My new office is gross. What do I do?
September 20, 2016 11:43 PM   Subscribe

[Difficulty Level: Australian Higher Education] I've just started a new part-time job, as a technical officer in a higher-ed performing arts institute. My single-occupant office, tucked away behind a loading dock behind a theatre, doubles as a soldering/technical maintenance workshop.

When I was shown the office by my counterpart from another campus, i was shocked and dismayed by the state that the previous occupant had left it in: broken stuff in piles, cable offcuts and litter, tools scattered all over the office, great snowdrifts of papers, things shoved willy-nilly into whatever shelf space would fit. Like something out of a World's Worst Hoarders show.I rolled up my sleeves and set to trying to tidy up, but each thing I threw out or put away revealed more chaos: desk drawers with invoices, stationery, tools and parts shoved in; old tissues, food wrappers and packaging; vendor catalogues ten years or more out-of-date; two filing cabinets full of... just stuff.

To make matters worse, there are personal items: clothes, an old towel, and pictures by (I imagine) the previous occupant's child(ren?) stuck everywhere with stickers and tape. And when I finally got the least-broken filing cabinet open, there's a drawer full of out-of-date snack foods and opened bottles of tomato sauce, unwashed dishes and cutlery. The office seems like it's never been vacuumed, there's dust, roach traps and rat baits everywhere, a spaghetti of un-test-and-tagged cables running all over the office to various un-test-and-tagged devices (one of the key tasks in this role is testing and tagging of electrical devices...) The guy who was showing me around told me "oh, feel free to get whatever storage you need from Bunnings and tidy up. You can submit a claim to be reimbursed." Of course, I'd have to spend my own money and my own time to do that!

I'm already feeling a bit freaked-out by a new and unfamiliar job that demands skills I don't really have (and I told them at interview that I don't have!) and I really feel like cleaning up someone else's mess as well goes a fair way above and beyond what I should be expected to do. Complicating matters further, the previous occupant is not only still employed at the college, he is now teaching in the department and is therefore my superior (although I report directly to the head of department). Any advice would be gratefully received.
posted by prismatic7 to Work & Money (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Couldn't you go directly to whoever is in charge of maintenance/ cleaning and get someone to manage the task?
posted by KateViolet at 11:47 PM on September 20, 2016

Response by poster: KateViolet the person in charge of maintenance in that area is me. The cleaning staff don't clean the theatre, because of reasons (which are all of the form "We don't clean the theatre") and that includes the office.
posted by prismatic7 at 11:55 PM on September 20, 2016

My inclination would be to ask the former occupant if they've been tested for lead poisoning recently, if they've been working and eating for however many years in a small enclosed space where soldering is performed. (And demand somewhere else to have an office, unless you can find proof that it's actually safe to work in a space like that and you won't also end up the same way in a few years.)
posted by XMLicious at 11:56 PM on September 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

How important is this job to you? Are the other aspects of the job attractive to you? How easy is it to find another one that has those attractions? How easy is it for them to find your replacement?

By demanding a nicer office, you might be accommodated in the short term, but you risk being seen as a problem maker and eventually lose out on long-term prospects with the department - if that is what you want.

Get some gloves and a mask, put on some loud music, and tackle it during working hours. If you tame this beast, you will be known as someone who gets things done without grumbling.

Take before and after photos for bragging rights!
posted by metaseeker at 12:34 AM on September 21, 2016 [10 favorites]

Honestly, this is your job. You can ask around for help from any bored admins/students, but part of starting a new job can be clearing up the mess from the person who was there before you.

Grab a couple of wheely bins, bring them into the office, and throw out all the things. Give it a good clean, and then go to Bunnings (on work time - you work for the government), and buy new storage. It is almost certainly easier to get reimbursed than work out how to order the right sized whatevers through the Uni's procurement system (do check with whoever approves your expenditure that this is ok first, and what sort of money you can spend).

