I love organising, especially file systems, and have re-organised file systems at every job I have had.  I have even been known to take whole shelves of books and refile them alphabetically the right way at my children’s primary school – needless to say, the librarians loved me for it.

Organising file systems can sometimes seem so complicated and overwhelming.  How do you file something? Where do you file it? What do I file it under? It really can seem all too hard – but it really isn’t.

So, how do you set up/organise a filing system? First of all, you need to develop a system that is right for your business. There is no single correct way to do this. Each business is different, and therefore the filing system categories/topics they use may vary to other businesses. some file alphabetically, some by month, it all depends on what is right for your business.

Are you starting a filing system from scratch, or just reorganising a system that is not working for you? Maybe you are just needing to maintain the system that you already have. In today’s society, we are slowly moving away from ‘paper files’ but we still need to have them. In this article, I will share with you ways to do both hard copy paper filing and electronic filing.

Paper/hard-copy files

What do you need?

You need to consider how much space you have in your office to work with.  Will you be filing in a file cabinet or on a shelf? If filing on a shelf, you will need a cupboard to store your files, as well as folders to store your paperwork in.  If you are using a filing cabinet, you will need a filing cabinet to a size that suits you, manila files and hanging suspension files to put your manila files in.

These are some ways that I use that can help you with organising and maintaining your file system.

Creating a new filing system

  • Use subject categories. Think about what you need to do – do these items fall into categories or topics? These topics can be administration, accounting, clients, and so on. Setup a file for each category or topic. This file could be either a lever-arch folder on a shelf or a manila folder in a filing cabinet. Each business will likely have different categories or topics. But essentially, the file systems will be similar
  • Use subject sub-headings. Do any of the major categories, have subcategories? For instance, if you are filing accounting paperwork, does this paperwork fall into accounts payable or receivable? Does it also relate to a specific supplier or client? Creating an Accounting file with the category/topic of Accounts Payable, then a subcategory of the supplier may work for you. You may also file accounts payable in monthly files rather than supplier. If you were creating a file on your clients, for example, you would create a ‘client’ file with individual files for each of your clients within that file or filing cabinet.
  • Colour code your system. This is an easy and effective way to organise your files and can be done by using coloured files. Think about what sort of files you have – maybe you could have all client files one colour, and accounting files another. If you don’t have coloured files, you could use a coloured sticker on the top of the file next to the file name. This makes the files easy to identify.  I have used this system in previous jobs and it really does make it easier.
  • Label all files. Each file needs to be clearly labelled and belong in a particular place in your office. When labelling your files, put your label along the top of your file (if using a manila file), or on the spine of the lever-arch folder, you are using.  If you are using a label maker or computer to print your labels, make sure you are consistent and use the same font and style. If you are writing by hand, write neatly and clearly – this will make your files easier to recognise and find.
  • Sort files alphabetically. It sounds obvious but filing alphabetically is the most effective way to file documents. When files are stored alphabetically, they are more organised, and you can generally find them quicker. Each file that is stored alphabetically then may have subcategories/topics within that file. Always ensure you file your individual piece of paper/document in the relevant subcategories/topic within the file it belongs in.
  • Ensure you have enough space. Paper/hard copy files grow quite quickly due to the amount of paperwork we need to store. When setting up your filing system, always ensure you have plenty of space. This might mean a separate file cabinet or cupboard for Client files, another for Accounting. Do what works for your business and the space you have available. Be mindful though that files here in Australia need to be kept for certain periods of time; most are 5-7 years for standard financial records. You, therefore, might need to go through your files yearly and ‘exit’ or ‘archive’ files that are not in use anymore and store them away for the required length of time. This is called archiving. Financial documents need to be kept for up to 7 years. Client files need to be kept for up to 7 years. Files that a not financial or client based may only need to be kept for around 2 years

*Please check with your regulatory body to see how long you need to keep your files.

How to maintain your filing system

  • Use a ‘file tray’. When you have actioned or finished with paperwork and you don’t have time to file it away immediately, place it in one central location. This will ensure that the paperwork is not lost and kept ready for you to place into the relevant file
  • Set aside some time each day/week for you to file. If you schedule or plan to file at a certain time each day or week, this will become routine for you and you will more likely to do it regularly. This may be as simple as scheduling 30 minutes each day during the ‘quiet’ time in the office. For example, after lunch or the last hour of the working day. You can then focus on what you need to do and quickly do it. The more you stick to this schedule, the more consistent you will become, and you will find that you don’t have lots to file each day
  • Make sure that others understand the file system. This was my biggest pet peeve when working in an office with lots of staff that sharing the filing system. I would spend hours sorting and reorganising client files for ease of reference, and there was always one person who would just open a file drawer and shove a file back in any place it would fit. This led to files being lost and caused lots of unnecessary stress. When you have set your file system up, go over how and why things are filed at a staff meeting to ensure all staff members understand and comply
  • Have lockable file cabinets. All documents related to your business may have confidential information on them. This information could be client details, bank details, etc. It is important to make sure that all your filing systems are lockable and are locked every day at business end
  • Regularly review/archive your files. At least once a year, go through your files and remove all files that are no longer current. These files should still be kept but moved out of the main ‘everyday’ filing system to allow space for new and current files. All non-current files need to be stored in boxes that are clearly labelled and easy to access if you need them again – either in a storage room onsite or off-site. For example, you may have a client come back after a few years. You can then pull back their old file and have access to the work you did for them previously

Electronic files

  • Create folders. Organising a system to file electronically is essentially the same as paper files – only you set it up on your laptop or desktop. Think about what folders/categories you need and then create these folders on your computer. Just like paper files, these categories will sometimes have subcategories relevant to the business you have. Ensure you create your folders in the ‘file explorer’ or ‘file manager’ section of your computer and save all relevant documents in their appropriate folder. Try not to get into the habit of saving everything to the desktop. This can look quite messy and unorganised and make things hard to find
  • Password protect all computers. Just as normal hard copy filing cabinets need to be locked, all computers (and sometimes individual folders) need to be password protected and have relevant virus protection. This has recently become a huge issue in the media, as some larger organisations have had their computer systems hacked. Another important thing to do is to make sure all staff log off and shut down their computer at the end of each working day.
  • Regularly archive your files. As with hard copy files, you should go through your files and remove all files that are no longer current at least once a year. These files can be moed into a separate ‘archive’ folder on your device or on a separate portable hard drive. Once again, these files should be easily accessible, if needed.
  • Backup your computer system regularly. Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong with computers. Therefore, backing up your system every night or at least once a week (at minimum) is recommended. If something does go wrong, you may have only lost one day’s work and not everything that has been done electronically by your business.

If you need assistance with setting up your filing system or just need some advice on how you should do it, please contact me for more information at rachel@secretarialonline.com.au

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