Desicn: spending some time on the design of your mail center can improve efficiency and help move mail faster

Richard W. Pavely

Designing a mail center is a task with long lasting consequences. Properly executed, a good mail center design will contribute to mail center efficiency, provide a safe and harmonious workspace for the staff, and enhance safekeeping of corporate documents while in transit. A poor design causes any number of needless impediments to the accomplishment of the basic mail center mission.


Most mail center design tasks commence with an upper level management decision to rearrange the corporate structure, resulting in the need to either relocate the mail center to new space or accommodate a significant change in mail volume, either up or down, because of changes in the core business. The design task is a bittersweet assignment for the mail center manager or supervisor because it interferes with daily operations now, but provides an opportunity to change things for the better.

Breaking the Flaws

To ensure a good design, examine the existing space, looking for all the good features as well as the flaws and encumbrances in the current configuration. Nobody understands your support service requirements like you do. Put that good experience to work while forging a new high-efficiency workspace.

You might consider holding a special brainstorming session with your staff, where the objective is to identify the key features of the existing arrangement. Take good notes. Listen to everyone, especially those who actually touch or move the mail. Determine what works and what doesn’t. Where are the bottlenecks? Which tasks are made difficult because of the way the space is configured? Are there certain times during the day when conflicting events occur simultaneously and cause turmoil that doesn’t show when things are calm? Think through the chronology of a typical day, testing for sources of conflict such as the arrival of express items, lingering customers, metering activity, and mail cart loading.

Examining the New Space

The proximity of the mail center to elevators, loading docks, and storage facilities is an important design consideration. Lobby for short distances along the most frequently traveled paths.

Chances are your design opportunity will be limited to the confines of an already assigned space, and you will be escorted to a new spot in the enterprise and told to make it work. Rarely does a mail center manager get to decide where to place the mail center. If this rarity does occur, you will need assistance of a different caliber, far beyond the scope of this basic design article.

The likely scenario will place you in ownership of an empty room with the drone of mail service demands singing in your ears. Not to fear, read on for some time tested coping mechanisms.

Steps Prior to Occupancy

Here are some design elements worthy of consideration before taking occupancy.

* Doors — Doors should be wide enough to accommodate the mail carts and the wheeled vehicles used to transport packages and freight. Multiple doors contribute to traffic flow, but they increase the security risk. All doors should be lockable with a single key.

* Service Window — The most efficient and professional way to handle customer requests without having them enter the mail center itself is through a service window in a sidewall, with an overhead lockable closing mechanism. A “Dutch Door” is not as good, since it will lead to traffic flow problems.

* Power Outlets — The most important power outlets are the ones needed in the center of the room. Specify them early since they might require floor borings. Ask for an abundance of outlets along the sidewalls, possibly every six to eight feet.

* Telephone Outlets — At a minimum, place a phone at the supervisor’s desk, a wall phone at the customer counter, and a phone near the sorting area.

* Network Access — Be sure to provide network connection capability for all express carrier workstations, incoming accountable mail systems, and internal address lookup systems.

* Dock Access — Dock space is normally shared by several functions, including mail services, shipping and receiving, express delivery services when separate from mail services, and food services. Be sure to communicate your typical dock access requirements to the dock master. It’s good to hash out problems before moving in.

* Overhead Lighting — The light intensity in a mail center should be equal or slightly higher than that in office areas. If the mail center is situated within a warehouse or shipping area, extra lights need to be installed, especially over the sorting area. A dark mail center contributes to errors in delivery.

* Rest Rooms — The mail center staff members need to wash their hands frequently under normal conditions and rapidly in an emergency. If the nearest rest room is too remote, consider installing a small unisex washroom in or near the mail center.

Furniture Selection

Plan for a completely mobile operation, which is easily rearranged and moved if necessary. Steer clear of permanent built-in shelves and counters. Over time they frequently fail to meet the fluctuating requirements of a dynamic mail operation. Custom furniture is fine, so long as it moves easily. Invest in professionally designed modular and adjustable sorting shelves as opposed to standard shelving from a home improvement source. Plan space for all the required wheeled vehicles. Carts left unattended in hallways tend to disappear.