Don't be the guy who creates a bad first impression by whinging about cleaning not being his job. Do what needs to be done and move on. If there is an ongoing pest problem, that is something to involve the maintenance staff with.
posted by kjs4 at 12:44 AM on September 21, 2016 [30 favorites]

Talk to the former occupant, since he's on campus and all. Inform him that since everything is in such a terrible state, you're going to be wholesale scooping and dumping everything and scrubbing with bleach, so does he want any of what looks to be his kid's art before you do that? Best case scenario, he realizes what a disaster he left you with and will be your ally, and pitches in for the problem he caused. Worst case scenario, he ignores you completely. Either way, worth a try.

Otherwise, this sounds like a perfect job for cheap, enthusiastic student labor. What are they gonna do, make it worse? Make up a little plan with an expected budget beforehand, and also ask the cleaning staff that won't clean your space if you can borrow their empty wheelie bins. Bring that plan to your superior and ask for the petty cash. Then execute the plan.

I'm sorry you're having to deal with such a crap setup. This sounds like one of those bureaucratic hairballs that has just been building and building, possibly for decades, foisted off onto the next person all the way on down to you. Someone's gotta deal with it. If that someone's you, you'll probably win the hearts of numerous people who you don't even know yet.
posted by Mizu at 2:08 AM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yeah, that really really sucks, but is a (very temporary!) part of your job. My advice is to toss as much as possible. Flip the desk drawers directly into a dumpster. Clear the shelves off with a swoop of your arm, also directly into the garbage. Call maintenance to wheel away the full broken filing cabinets and dispose of them. If the previous occupant left things there, they are fair game to get thrown away. And, if you end up throwing away something you need, it'll get replaced. The hassle of that is worth the risk, as opposed to the amount of time wasted sorting through junk 1 piece at a time.

(Congrats on the new job! You'll do great :) )
posted by Fig at 3:13 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

You have an office?

(Had to be said. Maybe it will help.)

Since you're a sound engineer and might be able to whip up a basic circuit or two, I found some pest repelling circuit projects (last link = video) for you. Let me know if you make one! I'm just starting to learn this stuff and would be fascinated to know if you find this practical.

Please find a different project with less icky associations to show to people (girls and boys both) to get them interested in electronics! :)
posted by amtho at 3:59 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Twofold approach.
1.) Go to previous office occupier, ask politley-like whether some of his personal items, like photos, clothes, dishes, cutlery and food items, are still of interest for him. Because, you know, you're about to clean out the space. Also ask about the devices still in there, where they belong etc.

2.) After this person took what he thinks is still his, suck it up, get some trash bags, and throw everything out. Everything. Look at it this way: nobody will see you sitting in that space with a I-shouldn't-have-to-do-this face anyway unless you make a huge big and potentially job-hurting show of it, so just don't put on that face and get through with it.

(I'd be grumpy too)
posted by Namlit at 4:15 AM on September 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

I have both moved into offices at new jobs that were sort of disgusting and several times switched offices at my current job (where the previous occupant moved to another room) into someone else's dirt and grime and tons of files and paperwork left behind. Many times it was up to me to make the space habitable. Admittedly, no room was as gross as you describe. This sounds truly horrible!

Look at the upside: you get to make the space yours! I tend to be a person who makes easy friends with cleaners and janitors, this was always useful in such situations. Even if the official policy is no help, sometimes you find someone who will help you do it anyway - eg one time I moved rooms, there was so much grime and dust I came in early to clean and the cleaner found me doing that and said if I wont tell anyone she will do it. And she did and I gave her something (she refused money but accepted chocolate). That kind of thing.

Re this issue:
the previous occupant is not only still employed at the college, he is now teaching in the department and is therefore my superior (although I report directly to the head of department).
I suggest to put all the personal stuff (kid's drawings, clothes, possibly tools? etc) into boxes and deliver to his new room. The invoices and paperwork I would do the same, box them and deliver. I would not ask first if he wants them but just take it to him. Be neutral and friendly and just say, I was not sure if you still need those items, they look personal and leave them. I would not include dirty dishes and old food - this would be nasty/passive agressive move.
Then it is on him to get rid of it.
Another thing I once did when the person told me to not leave the stuff with them, I labelled it as content of office #123, month/year and put into a room in the basement.
Alternatively, just toss the lot. If you need to buy bin liners, I say do what the person suggested, get the money back.

