The big picture: Organizing work files

When I was in college, I served on the International Board of Officers for a community service organization. More than 10,000 kids across the world were members of the organization and 11 of us served on the Board the year I was a Trustee. Being on the Board was an incredible experience and it taught me a great deal about leadership, running a large organization, and time management. I was traveling nearly every weekend and I was constantly struggling to stay on top of my school work and other responsibilities.

A girl named Lisa was one of my fellow Trustees. She is one of the most naturally organized people I’ve ever met. If you say that you need something, she will reach into her purse and retrieve whatever it is you requested. You say that we should schedule a meeting, and her calendar is already open. Nothing is left to chance in Lisa’s world. And, since I was completely disorganized, she was definitely a positive influence on me.

At a meeting early in our year of working together, Lisa chided me for having a horrible filing system. I had four notebooks with pieces of paper shoved into them and referred to them as my “files.” After the meeting finished, she pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received:

“This organization was here before you were a member and will continue on after you graduate. If your files are messy, it’s fine for you now, but you’re not thinking of the people who are to serve after you.”

She was right. At some point, I would have to pass along my “files” to the next group of Trustees. I didn’t plan on being on the Board forever. When I inherited my files from the previous Board, they certainly didn’t look like they did when they were in my possession. I wasn’t inconveniencing myself, I was making things harder on the people who would serve after me.

I went home and immediately organized my files.

Since that day, I’ve always kept organized files for the exact reasons Lisa outlined for me years ago. Eventually, I’ll leave a job and someone else will have to come in to do the work. Or, if I need to take time off, a colleague might need to access the files without me there to point the way. Some files may have personal use, but, on the whole, work files are there to serve as a record for those who come into the job after you leave.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

16 Comments for “The big picture: Organizing work files”

  1. posted by SuperChuck on

    Better yet, make your files digital and available everywhere.

    One of the things I’ve been working on at my office (and one of my goals for the coming year) is to keep more digital records. Yesterday I added a blog to our internal wiki site. It seems strange to write “this is what I did today” at the end of the day, but six months later, when someone else is pondering over my code, hopefully they will look to the wiki/blog to find out what my thought process was.

    Digital files offer many advantages over traditional pen-and-paper files. They can be searched, tagged, cross-referenced, easily modified, versioned, compared (diff’d), easily shared. The list goes on…

  2. posted by Shanel Yang on

    So true! While it might be tempting to say, “Let them figure it out!,” it leaves a bad impression and may hurt your reputation. Criticisms about your work tend to multiply like rabbits after you leave your job b/c people blame the last person who touched the files for everything wrong with those projects/cases/files. Even if you do a terrific job, some people will still blame you b/c you aren’t there to defend yourself. The working world is small and getting smaller all the time. Do what you can to protect your reputation, even if you don’t care about the people you leave behind with your old files. : )

  3. posted by Anastasia on

    Erin, I agree with you that organized files are important for those who inherit them. Can I ask how you did it? I am not a naturally organized person and I have a difficult time organizing things that make sense to other people. Do you have a book/article to recommend for those of us who can’t just organize?

  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anastasia — You pose a great question!! The best suggestion I can make is to ask someone in your company’s HR or accounting departments to help you for an hour. Often, these departments have a good overview of the entire work of the company. They know what types of information have to be retained for legal reasons, and they know what is useful for overall company procedure. They might not know specific details about your job, but they can provide a valuable big-company overview. Start by letting them see what you already have and then ask them to explain their system. I usually work with two groups of files … one for archive (those a company makes you keep over the long-term) and one for working files (those I actually touch on a regular basis). I use an alphabetic system, but if your company works on billing codes or case numbers then a numeric system might work for you. Talking to someone else at the company can help you to see your files through another’s eyes. Good luck!!

    P.S. If your company isn’t large enough to have a “staff” in the HR or accounting departments, then reach out to a colleague in your department.

  5. posted by Sue on

    When I was teaching, I made sure that if I had to call in sick, my lesson plans, attendance/grade book, seating charts, special activities for a non-musician to use and a list called “What You Need to Know to Survive in the Band Room” was all on my desk in my office. It was the last thing I did each evening before I left the school and it made life so much easier for the subs.

    It also helps those who follow us to have a paper trail about procedures, locations, contacts, and vendors. I currently have “Alien Abduction” notebooks at work and at home. You know, all the stuff someone would need to know if I were abducted by aliens! I’ve included much of that same info that we discussed in the previous post about “Love Drawers” for those who need to deal with our affairs after we pass. But also things like where I buy the dog food, what pharmacy we have an account with, how to turn off the water and electricity in the house, etc.

    The work version includes the vendors we have an account with, who to call for emergency repairs, how to produce the various documents, the passwords for the computer and the different data files, and Where Things Are.

