Multi-tasking & Organization of the Company Officer’s Office Space

Organizing office space and office items can be tricky. To avoid losing important files and to maintain organization, try arranging your own office space as if you were the covering officer for the day, and try to place needed items within reach. Photo courtesy iStock.

Many people have asked me how I manage my time, as I’m involved in a lot of different things (work, teaching, school, volunteering, lecturing, family, etc.). My stock answer: “It’s always harder to hit a moving target.” However, there’s a certain art to maintaining this level of activity and yes, something always has to give.

In a world where there just aren’t enough hours in the day and immediate gratification simply takes too long, we as firefighters and fire officers have perfected a multi-tasking system that works—even if it might be just a defense mechanism.

The Driving Force: RPD
Because of our line of work, many of us have learned to prioritize (and re-prioritize) tasks quickly and efficiently. Author Gary Klein calls this “rapid primed decision making,” or RPD (1993, 1998). RPD has been identified as a process where professionals (emergency services and military) size up a situation and quickly determine which course of action is best. Evaluating that course of action via mental scripts, mental simulation and past experiences allows firefighters to carry out objectives through gut instinct. It works both on and off the fireground and/or the battlefield.

When given a task or a set of tasks, firefighters accomplish them quickly for the most part. This is because, subconsciously, we realize that we don’t know what the next few seconds or minutes might bring. Even when there’s no likelihood of us having to drop everything and race to handle an emergency, we’re always thinking and heading in a perpetually forward motion because of what we do in our professional life. Corporate America, academic professionals, and our friends and families are perplexed at our innate ability to do this (and it may sometimes drive our significant others off the deep end).

Type-A Triage
Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of us bring our work—or the way we perform our work—home with us. So when given tasks or that “honey-do” list, out of habit and necessity we triage or prioritize the items to determine which ones must be accomplished.

Some people might look at their to-do list and panic. Emptying the kitty litter, taking out the trash, reading to the kids, working out, calling mom, getting gas, making time for “date night,” etc., can all be stressful and perhaps overwhelming for the non-type-A person. But for us, we simply look at the list, prioritize it and forge ahead. And for those who are really organized and anal-retentive, you may even reorganize the list so that it goes in logical order based on where you need go and/or how far you need to drive.

Maximized Focus
While pausing recently to think about how we handle our busy lives, it occurred to me that it’s all about being in the moment. We focus on one thing at a time, we complete the task or give the situation, decision or results time to settle, and then we’re off to the next item on the list. It’s what we do every day of our lives as emergency service professionals. Put out one fire, then on to the next.

This ability to focus is a gift, and most of us officers become very good at it. Being this way allows us to handle many situations at once or in very brief time spans. Now, let’s talk about how to maximize it when it comes to the one place that probably needs the most organization of all: the office.

Organize Your Office
Think back to the last time you were a covering/floating officer or a volunteer officer working in another firehouse. Remember how tough and frustrating it was when the chief called looking for a report, or you found yourself searching the office in vain for one specific item? Obviously, using the line, “Uh, I’m just here for the day, chief” won’t suffice in most cases. At best, it makes you look lazy; at worst it makes you look less than prepared (even though it’s out of your control).

Most departments attempt to create some cohesion in office set-ups when it comes to locations of files, reports, orders, etc. Unfortunately, even in the most organized of departments, individual preferences can kick in, causing things to become hidden, “organized” or saved on a computer under some obscure heading. Although a given file that’s known only to those who work there regularly makes sense, it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to find. So how do we avoid this dilemma? For the assigned officer, start by organizing your office as if you were covering there for the day. How and where would you find the normal, day-to-day items needed to effectively steer the ship?

Keep Things Within Reach
First off, sit in the office chair and push yourself back from the desk so that both of your arms are stretched straight out while still touching the desk. Then look around you. Maybe even spin around in the officer chair if you have the room (and a chair capable of this maneuver). All the important items needed to run the company or fire station should be within easy reach of this position and in plain sight. That doesn’t just include pens, pencils, erasers, Scotch tape, paperclips, telephone, fax/copier/scanner, etc. It also includes the binders, computer screen and keyboard that hold your incoming departmental communications, as well as incoming and outgoing copies of reports and call records.

Other items that should also be within reach and/or easily visible: vacation assignments, personnel folders and personal contact information lists, as well as a list of frequent and important telephone numbers, a company roster, a calendar and a list of daily tasks that are expected to be accomplished.

Tip: At the bottom of every form, list, roster or spreadsheet you have hanging around the desk, include a note about where it can be found on the office computer. For example, let’s say your company roster is hanging on a clipboard next to the desk, and the covering officer needs to make a change to it. If they check the office computer’s desktop, will they be able to find it? Where would they even start to look? What would they look under? The solution is simple: On the bottom right corner of every page, insert in boldface type the exact location of where it’s saved, along with the name of the document (e.g., “Saved as: My Documents/ENGINE 603/ROSTER.doc” or something similar).  Then, when you print out a hard copy and hang it on the clipboard, a new or covering officer will know exactly where the file is kept.

Create Title Pages/Clipboard Covers
Do you have a wall in the office that’s full of clipboards or paper folders? If you do, simply create a title page (perhaps printed on a cardboard/paper file folder cut to the proper size) and attach it to the folder’s cover or, use it as the cover of the clipboard. Don’t rely on the enclosed or attached papers to readily indicate what they are or what they’re in reference to. To a covering or hurried officer, they may just look like a forest of printed trees. The officer also may not have the time to scan, much less read, each of exposed papers to find what they’re looking for.

Lastly, don’t hide items in your mailbox if there’s even a remote chance that someone else may need to look at them. No matter what they are, file them away where they belong so that the next time you come into work, they will be there. Simply leave yourself a note to take it out again the next time you’re in the office. In the meantime, anyone else who may need them will be able to find them without rummaging through everyone’s personal file or in/out box.

A Final Word
Take a deep breath every once in a while and think of how you do the things you do. A little organization can go a long way. If you make your office “covering-officer friendly,” not only will you build a reputation for yourself and the office as highly organized and well-run, but you’ll build it for the company as well.
Klein, GA: Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. The MIT Press: Boston, 1998.

Klein, GA: Decision making in action: models and methods. In GA Klein, J Orasanu, R Calderwood, CE Zsambok (Eds): A Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Model of Rapid Decision Making. The MIT Press: Boston, 1993.