don’t work somewhere else until you see the finished product. This will give you a visual sense of accomplishment and motivate you to continue organizing. 2. Start a logbook
Developing good habits is key to reducing clutter. For example, a report-of-operations book with all the major concerns of the day is handy to keep near you at all times. “If you keep a single notebook instead of separate slips of paper or Post-it Notes, then you don’t have to worry about finding multiple reminders,” says Morris. One of the biggest organizational mistakes people make is to jot down dozens of little notes to themselves - on legal pads, on Post-It notes, on scratch paper - and leave them in various places. Consider writing all this information in one accessible planner or calendar, and remember to update and clean it frequently. Amy Cook, assistant director of operations for the transportation department at School District U-46 in Elgin, Ill., says that her office staff uses a large notebook as a central reference tool for storing all pivotal operational information. “We have what we jokingly refer to as the ‘Bible,’” she says. “It’s a big ledger that identifies absences, routes and schedules so that we can go back to any date in history and see at a glance who did what run or find out any important information about what happened on a given day.” Equally important is remembering to keep all your scheduling and time managing materials in the same place. Use a binder or scheduler to keep everything together. If you have a commercial planner, discard sections that you know you won’t use to cut down on excess paper. Keep these materials slim and easy to handle. 3. Get your files in order
Consider overhauling your filing system by recategorizing how information is stored. Don’t make “miscellaneous” files because eventually you may forget what you placed in them. Organize files by asking yourself how you will find them when you need them. This will help you visualize your organizing system. You can color code each file category by project, by subject, alphabetically or by any other easy-to-remember classification. Examples of categories are “meetings,” “routes” or “expenses.” Darla Robson, office manager for Bend/LaPine (Ore.) School District, points out that remembering who needs to access information will help you sort through and organize paperwork. “I know what I would do if I were looking for something, but I have to remember that other people may have to look for it too,” she says. “So I try to think of the common denominator when I’m organizing, that way people can rationally guess where something is.” Whichever system you decide on, stick with it. To deal with materials that have deadlines, Bill Powers, transportation director for Collier County Schools in Naples, Fla., says that his department uses a “tickler” file. “It’s called a tickler system because it tickles your memory on time-sensitive projects just before they are due,” he says. The way it works is that all time-sensitive materials are placed in the tickler file, which is organized by due dates. The file is routinely checked and important documents are pulled and handled accordingly when their deadline approaches. 4. Use technology
Cook says, “The biggest challenge to us is the volume of information that comes through the office on a daily basis.” This is a common lament in pupil transportation. Cook says her district handles the information overload by organizing incoming data via computer software, logs and spreadsheets. Operations are increasingly relying on computer management programs to help them store and transfer data. Molly Lehr, transportation director for Capital Christian Center School in Sacramento, Calif., touts the value of an electronic office to eliminate an overwhelming amount of paperwork. Her fleet uses a management program made by EasyBus, a transportation software provider in Gardiner, N.Y. She says the program saves her time in handling routing, maintenance, field trip planning, operational expenses and more. As useful as the program is, she reminds, “Computers crash once in a while so make sure to keep a back-up disk and records in pencil too.” There are several other computer management programs available to help you keep your office well-organized, including BUSTOPS by MicroAnalytics Inc. in Arlington, Va., Edulog by Education Logistics in Missoula, Mont., products by Latham, N.Y.-based VersaTrans Solutions and software made by Transfinder in Schenectady, N.Y. Regardless of what software you choose, remember to keep frequently used computer disks, CD ROMs and other software in a nearby, convenient area. A desk drawer is a good place. 5. Refine your office layout
Setting up your office to allow for employee comfort and workability will go a long way toward keeping you organized and increasing productivity. Almost every office can benefit from a few changes in layout and design. Office staff frequently waste a good deal of time each day just walking from place to place to do different chores. Having to leave your desk and go to another office every time you answer a phone, use a computer, fax some documents or grab things off a printer can be unproductive after a while. This is why you should take a good look at where office equipment is located and design ways to improve the overall flow of work. For example, printers, fax machines and other shared equipment should be placed in one, easy-to-access area. By opening spaces and aligning furniture for easy maneuverability around the office you may be able to increase your speed at traveling between locations. Having adjustable and mobile furniture is another good option when you are dealing with limited space. It will allow you to easily reconfigure workstations when necessary. Chairs with wheels can facilitate movement around the office. Says Morris, “I have a moveable seat that I can roll around the office with to get things instead of having to get up and walk around.” Physical placement of employees may help in many ways as well. Cook, for instance, says that all the dispatchers in her office are seated so that they are facing each other in the middle of the room. “If they need to, they can get someone else’s attention just by looking at them, which makes a really big difference,” she says. Finally, whom you employ will greatly affect organization in your office. Administrative assistants, office managers and secretaries are invaluable, but not all operations can afford them. More important than having an abundance of support staff is to ensure the quality of the staff that you do have. Powers says that being organized takes getting the right people in the right jobs. “If you hire someone who is organized, things are going to stay organized,” he says.