The Job You Love to Hate

Would you crumple up your best suit and shove it in a drawer? Would you store milk with saucepans? Of course not – but the attitude of ‘roughly in the right place is good enough’ seems to be one most of us have towards looking after office information. Filing is often called a retrieval system, which is a much better term for a method of keeping information in good condition and accessible for when we want to use it.

By Sara Goodwins

Filing with attitude!

All the best equipment in the world won’t help us do a job we just don’t want to do, but we can make life easier for ourselves by first sorting paperwork into four groups based on when we want to look at them rather than what they’re about:

  • Today. Paperwork relevant to the things you’re working on now. There won’t be much of this and it can be kept in paper or plastic wallets, in a ring binder, a stacking filing tray, desktop sorter, etc.

  • Tomorrow. A complete history of work-in-progress projects which you can find easily. You’ll have been working on them recently and will do so again soon. They’re probably housed in filing cabinets, suspension trolleys, racks, etc.

  • Sometime. Not as vague as it sounds. There are certain things, such as old accounts, legal documents, personnel files, completed project information, etc., which must be kept ‘in case’. These don’t need to be readily available and can be stored in labelled archive boxes, locked out of the way if necessary.

  • Never. Junk mail, out of date information, superfluous catalogues, website print outs (not this one of course!), i.e. anything you don’t need to refer to again. Don’t clog up your filing system. Bin/shred/recycle them.

As you work, documents should either be discarded at once or work their way through the first three categories before being discarded.

What, where, how?

So where do we start? It really depends on what we want to file and how much there is. Paper can be kept in ring binders, folders, box files, filing cabinets, suspension filing trolleys, bookshelves or any combination of these. Large sheets, such as posters, flat maps, etc. should be kept in a roll stand, unless you have a lot of them in which case you’ll need purpose-built map drawers. Magazine files are good for brochures as well as magazines and other slim publications. Cuttings can be kept in plastic pockets, pouches, wallets, etc. There are a huge number of reliable suppliers for filing equipment and accessories but you might want to take a look at Viking Direct or Mr Office.

Documents can be sorted alphabetically, chronologically, numerically or chromatically (although bear in mind that some of your colleagues might be colour blind) but they must be sorted. Try if possible to categorise information and then sub-divide the categories. One category, for example, could be for reports, if they don’t need to be kept with the projects to which they refer. One section of a filing cabinet, trolley, rack, etc. could be kept for reports; files could then be subdivided either by who generated the report, the customer, subject, job number or anything else suitable. Divisions can be marked by tabs, cardboard dividers, expanding pockets, etc. Only you will know what works best for your business.

Getting help

If your filing’s got out of hand or you want a re-think but haven’t time then specialist companies such as Filing Heaven can help. They assess the space you have and how it’s used, and audit your current procedures including how the current files are indexed, stored and accessed, by whom and how many times. They then advise on improvements.

Some companies recover valuable office space by outsourcing their filing archives. Companies such as ATIX run document stores and file retrieval systems. Clients use the internet to browse the inventory of what is held for their firm, place an order online and the documents are delivered on the following day.

Information is a business’s corporate memory and as such is one of its most valuable resources. A good filing system conscientiously used makes that information immediately accessible and is an enormous asset to a firm. Swap two letters over and ‘file’ becomes ‘life’ – the life of the business. Of course, conquering office paperwork means that we also have time to get a life. Or should that be a file?


  • Keep classification simple
  • Idiosyncratic filing means that you’re stuck with doing it – make the system transparent
  • Circulate a brief memo précising how the filing works to those who use it
  • Use the same categories for paper and electronic records
  • Keep a list of all files to save duplication
  • File regularly – an hour a week can make all the difference
  • File in reverse chronological order, i.e. newest material at the front
  • If you have to remove something from a file, mark its place inside the file and on the cover
  • List the contents of storage systems – cabinets, boxes, etc. – on the outside
  • Check regularly to see whether anything needs archiving
  • Label archive boxes
  • ‘Weeding’ documents to make files smaller is a waste of time; bin the lot or leave it
  • Ban the designation ‘miscellaneous’!
Useful Contacts:
Viking Direct
Mr Office
Filing Heaven
Records Management Society

A freelance writer for over twenty years, the last ten of them full-time, Sara Goodwins has researched and written about a multitude of different topics. She tends to specialise in business and education and her features are regularly published internationally.

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