Expert organisers share 8 must-know tips for organising a home office

Desperate to live by “the ‘tidy desk, tidy mind” mantra? We help you declutter your office and organise the chaos​​.

Though having a dedicated office space at home can feel like a luxury, if it’s a jumbled mess, you might find it more of a place to stress out than to focus. It’s easy enough for the chaos to build up – bills and other post stack up quickly, and unless you have a one-in-one-out policy for books, brochures and magazines, they can easily pile up, too.

Coming up with a system for organising a home office can be the difference between a space you enjoy “commuting” to, and one you try to avoid.

The reality is that ​whether you ​WFH or not, we all need to keep some ​hard copies of ​files and documents. Whether it’s last year’s MOT or someone’s graduation certificate, you never know when you might need to ​have a document to hand​. ​And having to spend time just ​to find​ a pen that works can be wildly distracting​.

Credit: John Lewis

Vicky Silverthorn, professional organiser and founder of You Need a Vicky highlights one benefits of keeping your home office well organised: “If you do organise it in a simple fashion, then at the end of the day, putting things away will be an absolute dream. The next day, you can start a fresh with a blank canvas – this helps you get that clear head and will send productivity levels flying.”

To save yourself from (most) future office turmoil, we quizzed Silverthorn further, and caught up with Jessica Linighan, professional organiser at Homefulness, as well as a few other experts.

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1. Start by having a good ol​d​​ clear-out

Pulling out paperwork might seem overwhelming but it’s essential

If this is the first time in a while that you’ve approached organising your home office space, it might ​feel​ a little ​overwhelming​. But don’t dismiss it, as it will ultimately make ​your ​life so much easier.

Linighan says that pulling everything out from desk drawers, cupboards, shelves, and anywhere else that paperwork or files might be lurking, is the first step ​to​​​ getting your home office space in order: “Normally if we were organising someone’s home office, we would start by decluttering paperwork.”

Silverthorn also says that taking everything out​ of cupboards and drawers​ is a sensible place to start, so that you can “visually” take stock of everything you have. If you have a particularly large or shared home office, you might want to do this section by section.

2. Begin grouping and categorising items

Organise stationery and paperwork into piles

​​Be patient. ​As ​time consuming ​as it might be, you ​should​​​ get everything out in an organised fashion. “You’re not pulling it out into a messy pile, but laying it out neatly in basic categories,” says Silverthorn, who calls out stationery and paperwork as typical top-level category names.

This might be easier for some than others, but once all your documents have been retrieved from drawers and cupboards, you should start to see obvious categories ​emerging​. Linighan’s next tip ​focuses on this: “There will be obvious things that will be rubbish, so you would have a rubbish pile, and then a pile of important things that aren’t used frequently,” she says.

“Within each of these groups you would have subcategories as well. Further groups might be things like ‘household bills’, ‘car paperwork’, or ‘personal documents’, including birth, marriage, and death certificates. You’ll want to compile any more current documents that need your attention too.​”​

It’s likely you will come across things that ​don’t necessarily belong​​​ in a home office​. Manuals for appliances or tech, for example, might be better placed in the room where that item ​is stored or used​​​. So be conscious of what is serving you well in this space and what belongs in the kitchen, living room, or shed​.​​

How long should you keep bills and bank statements? 

Silverthorn tends to direct clients towards their accountants or to government ​web​sites. “As a professional organiser, we are legally not allowed to advise on how long people keep items for,” she says.​

“​It’s always best to find the most up-to-date and accurate information, especially as this can change depending on your circumstances. For instance, if you are self-employed or a limited company​,​​ ​w​​​e would recommend checking Gov.uk for advice on tax and general business records.​”​

If you haven’t already made the switch to digital banking or paperless ​billing​, it’s well worth it. ​”We recommend keeping documents such as bank statements for up to a year, as ​people can​​​ always ​reorder copies from their bank if they need to go further back. However, we also recommend ​that​​ clients go paperless with their banking if possible to reduce ​​paper clutter,” says Linighan.

3. Assess your storage options

​How to keep everything tidy after the ​paperwork purge

So how should you store all your beautifully compiled paperwork? This will ultimately depend on how much you have to store, the ​space​​ you have available, and your personal preferences.

“It depends on each client as well ​as​ the aesthetic of the office,” Linighan tells us. “Some people want everything to go digital.” You might prefer to keep hard copies or photograph documents to store them securely online, ahead of shredding or disposing of them appropriately.

Why you should NEVER buy storage before you’ve sorted your paperwork

Getting your ​home office​​​ or study under control can be an exciting prospect. But make sure you’ve done some of the hard work and sorted your paperwork before you go investing in more storage. “A lot of people will go out, buy a load of baskets, come back and put stuff in them and then say, ‘I’m organised’,” says Linighan. “Then three months later it’s not organised because all you’ve done is put some stuff in some baskets.

“Try to ignore everything you see on social media about storage, until you are ready to buy storage,” she recommends.

4. Categorise papers within your chosen storage

A filing cabinet might be easier to work with than traditional lever-arch files 

For paperwork, you will want to give each category or subcategory ​its​​​ place​. Start by making a list of around 10 categories and go from there.

“Labelling everything is really important,” says Linighan. Don’t skimp on the detail either – it could make the difference between locating something in five minutes, versus five hours.

Box, suspension, and magazine files are all sensible choices for storage. “If someone doesn’t have a lot of storage space, it might be that we use one bigger box to store a number of categories,” Linighan adds. Remember to always label the outer box ​too ​so that you’re able to locate everything easily, when you need it.

