The office is a vital department of every organization. Omotosho  described the office as “the place [room or building] in which the paperwork of an organization is done. ” He added, “It is the nerve center of any business. ” According to Denyer , “an office is any room where clerical work is habitually performed as the work of that room: …”
Traditionally, the function of the office has been described as providing the service of communication and record. Whilst this was perhaps sufficient information in the past, it is inadequate today. A more recent definition, according to Mill and Standingford , suggests five major functions of receiving, recording, arranging, giving information and safe guarding assets.
Efficient Workflow in the Office
For the office to carry out its functions, planning the layout of the office is important. This planning depends on the types and sizes of the organization. One of the factors considered in planning the layout is workflow.
Osuala considered workflow as “crucial in determining the efficiency of office layout” and said, “It refers to the movement of information either vertically [between supervisors and subordinates or vice versa] or horizontally [between employees of the same responsibility level]. ” He stressed further that “for the most efficient workflow, personnel and equipment should be arranged in such a way that the information moves in as straight a line as possible to avoid backtracking and criss-crossing patterns.
Mailroom & Workflow: The Concert
Osuala saw ‘communication network’ as the link between efficient workflow and the Mailroom. He pointed out that in addition to studying the flow of work between individuals and departments, it is also vitally important to analyze the nature of both oral and written communication between individuals and departments.
Omotosho  extended the ‘communication network’ to external contacts of the organization. He expounded that written communication is usually in the forms of mail: letters and correspondence. These written communications are letters, orders, invoices and various forms and memoranda. They are information flow within and outside the organization.
The section of the organization chiefly concerned with these written communications is the Mailroom. Therefore, the contribution of the Mailroom to efficient workflow cannot be over-emphasized.
The Mailroom otherwise known as the Mailing Department is an important part of most medium and large-sized organizations. Through the department flow all the incoming letters, correspondence and parcels; the outgoing mail is collected, stamped and dispatched; and in some organizations, internal messages are transferred from department to department.
While considering the contribution of the mailroom to the facilitation of efficient workflow, Bunting  concluded that all messages must be dealt with promptly and effectively. He, however, emphasized that there must be order and method in order to avoid confusion and mislaid or forgotten correspondence. A great deal of care and attention should, therefore, be to mailroom workers and equipment.
Handling mail in the mailroom can yield a dividend to the organization, or adversely affect departmental productivity and profitability of the organization. Mail handling is classified into three main categories: incoming, internal and outgoing mail.
- Incoming Mail. These are mail received by the organization. They are usually opened [unless marked ‘Private’ or ‘Confidential’], dated and sorted, and distributed throughout the organization. Everything in this section is urgent and important and should be treated so. Incoming mail can be grouped into three classes:
i. Urgent Mail. These are mail needing the prompt attention of either the manager or secretary. They are telegrams, cablegrams, orders and remittances.
ii. Less Urgent Mail. These are mail for which attention could be delayed for sometime. They include circulars, publications and notices.
iii. Personal Mail. These are mail meant for opening by the addressees. Such letters are marked on the envelope ‘Private/Confidential’ or addressed to officers by name rather than by their office titles.
The first two groups can be opened in the mailroom and routed to appropriate departments. Personal letters should be left unopened, as they may not have anything to do with the business in general. Suppose such personal letters are opened in error, a note should be made on the envelope, that is, ‘opened by mistake’.
- Internal Mail. The mailroom can be used as an intermediary or sorting station for the distribution of internal correspondence, which have originated within the organization and which are destined for some other departments. Files, which are sorted departmentally and letters/circulars containing messages for several departments can be distributed in this way.
- Outgoing Mail. These are letters sent out by the organization. They may be sent out to customers, government agencies, press, and the public. Outgoing mail represents the image of the organization and care should be taken in preparing and dispatching them.
The personnel in the mailroom are clerical workers. Although they start their working career in this section, it is nevertheless responsible work. Their performance makes or mars workflow efficiency in the organization.