  6. posted by Megan on

    “If you say that you need something, she’ll reach into her purse and retrieve whatever it is you requested.”

    Lisa should be on “Lets Make a Deal”! 🙂

  7. posted by G-Man on

    Reading this gave me one though for anyone reading this post. In many ways, organizing files has become much easier in the digital age. I love the “alien abduction” book and the personal blog and in fact, I have both of these.

    What I want to bring up is WIKIs as the numero uno choice for collaboration. If you don’t know what a wiki is, here are some links:

    In Erin’s example, you have 11 members on the board and these members rotate. Long-term, you’ll need meeting minutes for everyone’s access. You’ll also probably need a file history for things like mailers, enrollment lists, etc. You can either keep these in a series of paper folders somewhere. Or you can set up a wiki to store it in one place.

    When members leave or come in, you can add/remove access to the wiki. When you need to find meeting minutes or last year’s mailers it’s quick and easy.

    I’ll admit that it’s not yet “for everyone”. It’s no good if you don’t have a net connection. But if you haven’t been used a wiki, please check out the videos and give it a try. This is definitely tech that will be in all offices very soon.

  8. posted by Erin Doland on

    @G-Man — The wiki is a fantastic suggestion for organizations where boards switch!! Back when I was on this specific Board, however, none of us yet had e-mail. We could access gopher in our libraries, but it wasn’t for another year or two that colleges started doling out e-mail addresses and giving students access to pine 🙂

  9. posted by Lori on

    @G-Man: Thanks for the wiki suggestion. My alumni club needs some desperate help putting together something like Sue’s “alien abduction” info, and I think that might be just the ticket for us. Now, why did I volunteer to head up yet another project?

  10. posted by Meags on

    I have had to deal with an unorganized mess when I started at my current job. It’s still not totally cleaned up and I’ve been working on it for over a year. The most horrible part is that I work in Records. So, you can imagine the disaster.

  11. posted by Erin K. on

    Readers might be thinking, Why should I care? One day, you might get the chance to move up on your organization, and then you might have to train your replacement. The best way to move on to learning your new responsibilities is to give someone else clear instructions in order to perform your old ones. The last thing you want to do when you are moving on is to have to sit down and update all your procedures and files at once! Or, god forbid, have someone constantly asking you how to do something because you never bothered to give them clear directions.

  12. posted by LivSimpl on

    As was said, it’s important to keep digital copies and make them available. But it’s also important to name your files in non-cryptic ways. Labeling your folders effectively can help with this, but just keep in mind that naming a Word doc arpt08v27b-sue.doc probably won’t mean the same thing to the person who inherits the file as it does to you. 🙂

  13. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    I am definitely changing the name of my “Hit by a Bus” file to “Alien Abduction!”

    Whenever I feel overwhelmed by organizing demands, the thought of being abducted by aliens (friendly ones who like chocolate, of course) seems like not such a bad way to cope!

  14. posted by Jack on

    I am currently trying to sell my boss on an internal wiki to keep track of rapidly changing government and vendor information. There’s about two dozen people in my department and we all call the same people a couple of times a day. Sometimes just one or two people get information that would be useful for everyone and the ability to change that instantly on the wiki would be a huge help IMO.

  15. posted by Lisa on

    I work for a school district, and while in a position, I make a binder for the person who will come after me. There is no opportunity to train your replacement, other than out of the goodness of your heart, going to your previous school during your time off to train them in some aspect of your job. I have been thanked copiously for my binders.
    In my latest job, where I plan to stay for the long term, I made my usual binder, in case I was hit by a bus, or for my eventual replacement.
    In fact, what happened was I ended up making good use of my own instruction sheets after a relaxing summer break, having forgotten the details of much of what i had learned in my previous year. Future Lisa was very grateful to Past Lisa.
    Some tasks are performed only once a year in a school, but are repeated every year, and it has been so nice to have well-organized notes to go by.

    In response to Anastasia, there was a great article on this website on organizing your computer files and folders, and how to name them to make finding them again easier. I can’t remember the exact title, but it was a godsend for me.
    I have been slowly going back into my files and naming them more carefully, whenever I have some downtime at work.
    I have also being doing this with our department’s files in the “Shared Drive”, which is accessible to all staff.
    I have folders with the school year always appearing in the name, and in some categories, the files within the folder all start with the YYYY-MM-DD. They then automatically sort themselves by date, and are much easier to find.

  16. posted by Virginia Allain on

    I need to apply this thinking to my genealogy work. After inheriting Mom’s 25 boxes of family history, photos, and writings, I haven’t applied myself to winnowing it down. I know that I must do that, as none of my nieces and nephews will be able to take on that volume of stuff. It may not be an organization but I owe it to my family to take good care of the family archives and think of future generations.

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