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If you’re not a fan of hole punches and lever arch files, Silverthorn recommends investing in a Bisley filing cabinet​. “Often when I see people with lever-arch files – with categories, sub-categories, and colour coding – they also have piles of paperwork around the house,” she says. “That says to me that the system isn’t working. I have the Bisley 10-drawer filing cabinet and will forever recommend this product.

“This simplifies your filing and your categorisation,” continues Silverthorn, who simply allocates a drawer per category. She assigns one to household bills: “There’s no need to split them into gas, electricity, water,” she explains. “As they come in, you put them in one drawer and they naturally file in date order.”

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Top tip

For documents you might need quick access to, Silverthorn recommends using coloured thumb-cut files to make them stand out. 

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Thumb Cut Folders A4 100 Micron Pack of 10, Ryman

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Thumb Cut Folders A4 100 Micron Pack of 10, Ryman

5. Use any open shelving you have (the right way) 

Make your display ​both practical and beautiful

Next, if you have open shelving to store paperwork or other office essentials, make sure it is as aesthetically pleasing as ​possible​​​, and not just another surface for clutter. “We like to use matching box and file sets that look neat and clean, and fit in with the aesthetic of the room,” says Linighan.

“The danger with open shelving is it can end up looking quite cluttered,” she continues. The key is to not let things accumulate and get out of hand. Unless this morning’s coffee mug is part of your ​display, get rid of it.

If you can’t be trusted with a ​clear​​​ surface (you ​are not alone), Linighan shares a clever technique: “We add empty boxes to fill most of the shelves. That way, there is little room left for anything else to land there by mistake.”

Of course, you don’t have to use matching boxes – combining a few different ​storage​​ ​options​ in a set colour scheme can ​create​​​ a stylish finish. In this home office setup by Sharps​​​, ​there are​​ stacked letter trays and magazine files in navy, white, grey and gold, alongside decorative accessories.

Use a shredder or reputable shredding company

It goes without saying that when organising a home office, you should be careful with how you ​destroy​​​ documents that contain important and/or sensitive information. Make sure that you will not require a hard copy in the future ​before you dispose of any​​ documents.

“We advise clients that they shred anything with any personal details on,” says Silverthorn. If you have a backlog, this could take a full day or more to get through using an average-quality home shredding machine. But ​​there are companies out there that will do the job for you.

“There are services that do one of two things: they either collect your shredding, take it away, shred it, and then send you a certificate by email. Or, they turn up with the shredding van outside, and they do it in front of you and then email you a certificate afterwards.”

There are lots of different services available – Silverthorn says she prefers to support small businesses where possible but mentions a well-known company called ​Shred It.

6. Limit surface clutter 

Group office essentials to promote focus

It’s time to add the finishing touches to your home office environment. Some items you will want within arm’s reach – think your notepad and favourite fountain pen. Be very selective with what you keep on your desk and group desktop essentials together using trays and pots. This is especially important in small home office, where clutter can escalate quickly.

“To maintain a distraction-free workspace, limit surface clutter. Use desk organisers to corral loose items and invest in cable management solutions to keep wires tidy. A clutter-free desk promotes focus,” suggests Palmer. 

Consider clever additions that make the most of the space around you. Kristina, the owner of myformdesign on Etsy has fabricated this clever desktop organiser. We think this looks ideal for the hybrid home worker, especially one who might start their day in the office, only to finish their work at the dining table.

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Office and Desktop Organiser, Etsy

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7. Add an “‘action”’ tray for any new post and documents

A small addition that will help you keep your office organised long-term

To help keep a calm and uncluttered environment, Linighan recommends that you: “Introduce an in-tray, so that post and items that need dealing with can go in there before being filed away. Then things aren’t sitting on the side somewhere, in danger of being lost. They’ve got a temporary home and will be dealt with from there,” she says.

Silverthorn likes to call this an “action tray” – a more positive and less daunting label than “to-do” pile. “Keep it simple,” she says, “and use thumb cuts if you need to divide or highlight anything specifically.”

8. Keep your office just as it is

Listen and learn about your own home office and general organisational style

Now that your home office organised and looking stylish, how can you keep it that way? This is a moment to tap into your organisational style.

Staying on top of clutter is essential, as is labelling documents, Linighan tells us. So make sure you keep on top of your in-tray and don’t keep anything unnecessarily.

“For an office space, it’s especially important to have quite a calm and clear environment. Store everything away as soon as possible,” she says.

Think of ways to minimise surface clutter too. If you’re constantly writing yourself reminders to do things, consider a pin board to corral to-do lists (and perhaps the odd motivational message). That way, you can keep your desk free from an overload of disorderly lists.

Vicky Silverthorn’s favourite storage

Another product Silverthorn recommends are iDesign stackable storage containers. “They are often described as food storage, but I use them for everything,” says Silverthorn. They stack and are really good for things like stationery, Post-it notes and envelopes.”

Simply label them up and stack them in a closed cupboard or on open-shelving. Silverthorn recommends the flat ones for pens specifically:We use these in offices up and down the country,” she says.  

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iDesign lidded storage container and stackable box bundle, Amazon

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Camille Dubuis-Welch

Written by Camille Dubuis-Welch she/her

Published:

Camille is a freelance writer based in north London with her cat and two friends. Cam has been in love with everything interior design and garden-related since before she can remember and is the former deputy editor of realhomes.com, where she got to collaborate with some very inspiring DIYers and focus on small-space improvements.