Uncluttered Work Surfaces

The fastest way to lose something in a busy mail center is to place the item or items on top of something else. If the mail center is devoid of clear work space, item stacking is inevitable and lost mail will become commonplace. Therefore, design your new space with large worktables, sturdy dump tables (an ordinary table with a lip on three or four sides to prevent loose items from sliding and dropping to the floor), and sort bins with handy counter space included. Work surfaces are precious staging areas for work in process. In an efficient mail center, all work surfaces should be cleared by the end of each day.

The mail center manager may require a desk, but additional desks are generally counterproductive in a mail center. Staff desks consume valuable floor space, offer little toward the completion of the tasks at hand, and automatically collect clutter. Personal items should be stored in lockers, preferably outside the mail center. If the corporate culture demands that each individual have a desk, then arrange for them in separate space outside the mail center, possibly as a break room, training room, or unwanted mail processing room.

Mail center neatness is a good work practice, plus it prevents losses, reduces the number of complaints, and increases customer satisfaction.

Storage Issues

Mail centers tend to accumulate vast amounts of stored items, usually anything vaguely associated with the mail such as boxes of envelopes, postal supplies, express supplies, bubble-wrap, cardboard cartons, and empty mail buckets. As the volume of stored items increases, the efficiency of the process diminishes. If the item is needed for daily processing, then keep it handy. The six months supply of bubble wrap, however, should be stored in a designated storage area, perhaps even outside the mailroom.

Moving with the Flow

The good basic floor plan for a mail center contributes to an orderly flow of work into, through, and out of the space. Mail center design experts are divided on whether one or more entrances are most efficient. Multiple doors do increase the opportunity for a unidirectional flow through the space, normally a desirable attribute. In situations where there is a single point of entry, arrange the flow from back (furthest from the door) to front (closest to the door). That way, work arrives, is placed in the back of the room, and worked toward to door.

Strategic Planning

Designing a new mail center can be an opportunity to introduce new methods for serving the population. If you ever wanted to get away from desk-to-desk deliveries or other costly methods of distributing the mail, it might be the time to act. The best of all worlds is to have rapid conveyance from the mail center to strategic mail stops, where distribution into population-accessible bins occurs. In tall office buildings, the rapid conveyance can be in the form of vertical elevators. The strategic mail stops can be furnished with small open sort racks, or closed and lockable mail bins.

Faced with a large number of decisions. but armed with this brief design tutorial, you should be able to engineer a prize-winning design to serve your needs at least until the next time the mail center is moved.


Despite your best ideas for a new mail center, you may not choose to design one on your own. Never fear. There are manufacturers who, based on your needs, will turn your ideas into a choice of three dimensional CAD drawings for you at no charge for a chance to win your business.

“I would look for a vendor to show me an example of what has been done for other customers and how it affected the workflow,” says Sarah Mathies, a national officer in the Mail System Management Association.” Compare vendors,” says Mathies. “Base your decision on the price they offer, their prior experience, their references, and their interpretation of your needs.”

Kathy Lundy of Charnstrom in Shakopee, Minn., says you may find you don’t need an entire redesign of your mail center to achieve your goals. She says you may be able to retain much of your existing equipment and make small changes that represent big savings. Lundy, whose manufacturing firm provides CAD drawings, says the primary reasons companies opt for a new mail center include increased security needs, ergonomics, workflow efficiency, cost savings, company growth, and pure aesthetics.

“The mail center has grown in importance,” says Lundy, “With that growth has come a new pride in the appearance of the mail center and a realization that sometimes even small changes in the work environment can lead to big leaps in employee efficiency and morale. Companies like ours, which design hundreds of mail centers a year, can give you a wide variety of options as well as photographs to help you make your choice based on best practices of companies all across the country.”

Richard W. Pavely, MSE, is a contributing editor for OfficeSOLUTIONS. He can be reached by calling 973/989-0229 or e-mail

by Richard W. Pavely, MSE

COPYRIGHT 2004 Quality Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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