Basically, there are some useful qualities for the staff in this department.
- Punctuality. The clerical workers should arrive at the office earlier than the normal office hour. For instance, one hour or thirty minutes before the opening hour.
- Ability. They should be able to do the work for which they are employed. This competency is important. They should have a general and thorough ability to read and write English perfectly. That is why it will not pay any business to recruit/employ a secondary school dropout or ‘school cert fail’ as a clerical worker. Also, they should be able to follow instructions readily.
- Knowledge. They should have a working knowledge of the organization of the business in general and in particular of the departments and the system in use for each purpose in the department.
- Speed. They should be able to work efficiently well under a short time and even under stress to ensure that mail are sorted and routed to respective department quickly.
- The ‘Extra Mile’ Rule. The clerical workers should have a willingness to work hours, which are slightly different from normal office hours.
- Self Discipline. They should always be available at work, and have a sense of commitment. They should be patient, trustworthy and always keep secret.
Mailroom Automation Procedure
Technology and other improvements in methods of work in the office in recent years have helped the efficiency of workflow in the organization. Mailroom equipment contributes greatly to the efficiency flow of work in the office too.
- Letter Opener. When the mail arrives in the mailroom it is usually, opened by machines in a few minutes. The machine shaves the envelopes open without any damage to the contents. This machine is electrically operated. It has an automatic feed and can open 500 letters in a minute.
- Date Stamp. Once the letters are opened, the documents can be stamped with either a rubber stamp or a small hand-operated punch. This punch prints the date and time of receipt on the letters. At the same time, it also progressively numbers the stampings and incidentally, record the number of letters received.
- Trays. The mail may now be sorted into trays for dispatch to the various departments. The trays, which may be made of wire, plastic or metal, will probably fit into tray stands on the desks of executives and, at this stage, they represent ‘IN’ trays. The Office Assistant may collect an empty tray when he delivers the morning mail but he is more certain to collect a full ‘OUT’ tray late in the afternoon.
- Folding Machines. When the ‘OUT’ trays are brought into the mailroom, folding machines are used to fold, crease, slit and perforate them. They are used to dispatch large quantities of circulars or newspapers. Machine precision folding for window envelopes because the address will appear in the right place. Both hand-operated and electrically operated machines are available.
- Letter-sealing Machines. Letters are ready for placing in the envelopes. In the absence of a machine there would be the slow messy process of damping the envelopes flaps and pressing them down. One method is to lay a series of envelopes in line so that a wet sponge can be run across the gummed flaps in one moment and to press the flaps to the envelopes before the gum dries up again.
- The electrically operated sealer is quicker and it is designed to handle any size of envelope. With one filling of the ‘sealer’ water container, thousands of envelopes can be sealed. The envelopes are stacked in a vertical pile at the back of the machine and, as they stand one upon the other, the bottom envelope is moved to a place where the flap is levered back and damped by a wet brush. The flap is folded back onto the envelope and pressure is applied. The envelopes are then stacked in the receptacle on the right.
- Composite Machine. A composite machine will fold the documents, insert them into an envelope and seal the envelope.
- Mail-tying Machines. These machines will tie any package of any size, shape or substance in less than two seconds. The machine is enclosed by a strong wire frame, which acts ass an effective guard.
- Postal Franking Machines. These machines print an impression of postage paid in a fraction of the time it takes to select, moisten and affix a stamp. Unlike stamps, franking machines’ impressions do not need to be cancelled and post-marked by the Post Office. However, organizations using franking machines have to meet some conditions with the manufacturers and the Post Office.
