So I have one particular reader out there who has been asking me to talk about mobile office issues, and I always like to honor requests. To clarify, by "mobile office" I don't mean like a food truck or bookmobile (wait...do they still have those??). I mean like the person who works from home but has to meet clients all over the place, or who might travel once or twice a week to an office suite situation. There are definitely special challenges that working from your car or briefcase present, and we can organize those spaces - just like an office - for optimal productivity.
What happens when you arrive at a meeting or trade show and realize that you've left all your business cards on the desk at home? What about files or samples? Do you have to drag them around and if so, what's the best way to do it without losing one under the pile of dry cleaning or the jumper cables?
First, having a clear vehicle is key. As with any organizing project, if your interior vehicle space is cluttered with trash, supplies, coffee mugs and other "stuff", you need to do a sort and purge. Throw the trash away, move the items that don't belong back into the home or garage, and make a pile of the stuff you DO need and want for your professional travels. Bonus points if you vacuum. As with any other organizing project, if cleaning things out is overwhelming, remember to break things into smaller goals. Maybe just the glovebox first. Or half of the back seat. Or the trunk. Think of the space immediately around the driver's seat as the "command center" (just like with your office desk). Make sure that phone charger is in its place, and purchase a trash bin made for the car to keep right next to you. Here's a nice one I use: http://www.containerstore.com/shop?productId=10030470&N=&Ns=p_sort_default|0&Ntt=automobile
Now that you have a clear space, you can choose what you really need for your "keep" pile. As you might imagine, there are now a plethora of organizers, cases and front-seat gadgets designed with the traveling professional in mind. Much depends upon the types of things you need to carry with you. Make a list of the items that are absolutely necessary when you're on the move, and what size compartment they will fit in. Think about what can just stay in the car all of the time (like supplies that you draw from and replenish when needed) vs. what needs to go in and out with you. Do you need a trunk organizer or will everything fit in the front passenger seat? How often do you have passengers in the vehicle? Do the organizing items need to be easily moved for seating space? If paper files are a must-have, you can use a small plastic or cardboard filing box from an office supply store, or even a milk crate. Or, if you want to spend just a little more, check out front seat organizers like the one pictured above.
Other thoughts: It's nice to have some kind of storage with a flat surface on top in case you want to take a few quick notes in the car. Visor organizers are good for pens, post-its, sunglasses and sanitizer. If you have loose items that need to be secured in the trunk (or any other carpeted surface), try attaching Velcro to the bottom of shoebox-sized plastic organizing bins and simply sticking them to the floor. It's always a good idea to have a basic first aid and emergency kit, too.
Going as paperless as possible will go a long way towards keeping you from backsliding with the clutter - do you really need to carry tons of paper files, or could you upload most of the documents into apps like Dropbox or Evernote? Can you take pictures or videos with your smartphone for demonstration purposes instead of carrying the actual items? Could you use an app like MileBug or Expensify to track your mileage, instead of carrying a notebook around? Those business cards you forgot? How about designing a digital card that's always with you that you can share electronically? Apps like Cardcloud (free for iPhone and Android) and CardFlick (free for iPhone, coming soon on Android) allow you to design a card to send to anyone (even if they don't have the app), and also allow for scanning and storing cards you receive. Even if you want to keep using the physical cards, having a digital version is a great back-up. Brochures and catalogs can now be designed for digital distribution as well. Use the technology you already own as much as possible to cut down on what you lug around.
Finally, it is worth all of the time and effort it takes to research briefcase options. Carrying the old-fashioned, hard-shell, leather-with-your-initials kind of case that you may have received upon graduation is probably not going to play nicely with the technology and other items you will need to have on hand. The choices now are limitless: the more traditional, leather or fabric two-handled types, rolling bags, messenger bags, or backpacks specifically designed for office use. Personally, I think backpacks score highest for mobility, comfort and protection for laptops, tablets, etc. They generally have plenty of inner pockets that are smart for keeping cards, keys, pens and other supplies so that they don't just jumble around in one compartment. In my research I did come across some pretty snobbish opinions about the impression a business backpack makes ("backpacks are for schoolchildren and mountain climbers, not professionals"), but whatever. As long as you keep it tasteful (no Hello Kitty, please), I believe it makes a much better impression in a meeting to go right to what you need in your backpack than to root around in the bottomless pit of a more expensive "stylish" leather case.
And while you're at it, why not label the various compartments within the briefcase or backpack you choose? If you have a pocket labeled "KEYS", you are not very likely to stuff it with your flash drive or loose change. You will hopefully put the flash drive in the pocket labeled, well..."FLASH DRIVE". No more digging around to find what you need quickly. You can use a fabric pen in a contrasting color, or Avery makes No-Iron Clothing Labels that you can simply write on with a permanent marker (a fine tip is best), then affix to the inside pockets (www.avery.com). If your lettering is less than perfect, find a friend or family member with Kindergarten teacher-quality handwriting who will help you out. Avery states that the labels should withstand up to 20 washings, and since we don't generally launder briefcases they should hold up well.
What do I use? Since I have so many tools of the trade to carry (tape measure, label maker, file folders, pens, scissors, keyboard cleaner, crochet hook, etc.), I recently decided to re-purpose a scrapbooking case. It has wheels and tons of neat storage - clear pockets, velcro pockets, straps, elastic loops, larger spaces for files...I can't imagine organizing without it now. Between it and my iPad, having a mobile office is relatively stress-free.
Here's to happy, organized travels!
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Organizer Coach®, wife, mom, and serial list-maker. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?