How The Empty Desk Started

In 1965 I left school and started work, in the City of London. I had wanted to work in the Stock Market and went to London for job interviews. In the event, thinking in terms of a stable occupation, a change of mind led to Insurance Broking being the preferred option. I started work as a clerk, in general insurance broking, an environment in which you learn how to deal with paperwork or “drown” in it. It was a “Baptism of Fire”.

In the office, as a new staff member, I heard the other people talk of a dream giving hope to all who worked with only office equipment, and stationery. This dream was referred to as “The Empty Desk”, thought of by all as something that was impossible to achieve; nevertheless everyone talked of it. It seemed to make them happy somehow. Good dreams do that don’t they!

When it came to paperwork, I did not prove to be a good swimmer. It was not long before the concept of drowning was experienced for real. After a few drowning experiences, and thinking that it would take about six weeks to accomplish, I set about organizing a better way to work. Something had to be done to keep this interactively complicated sequence of activities, called administration, under control. I embarked upon a quest to find that empty desk that other staff members kept talking about. In time I found that any journey to where you are at the moment is bound to take a long time; that is unless you realize, in good time, that your desk is a reflection of you.

Expecting that the project might take about 6 weeks to arrange, 44 years went by before the answer was known. A journey where many complexities were tackled, the guiding star was a realization that the journey involved undoing not creating. There were “too many cooks” and that was “spoiling the broth”.

On route there was a major break through. It set the co-ordinates for what had to be researched. Quite a natural unplanned occurrence illustrated that, in time terms, natural creation and creation by human beings, conflict to the extent that they do not align with each other. This is what happened:

One day I was sitting at my desk, pencil in hand, attending to some work on it.  There was a clock on the wall in front of the desk. On hearing the postman at the front door, and noticing that it was exactly 9.00 a.m., I walked, pencil in hand, to get the post. There was only one letter. While walking back to my desk, I opened the envelope and read the letter, making a note of what had to be done.

On arriving back at the desk and noting that the time was now exactly 9:02, I celebrated the fact that the work, relating to this piece of post, was under way before the telephone had a chance of interrupting the proceedings. All done in two minutes; one minute to walk to the door, one minute to walk back, and about 30 seconds to read the letter and write what had to be done on it.  Two minutes and thirty seconds and the post was opened and on it’s way. Wow !!!

Hang on. !!! The clock on the wall said two minutes, why is there a difference of about thirty seconds, I thought. Then I realized that the time, not shown on the clock, related to items created by human beings – the pencil, envelope, A4 paper, writing, ink, stamp, and penciled note. The human being represented nature and my actions aligned with the two minutes on the clock.

A second development came years later. Now a manager, and now with a much improved ability on the subject of administration/paperwork, my desk was still not empty at the end of the day. Mindful of this, I ran a mini project, alongside daily work, to find out why my desk was still “not empty”. It was still in a mess, in other words.

I was three weeks into my mini project before I found the principle leading the way toward an empty desk. What was it? The principle is that there is only one way that documents, or other administrative items, can be retained and that is by keeping them in date order. i.e. if they are filed in the exact sequence that they arrived at the office/home. This is always the first step, before any more specific arrangements are made. When documents are not so filed to start with, “all hell” breaks loose”.

Douglas Peacock