I have always seen this as a way to make the room my own, rather than about cleaning someone else's mess and this fuelled me to do it.
posted by 15L06 at 4:24 AM on September 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

> Don't be the guy who creates a bad first impression by whinging about cleaning not being his job.

Yeah, this. You're phrasing this is a problem but it's actually an opportunity to show that you roll your sleeves up and get stuck in. I'm a fan of the three-box system: Trash, Keep, and Keep-but-doesn't-belong-here. I guess all the personal effects go in box three, and you drop them off with the previous occupant.

After you've cleaned up is the time to broach the very reasonable question of soldering ventilation, IMO.
posted by Leon at 5:26 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I really feel like cleaning up someone else's mess as well goes a fair way above and beyond what I should be expected to do.

the person in charge of maintenance in that area is me.

Asked and answered? Clean the hell out of that office! Because "messy dude" still works there pack up the family photos and drop them off. Cleanse the rest with fire (figuratively)

Clean it so good that when people see it they'll think "Oh thank heaven prismatic7 is here. This is so nice. They seem so well suited to their work and such a cleanly hard worker."

Also congrats on having an office!
posted by French Fry at 6:36 AM on September 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

I did a similar thing for a new job last year (less food, but more poorly-preserved unlabeled animal specimens), and I can confirm that everyone who walks in and sees a suddenly-neat space will improve their estimation of you by a notch or two.

I put personal belongings in a box labeled with the previous staff member's name. Stuff that I couldn't decide on, I put into several boxes labeled with the date. Tons of stuff went into the trash. I worked on it for a set amount of time every day for several weeks until it was done. There were intermediate points where the space was messier, but everyone could tell that this was a Big Project and appreciated that it was being done. In fact, I think that the intermediate stages being visible made it even more highly appreciated. Let people see how hard you are working. Also, it depends on the environment but I kept cleaning the space a moderately-high-priority activity. Some of my actual work fell behind, but once everything was cleaned up, that work went so much more efficiently that it was a good use of my time. Again, the folks in charge could see this.

When the previous staff member stopped by (they'd left on good terms, as it sounds like your previous occupant did), I gave them the personal box and asked them for some information about some of the mystery items in the dated box and was able to further sort things based on their feedback. They were happy to be asked about things they knew about, and were happy that they didn't have to clean up after themselves.

When the dated box is a year old and nothing in there has been of use, you can toss it with a clear conscience.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:19 AM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

I did this when I moved into what had previously been an abandoned-cubicle-turned-community-dumping ground.

It sucked to clean up, but it was so so worth it. Put aside your pride and expectations, and get the job done. People will think better of you.
posted by samthemander at 8:02 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with most of what's said above except for the part about reaching out to the office's previous occupant.

This was not a person who left a few lovingly cared-for bits of their personal belongings or some well-tended files. This was a crazy hoarder who left mouldering food and garbage and mountains of unsorted papers. They should fully expect that whatever they left behind is subject to getting tossed.

Do not slow down the process of making this room fit for human occupancy on the off chance that a crazy person might be coming back around for a crayon drawing or some dirty dishes. Whether they're your superior or not is incidental. From the sound of it, no one can argue that individual items were in a state to be organized or preserved. I would feel confident that someone who lives like that is accustomed to losing things and never seeing them again.

They're lucky you don't walk into their new office and explain to everyone around them what a dirty, crazy fucker they are.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:18 AM on September 21, 2016 [7 favorites]

Separate this into two distinct tasks: 1) get your office ready to go, 2) get rid of all the old stuff, some of which may be important and need to be kept. Do #1 immediately so you can get on with your new job!

You can achieve #1 in one or two days by:
a) moving everything out of the office. Where to move it? Possibly to an adjacent area, possibly to the hall outside your office.

b) clean the hell out of your office.

c) re-paint, get better ventilation, filtering, lighting (arduino light ropes?), music, etc.

