Can you practise minimalism at work?

Today’s post touches on minimalism, which is a topic that I haven’t written about much at all but one that aligns quite well with the FI/RE community. But not just minimalism in our personal lives, but whether you could actually practise minimalism in the workplace where many people would subscribe to a theory that is the opposite of minimalism…

Look at this minimalist office - I wish we could do something like this in our workspace. Image credit: (how appropriate)

Look at this minimalist office – I wish we could do something like this in our workspace.
Image credit: (how appropriate)

Our office recently needed some emergency building work, and this required a large team of personnel to essentially pack up all staff desks on a weekend so that they could be moved to a temporary workspace while the building works were under way.

As I was part of the team making all of this happen, I had the pleasure of packing up a few staff desks at short notice and I was amazed by the sheer amount of crap that people had on and around their desks. While one staff member’s desk was so perfectly clean that you wonder whether he did any work (he did actually, he just had everything done paperless like he is supposed to, and kept no personal effects at his desk either), most were far worse than his.

The worst desk took four people about half an hour to pack it up, and it really left me wondering whether we could implement some minimalist principles in our workplace. I know that the majority of people in my office don’t even know what minimalism is (if I extrapolate out my small sample of six people that I have questioned, none of whom had ever heard of the term), but even without the understanding that concept I started to consider a number of ideas that we could implement.

1. Hot desks

For those of you who don’t know, hot desks is a concept where you don’t have an allocated desk that you always sit at. Instead, you turn up at work each day and just take whatever desk is available. You can do this because each desk is cleared at the end of each day, and doesn’t contain anything that links it to any one individual.

Now I’m pretty sure that staff traditionally don’t like hot desks for the very reason that it doesn’t allow them to build a comfort zone, but that’s exactly the point – if I want them to have a minimalist approach to what they do, then I don’t want them to be in a comfort zone where they accumulate endless personal $hit all around them.

2. Eliminate all paper files

We are working on this one now, but the exercise of packing up desks showed that there are lots of stragglers in this area. If we can get all paper files eliminated, then all that people will be left with will perhaps some hard copy source documents that came from clients, and these should really just be scanned in straight away and the originals returned to the client.

Once all of the paper is gone we won’t need anywhere near as much storage space at our desks, which is where the next point comes in.

3. Smaller desks with greatly reduced storage space

The building works will be followed by the eventual replacement of all desks in the office, with the existing desk size being enormous and the amount of storage space being very generous (and that’s a huge understatement).

While we haven’t designed the new desks yet, I will be pushing to greatly reduce their size and storage capacity, which will in turn allow far more desks and increased flexibility in how we configure them. Not long ago we were thinking of moving to a new building because we were running out of space, but now with a desk reconfiguration and the automation trend that is reducing the need for labour in our industry, there’s no way that I will be voting to move to bigger premises any time soon.

4. Eliminate (or greatly reduce) meetings

While minimalism is often thought of as resulting to reducing physical objects/possessions, I prefer to take it further so that it’s reducing commitments/interruptions, and this is where the concept of a meeting is a huge problem.

Meetings start out with good intentions, but end up just being clutter in terms of time, and our temporary time out of our usual office, which has required the cancellation of all meetings, has really shown that most of the meetings we had were complete and utter bull$hit. I think that most people know this, but the problem is that they will surely try to reintroduce all of these timewasters back into the workplace once we are back in our building unless someone stops that from happening. I’ll certainly be doing my best to prevent this when I go back to work after my holidays!

5. Work with individual people

The desk-clean up efforts showed that some people in particular have huge problems with hoarding junk, and it really does make you wonder what sort of garbage they surround themselves with at home. One woman in particular (the one that required four people to spend half an hour to pack up her desk) will need serious help, and I intend to put some guidelines around her workspace to stop it from going back to what it was.

Not everyone will find it hard to make a change, but for those who will we’ll need to give them a helping hand. I’m sure some of them won’t like it, but getting rid of so much junk around them is surely going to be a way to force them to make better use of their time and focus on the right tasks. That’s what I’m hoping anyway!

Upon reflection, I actually think that we have a really good shot at practising minimalism within the workplace, as it really hasn’t taken much effort to come up with the above five points that should really make a difference.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues will be getting the firm’s leaders on board, with many of them being some of the worst hoarders of junk in the office! I’ll keep you posted one how it all goes!


2 thoughts on “Can you practise minimalism at work?

  1. Ah, this has been one of my major triumphs over the past few years. I was moved into a new department to work on another program that had only one other guy working on it. His desk was a complete catastrophe. His papers and binders took up his entire desk, the desk next to his, and sometimes a third desk in another cubicle! I was terrified initially, because it looked like my new job was going be an endless amount of work and paper!

    Four years later, I’ve got this program to be almost entirely paperless. The only elements still on paper are the things that the larger office has deemed to be necessary on paper. I don’t really agree, but can’t get around it. My program used to take up several file cabinets, and now it’s down to about two drawers. And not only is the entire mess gone, but the other guy is gone! I came in to help, ended up replacing him, and just by organizing the work, finding efficiencies, and getting it off paper, I turned two full-time jobs into just a part of my current workday. The “paperwork explosion” truly can get in the way of efficiency.

    I agree with every point (especially meetings), but I REALLY disagree with the “hot desks” idea. I’ve never heard of it before. But by taking away somebody’s “homebase,” every day, it seems like another step in the direction of “You’re just a cog here, not an individual, and you’ll sit wherever we tell you to sit.” I would deeply resent it.

    • Hey Norm, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one that is seeking to get some sort of minimalism going at work. I feel like so much time is wasted by people practising the opposite of minimalism, and if we can just get things organised and streamlined we often don’t need so many people to get the job done. Your example of turning two full time jobs into a part of your job really does show what can be done.

      I suspect that this concept will be quite threatening for some people, as often the clutter and meaningless tasks that it requires are what keeps them looking busy, and if you take that clutter away then they’ll probably worry about whether they should have a job any more!

      I agree that hot desks would be a tough sell for most people, and if people can do most of the other things then hot desks really wouldn’t be necessary. Hot desks certainly would take away the home base as you say, but that was probably just my frustrated reaction to having to clean up everyone’s unnecessary crap!

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