- Franking an envelope has the same effect as a postage stamp. The chief advantage of a franking machine is that it eliminates the tedious work of sticking stamps on to envelopes or other packages. Other advantages are:
i. Speed. On a hand-operated machine, up to 2,000 letters an hour may be franked, while an electrical machine may frank up to 15,000 an hour.
ii. Safety. It eliminates the use of loose stamps.
iii. Accounting Value. The dials on the machine provide an accurate record.
iv. Advertising Value. As it franks, the machine can simultaneously print the organization’s name on all outgoing mail.
v. Convenience. For instance, the need for repeated balancing of a post book is eliminated.
vi. Dispatch of Mail. Since letters are already franked, they are not held up by the Post Office for official franking.
vii. Cost Effectiveness. It can save printing costs on envelopes. Instead of an advertising slogan a rubric such as “If undelivered, please return to company XYZ” can be printed.
- Addressing Machine. Addressing machines are used to write addresses on letters or postal, can also be adapted for other uses, such as the heading of invoices, time cards and so on. However, the primary function is still the addressing of mail, which is frequently sent to the same person or group of persons. Examples are minutes and agenda, circulars or newspapers. Lastly, they are in the form of printing and duplicating.
In addition to the various equipment already mentioned and discussed, the following are also of value and are used in the mailroom.
- Jogger. This is a machine, which vibrates papers into alignment ready for stapling or binding.
- Shredder. This is meant for destroying confidential and secret documents.
- Trolleys/Baskets. They are meant for the collection and distribution of mail.
The mailroom contribution to efficient workflow cannot be overstressed. If there is high and concerted performance on the part of the clerical workers, the organization will benefit; the departments improving their productivity and the organization itself becoming more profitable. But, if there is slackness in the activities of the mailroom, workflow will be hindered.
The office functions involve the process of active information. Also, the written communication aspect of this information has been identified with the mailroom – the principal reason why the mailroom exists.
Lastly, workflow in the office achieves efficiency when the personnel and equipment in the mailroom are combined together for this purpose.
The following suggestions are offered to the medium and large-sized organizations. These suggestions will help them to update the activities of work in their mailroom. They will also enable these organizations to improve the work life of their clerical staff.
- Automate the Mailroom. The purchase of up-to-date mailroom equipment is paramount for today’s business. This should be done after considering the capital outlay of the organization. Other factors are availability of these equipment, cost of maintenance and durability. Mailroom equipment is indispensable in this age of information technology to enable the clerical workers meet the growing demands of their jobs.
- Maximize Mailroom Workers. It is imperative that clerical workers are properly utilized. This should be done by preparing job descriptions for all the clerical workers in the mailroom. They should be frequently appraised whether they are performing in compliance with their job descriptions. Effective Supervision. There should be effective and thorough supervision of the clerical workers. A more senior office worker should always be present to supervise the receipt of incoming mail [particularly where cash/cheque is involved] and to deal with the agencies.
- Training and Development. Presently, there is no school in Nigeria that specializes in training clerical workers for mailroom activities. Courses like Mailroom Practices, Mailroom Procedures and Mailing Technique & Automation should be introduced into the relevant curriculum of studies in higher institutions of learning in Nigeria. The Human Resources Department of individual organization should also train their clerical workers regularly.
- Equitable Remuneration. Clerical workers should be equitably remunerated in proportion to their input and overall efficiency.
Bunting, E. . The Office Worker, Cassel, London
Denyer, J. C. . Office Management, MacDonald & Evans Ltd, London
Harrison, J. et al . Secretarial Duties, Pitman Books Ltd, London
Mills, G. & Standingford, O. . Office Administration, Pitman Publishing Ltd, Pitman House, London
Omotosho, J. N. . Office Practice & Business Methods, Macmillan Publishers Ltd, London & Basingstoke
Osuala, E. C. [ ]. Office Management At A Glance, Africana Publishers Ltd. , Onitsha, Nigeria
Babatunde Ayoola Fajimi is an Expert EzineArticles Author and writes on management, leadership and education. He is also a freelance writer. He holds an MBA in Management and HND Secretarial Administration. He has received professional development training from Lagos Business School, Ghana Institute of Journalism, Cornell University and Boston University. He is a certified teacher, an Associate Member of NIM and registered with CIPMN. He specializes in crafting and implementing strategy, communication planning, process reengineering, leadership, business coaching and entrepreneurial marketing.