As for #2, take it as you have time and as needed.
posted by at at 8:41 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Followup to my comment above: let's say you do toss a bunch of stuff. And let's say the office's previous occupant does come back, looking for something. You have a rat and insect problem in that office. Tell them [object being sought] was damaged during the attempt to remove/eliminate the pests and had to be destroyed. Yep, that pest problem was really bad, probably because of the spoiling food and dirty dishes and piles of garbage. Shame will shut their mouth for you there.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:58 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Former office occupant probably knows more about the systems there than anyone else in the world. Might be nice to have a relationship of amity rather than shame.

Tech theater tends to be all-absorbing, as does any theater, at times. After the all-absorbing part, one wants to sleep as much as possible. Then too, the type of person interested in this field enough to pusue it seriously might not always be the neatest, cleanest person in the world -- it takes all kinds, really, so while we don't have to make allowances necessarily, we might want to be accepting of others' differences while we also make it clear that pestilence is absolutely not acceptable.
posted by amtho at 10:02 AM on September 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Good lord you do not in any way owe the previous occupant their things. When you leave an office, you take your stuff with you, this is basic knowledge. And clearly this dude did not care about his stuff nor about cleanliness and any contact with him will just slow you down.

Block out some time on your calendar to get your office in order. Wear clothes you can get dirty, borrow lots of trash bins, buy some bags if needed (get reimbursed) and trash everything you absolutely can. Maybe keep a spray bottle of a generic cleaner and a couple rolls of paper towels by your side to clean up with as you go.

The next day or week, block out some time for deep cleaning.

I am willing to bet that cleaning staff will come around to the idea of cleaning at least your office once it's clean and now that it's no longer inhabited by a possibly crazy hoarder. (I imagine this guy might have yelled at people for touching his mess at some point? That's a hoarder thing.)

I would do this as soon as you possibly can for a lot of reasons: before you get used to it, before people think you'll put up with this crap, before you make the impression that you're okay with filth and mess, before you get even busier, as all jobs are wont to do. People will be impressed by your refreshed and organized space.
posted by purple_bird at 10:09 AM on September 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Well, it doesn't seem like the office is going to get clean unless you personally take some sort of action.

If I were in your position, I would probably (as others have suggested) just separate out everything that looks personal and deliver it to the former occupant. Don't bother asking him anything first. If you ask him, what'll likely happen is he'll say "oh don't bother doing any cleanup, I'll come by and grab stuff", but then he never will. Someone who leaves an office in that state doesn't seem like the type to actually show up and get his crap, even if on some level he still wants any of it.

Once that aspect is sorted, seriously, just dump everything you don't want. This is one of those occasions where, unless you're bound by some sort of local laws, I wouldn't even worry about trying to separate out recyclables and whatnot -- just get some big black bags, fill them as fast as you can, and chuck them in the nearest dumpster.

The one thing you shouldn't do is nothing, i.e., don't just work in the midst of the mess indefinitely as resentment builds up in your soul. No, cleaning at that level might not be "your job", but as long as you can manage it without it actually interfering in your actual job, you'll most assuredly feel so much better once it's done.
posted by aecorwin at 10:34 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

1. You have to clean it. Hire students and make a clean sweep. Just accept it and get it done. No whining. S
2. Don't ask the previous occupant. The worst case scenario is not being ignored. It is his promising to stop by some day and pick up the things he wants to keep. He will never stop by, and you will be stuck savings odds and ends for weeks or months. It is safest to assume that he doesn't want to save anything because he left it. That is an argument that will stand firm in the face of all outrage. But not if you ask.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:40 PM on September 21, 2016

I work in an academic office, and when I started it was a total mess, though nowhere near as bad as you describe. Don’t ask, just do. Set aside photos in a box to deal with later. Put paperwork that you're not sure if you need in another box (plastic, to keep the creepy crawlies in and eventually suffocated), and toss anything from that box you don't use in a year. You won’t believe how fast it gets clean if you can mentally make the space yours to deal with. Take before and after photos, but only to show yourself what a kick-ass job you did. Do not be obvious about taking the “before” photos, and don’t talk about how gross it is to coworkers. They know. They’ll love you forever for dealing with it.
posted by quarterinmyshoe at 4:54 AM on September 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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