Productivity Lie #13 – Everyone Knows How to File

Boost productivity and save time by implementing correct filing systems for the searchability of data to get, and keep, everyone on track.


Their company is fairly young and their in-office work force is little more than two handfuls, which is actually the main reason why they contracted to work with me in the first place. There really is no place to hide. Systems need to be streamlined. Meetings need to be streamlined. Inboxes need to be streamlined. Time, a scarce commodity, needs to be streamlined. You get the picture. So, we’ve been working hard from the top down, implementing the simplest of systems and protocols to help this team move forward and we have got it pretty much spot on … until now.

You see, our newly discovered productivity black hole is based on the assumption that everyone thinks the same; that how I choose to file something is naturally the same way that you do. But the reality is a little harsher than that I’m afraid. Even the most organised in the team, struggle with duplication, waste time searching for missing information, and admit to resorting to retrieving files from email attachments as an alternative to scouring their way through the quagmire of mis-filed and poorly labelled information, both physical and electronic.

What productivity lies are you telling yourself?

PRODUCTIVITY LIE #13: Everyone knows how to file

It’s seldom that we find companies setting up a simple labelling protocol at the onset of starting their business. This is one of the things that tends to morph organically and when the realisation hits that something drastic needs to be done, the inclination tends to fizzle out at the sheer magnitude of this issue. That said, having a simple and documented file labelling protocol in place adds value to your company, clears online storage space, reduces anxiety and frees up time.

Frankly, not everyone knows how to file, so it’s imperative that you set some standards to get, and keep, everyone on track.

The three things you can do right now:

There’s a long way, and a short way to getting this right for sure, but why get into the deeper details when we can drill straight down to the basics. Let’s assume that you are not going to go back and rename, re-file or reorganise old information. Your cut off point is now; you are ready for action!

  1. Decide on and document a labelling protocol

HEALTH WARNING: This is a potentially tedious project so make it a group effort. Round up your senior team, or create a project task force, break the work into chunks, allocate names to drive their piece of the ‘chunk’ and set deadlines.

Note: I’m going to talk you through creating an electronic protocol. Your paper filing should parallel with this.

  • Labelling protocol is a fancy name for how you name your files and folders.
    • It should be consistent throughout your company to prevent duplication and ensure easy retrieval.
    • Documenting what you’ve decided on will mean you no longer have to think about what you were thinking about at the time you were labelling the file in the first place … it also keeps everyone on the same page.
    • I’ve seen companies include ‘conforming to the labelling protocol’ as a key performance indicator (KPI). This boosts compliance.
    • I definitely promote it forming part of new employee induction.
    • Upfront I must caution that while it would be idyllic to have one single protocol in place, in practice that seldom pans out. Keeping things as simple as possible will help minimise the variations.
  • Start with a discussion to decide on your preferences for:
    • Prefix (e.g.: first 3 letters of the customer’s name)
    • Suffix
    • Date standardisation (e.g.: yyyyddmm)
    • Version control (e.g.: v1, final)
    • Retention period (how long you need to keep this type of document for)
  • While reviewing your current filing system, start documenting the:
    • Category: main file. In a paper based system, this would be the name you’d write on the outside of the physical file.

I find it easier breaking this up into separate worksheets where I only view a specific department or specific function i.e.: finance, operations, etc.

  • Sub-Category: sub-files relating to the main file. In a paper based system, these would be the documents you’d file within the physical file.

Essentially, at the end of this project you should be left with a detailed document that you would circulate amongst your team.

  1. Buy-in & setting up of the new system

Now that you have your framework, you’re ready to share it with a wider group. Call together more of your key people and:

  • Take them through the process (remember to tell them why you are doing this e.g. to make things easier for everyone, to prevent duplication, to save time, to add value to the organisation, are a few driving factors that spring to mind).
  • Let them pick it to pieces, find fault or praise.
  • Tweak where necessary
  • Discuss, document and get going with an implementation strategy. This could include:
    • Setting a cut-off date to transition from the old to the new system
    • Generating a protocol document & circulating it to your staff
    • Putting aside 2 hours per department to actively implement (create folders, rename current working documents)
    • Appointing project champions as support
    • Diarising to monitor and tweak for 3 months from the initial implementation
  1. Document a maintenance routine

In most instances, after the initial implementation, some monitoring and a little tweaking, your system should be subject to maintenance once per annum. This is a focused (hopefully brief) project where you check in on compliance and archive/delete files/folders according to the retention guidelines you already have documented. If your protocol is simple, and your team accountable, it really can be just a case of hiring in a temp to do this for you. Easy!

Be patient, the long-term gain is really worth the initial effort.

Similar posts

Get notified on new future of work insights

Be the first to know about WNDYR’s latest work and productivity insights to drive a successful enterprise digital transformation