5 Steps to Improve Your Office Filing System

Organization is still a challenge for many professionals.

In a recent Staples poll, more than 77 percent of workers said they still spend part of their day on old-fashioned paper filing work. It's not all smooth sailing, either — respondents identified a number of annoyances or obstacles that make organizing, storing and retrieving documents harder than it has to be. And during tax season, those filing issues become even more important.

Now may be a great time to reconsider your office filing system. Here is a step-by-step way to do it:

1. Determine Which Paper Documents You Must Keep

More than 25 percent of survey respondents said their biggest filing struggle was figuring out what items should be kept versus what should be shredded, while another 22 percent ranked this issue second on their list of filing challenges.

Check with your company's legal or financial counsel to confirm exactly what documents you are required to keep, and for how long. Even if you're well-versed in these issues, you may have missed recent regulatory or guideline changes. In some cases, paperwork you assumed you needed to retain may actually be OK to shred — and that can free up a lot of space. Confirming the rules means you can clear up any uncertainties.

Once know what you must retain, the next job is to tackle the less cut-and-dried areas. These are the files that aren't required, but that might be useful to your peers. Talk to employees about what files should be retained, and for how long. Reach an agreement, write it down, and get confirmation that this plan works for them. That way, everyone is aware of what you'll have on file and what you won't.

2. Shred Sensitive Documents

Use an office paper shredder or hire an outside vendor to destroy sensitive documents. For example, anything that contains identifiable data on job applicants and employees, such as Social Security numbers and credit histories, should go in the shredder. And it's smart to shred these quickly — the longer they sit around, the greater the risk that they fall into the wrong hands.

3. Expand Your Filing Area

Almost 30 percent of workers polled said their biggest filing challenge is simply finding a place keep all their documents. Even if your document purge has created some space, it's important to have sufficient room for future paperwork. Extra space also makes it easier to organize your files.

Pick up some extra cabinets or shelves for your filing area — or, if you want something more visually appealing than the basic metal cabinet, search for smaller, more decorative cabinets or desks with deep drawers that can accommodate your files. If you simply don't have the floor space to add furniture, look into digitizing more of your documents and keeping them in a shared cloud storage folder.

4. Adjust Your Methods for Organizing Files

It's all too easy to let the paper stack grow on your desk. Nearly half of Staples survey respondents agreed that they always seem to fall behind on filing work. Consider your filing method and see if you can make it easier to quickly sort everything.

Ask yourself: What kinds of paperwork do I usually struggle to put my hands on quickly? Is my alphabetical system helpful, or is there a numerical system that would clear things up? Is this intuitive to others, or does this make sense only to me?

If you can't tinker much with the overall system, at minimum it may help to simply label your files more clearly. Try more descriptive labels along with color-coding that helps you more easily spot certain categories.

5. Communicate Your System to Others

You may want employees and colleagues to search for their own files whenever possible — or, you might require that they come through you, so they won't carelessly replace a file in the wrong spot. In either case, come up with a simple set of rules for retrieving and then replacing files, and let your coworkers know about them. Post a sign on the cabinets so they'll remember (something as easy as: "Be sure to put your file back exactly where you found it!" can be surprisingly effective).

The office filing system is an essential resource for any business, but it can be a hassle for the office manager in charge of maintaining it. While it's tough to tackle your files, it's an investment that may save you time and energy in the future.