Sorting through unorganized work folders, files, and documents to find exactly what you need, when you need it, can be challenging and frustrating. In fact, 57 percent of U.S. office workers say one of their top three problems is quickly finding files and documents, according to a survey on search and findability issues in the workplace.
Good news: you can save time and learn how to organize digital folders and files with a few best practices. The key is to decide on a system, communicate it clearly to everyone in your organization, and be consistent.
Here’s your guide to organizing files.
#1. Set goals for digital file organization.
Organizing file folders can take over your life if you let it, so start by getting specific about what you want to accomplish. That way, you’ll prevent the project from consuming more time and resources than you have available.
Start by asking a few preliminary questions.:
- Who needs to understand your digital file organization system? The obvious answer is “everyone,” but consider the needs of people who aren’t very tech-savvy and those who will only be accessing your files occasionally.
- When will you begin the project, and how much time can you spend?
- How will you know you’ve succeeded?
Here’s an example: “While all 22 employees need to understand our new digital file organization system, we will prioritize the writers and graphic designers, since they create the files. The office manager will allocate one hour per week on the project. We’ll know it worked if it’s faster and easier for project managers to find the latest files for client projects.”
#2. Get input on the current file organization method.
Together with work productivity tools, revamping your digital folder and file organization gives your team access to the resources they need to do their best work.
Talk to the leadership team at your organization so you understand their priorities and pain points. If you have time, get input from all your team members. Here are a few questions to start with:
- What do you like and dislike about the current computer file organization system?
- What’s confusing or difficult to find?
- How would you improve how files are organized? What’s worked well for you in the past?
Along with their input, you’ll need the following resources:
- Business tools: Your computer and online file-sharing software. Make accessing files easy for everyone by keeping everything a cloud-based server, rather than on-premises.
- Notetaking supplies: Set calendar reminders and consider using visual collaboration tools or digital notebooks to get organized. Paper and pen for jotting down notes or reminders are always useful.
- Time: At least two hours unless you have very few files. Break the task into manageable chunks and work on it in multiple sessions if it feels overwhelming.
#3. Delete and archive old computer files and folders.
If you have duplicate files or documents you’ll never reference again, delete them. Remove files before you begin so you don’t waste time organizing them, just to scrap them later. If you’re not sure whether to keep them, put them in a folder titled Archive. Consider using Storage Sense, an assistant that works with OneDrive to automatically free up space, to maintain access to your files while freeing up valuable storage space on your computer.
#4. Create a folder structure.
Now you’re ready to start organizing folders, but where do you start? The ideal folder organization strategy will vary based on your organization and its needs. For organizations with remote or hybrid workforces, well-organized files are crucial for communication, collaboration, and productivity. Remember that your colleagues are likely accessing files from a range of devices, including tablets and smartphones, so consider how your organizational structure will appear across these endpoints.
Decide whether it makes sense to organize files by name, date, project, or department. Start on your shared drive with your broadest categories for your main folders, and then get more specific with subfolders. Here’s what that could look like.
Organizing file folders by name
Best for: Organizations that mainly identify projects by the client’s or organization’s name, such as a marketing or advertising agency.
Pros: Names are less ambiguous than other categories, such as industry or product type. It’s easy to find the right folder when the client contacts you.
Cons: It can be confusing if the client or company changes their name. It’s also difficult to remember when a certain project took place or was completed.
Organizing file folders by date
Best for: Organizations with large amounts of files tied to time periods, like a financial services business.
Pros: It’s easy to focus on a specific time period, such as the quarter or fiscal year.
Cons: It’s harder to find projects based on other categories, such as the type of project.
Organizing file folders by project
Best for: Organizations with lots of cross-departmental collaboration—for example, projects that require a project manager, writer, and graphic designer to work together.
Pros: It’s easy to find everything related to a project, including a variety of file types, because it’s all in one place.
Cons: It can be hard to find related projects unless you include that in the file naming structure. An organization like an ad agency could mitigate this by including the client’s industry in file names, along with the project name, so searching is easier.
Organizing file folders by department
Best for: Organizations where departments are siloed—for example, a company where there’s little interaction across finance, sales, and customer service.
Pros: Each team knows where to find their files, so searching is faster.
Cons: When departments do collaborate, it can be confusing deciding where to save files.
Remember that hybrid folder organization strategies are also possible and might make the most sense for your team. Combining several of these approaches could offer the most flexibility, depending on your needs.
#5. Choose a file naming convention.
After selecting an organizational strategy for your digital files, decide how to name them. Avoid vague file names like “draft1.doc”—the more specific you are, the easier searching will be. Ideally, your file names should be detailed enough that you know exactly what they are at a glance. Start with the broadest category at the beginning of the file name, like the year or department, and then get more specific.
