Filing is a big deal!
Are you easily overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork on your desk?
Do you spend too long looking for documents?
If the answer to these questions is yes, you are in need of an effective filing system. You probably know this already, but don't know where to start. Or don't have the time to sort it out. The aim of this post is to give you some pointers on how to set up your files - digital or physical - and how to ensure you keep it together.
Why is it important to have a well structured filing system?
It's just files, right? Paperwork. What's the big deal? Well, firstly, and most importantly, organisations, large and small, have statutory obligations to retain records for certain periods of time. (You can learn more about this in my post on Record Keeping and Document Retention.) Should you need to retrieve records that are, for example, 5 years old, you will need to know where to find them, and often quickly.
A well ordered filing system means you will spend minimal time looking for documents, making you more productive long term. If there is more than one person sharing the filing, having a good system in place makes for a more harmonious working environment.
With a robust filing process embedded, including a system for secure disposal of outdated documents, you'll find you can save both physical and digital space. This can lead to reduced costs of storage, again, in the physical or digital domain. Who doesn't always need more space and to save money?
What does a good filing system look like?
It's all about ease of retrieval. A filing system only works if you can find what you need, fast.
Ease of retrieval. Did I mention that already?
it is simple to use
it is ordered, and makes sense to the user
it is searchable
How do you get started?
Having implemented several filing systems in various organisations, I can't stress enough to keep it simple. Start by deciding what your files should look like. Are they physical or digital? Or both? Don't be baffled by the concept of a digital file, it can be structured in the same way as a paper file. I'll talk about both separately.
Ensure everyone who uses the same digital filing system, follows the same protocols. For larger teams it's a good idea to have this written down in a reference document. For example, my preferred naming protocol is:
Prefix (describing what the document is)
Detail (document title, name it relates to)
So, if I were to file a letter relating to a salary increase for John Smith the file name would be:
LTR SalaryIncrease JohnSmith 01012000
Using a strict protocol ensures you can search your files easily. Using the example above I can search for all letters using the search term "LTR", or anything relating to a salary increase - "SalaryIncrease". You can see how this works. It's not complicated, but in order for it to be successful you need consistency.
Moving onto the folders themselves, again, simplicity is key. Start by creating high level categories e.g. Operations, Marketing, Customers, HR. Within these high level folders you create more meaningful folders - under Customers for example you could have: Pipeline, Current, Former. Within these folders you create a unique file for each customer which could contain: Quotes, Invoices, Correspondence, Agreements. When I have files that are going to have the same structure and be used repeatedly (such as a Customer) I like to set up a template folder, which has pre named empty sub folders that I can simply copy and paste each time I need to create a new Customer file.
We are constantly moving towards a more paperless world, which I think can only be a good thing. However, where there is still a need for paper files you can ensure your file is split into sections using dividers. The dividers should mirror the folders detail above, and all documents are stored within their sections in date order.
I would suggest you minimise the use of paper filing where possible, keeping a skeleton file in physical format and transferring your documents to digital format and filing in a timely manner.
Which brings me finally, to maintaining your shiny new filing system. The only way to do this is to be systematic about it. Some find it easier set aside an amount of time, 20 minutes at the end of each day for example, to do your housekeeping. Personally, I am fastidious about doing it as I go, it's a good habit to get into, but takes a while to become second nature.
I hope you've found some of these tips useful. If you want any further advice The Office Fairy is here to help, just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call.