- If you’re organizing by date, your file name structure might be YYYY-MM-DD (year month day), followed by any other details you might search for (for example, 2021-06-26_Contoso-Suites_social-media-ads).
- If you’re organizing by name, project, or department, start with that, again followed by other relevant search terms (for example, Contoso-Suites_social-media-ads_2021).
These file name examples use underscores (_) and hyphens (-), but you don’t have to. While you can use spaces in file names, remember that URLs don’t allow them—if you’re planning to upload files to your organization’s website, it’s worth keeping this in mind.
Modern filing and document management systems allow you to add metadata, which can make searching and organizing more efficient. Create naming protocols for metadata and tags as well. The most important principle for all naming conventions is consistency but take note that cloud storage and document management systems increasingly offer AI-powered search features to help find files even when you can’t remember the exact name.
#6. Establish a system for version control.
We’ve all been there: “Do I use final_reallyfinal_2.doc or THISONE.doc?”
The easiest way is to only use one file, saved on a shared server (instead of someone’s local computer), so everyone can collaborate in real time and there’s no confusion about which file is the latest one. Use word processing software with tracked changes so you have a record of everyone’s edits.
Another option is to establish a clear order of file name endings and ask the whole organization to stick to it. This is useful if you want a separate file to mark each stage of a process, but it does lead to more files. Here’s an example:
- First draft: client_project_draft.doc
- Revisions from client: client_project_clientedits.doc
- After incorporating revisions: client_project_revision1.doc, revision2, revision3
- After client signs off on edits: client_project_final.doc
The trick is to not label a file “final” until it really is. Give the client a time limit on revisions, if possible, to avoid a never-ending revision cycle.
#7. Organize image files effectively.
There are several ways to organize images, such as by year, event, project, or department. It might help to use the same digital file organization system for your photos that you use for other files and documents, but you don’t have to. If your business attends a lot of events, consider creating folders for each event type, such as individual conferences or tradeshows. That way, if an event is annual, it’s easy to see what images you used in previous years all in one place.
Here’s an example:
with your other files, decide on an image naming convention and stick to it. Be specific and descriptive, so searching for images is easier. Include the year, month, and day in the file name (for example, 2021-06-26_spring-tradeshow-booth-backdrop.png). And it’s worth repeating: save images to cloud services or make a backup copy on a flash drive.
#8. Manage leadership-only or confidential files.
Build data protection into your digital file organization strategy. Set sharing settings on files and folders so that people outside your organization (like clients and contractors) can only access what they need.
Make use of cloud storage services that offer the most robust data security and compliance. The following features offer granular control and can help you better manage confidential or sensitive files:
- Set passwords for files and folders.
- Give read-only access.
- Prevent people from downloading files.
- Set permissions on a per-user, per-file, or per-group basis.
- Encrypt sensitive files.
- Take advantage of compliance features.
Establish a system to determine which sharing settings to use on which files. Share those guidelines with your team and post them somewhere convenient for future reference. For folders with employee-only access, remember to revoke access as soon as an employee leaves.
#9. Organize large amounts of files by years or quarters.
Organize thousands of files efficiently with the right tools. To sort files, open the folder containing all the files you’d like to organize, right-click within the folder, select Sort by, and then select how you want to sort the files: by name, date, type, size, or tags.
From there, easily organize computer files from a certain time range. Move all of them from one year into their own folder. If you like, create subfolders for each month or quarter.
If you need to rename a lot of files, there are apps for bulk file renaming, some of which are free, that allow you to add details to file names, such as the year.
If you have too many year folders, you can always create a folder titled Archive for folders from more than a few years ago.
#10. Tell your organization how to organize digital files.
Make it easy for your coworkers to name files correctly and save them in the right place.
- Have a quick meeting about the new computer file and folder organization guidelines, with time for questions at the end, or send an email with instructions.
- Post the guidelines to your organization’s group chat app.
- Create a template folder and subfolders that people can refer to as an example.
Make sure everyone knows to back up their files regularly. Save files to cloud services so they’re accessible anywhere. If people must save files on their computers, make sure they save a backup copy.
#11. Maintain your file organization system.
Save time by taking advantage of automated tasks within your folder organization system. Modern file management systems often allow you to automate file sorting and archiving and can even trigger actions based on specific events.
You might excel at organizing digital files, but others might not, so try not to stress about it. Schedule recurring file maintenance time to move misplaced files—and gently explain to people what the correct location is. Or designate someone on your team as the go-to person for all file-organizing questions. Encourage people to ask first, rather than possibly saving something in the wrong place.
Check in with your team to see whether your organization system is working and adjust as necessary. Finally, congratulate yourself on finishing a daunting project that will save your organization a lot of time!
Next steps for computer file organization