Small businesses face many challenges today, and no challenge is greater than staying organized. It is an easy trap to fall into, to underestimate the sheer amount of paperwork that goes into running a small business, and all of that paper has to go somewhere.
Trying to figure out how to effectively sort things can be dizzying, especially when the same form is relevant to multiple departments. You may be asking yourself:
“Where do I start? If I move this one thing, then I have to move something else to put it down, and then another thing, and then another thing, and then before you know it you’ve created a massive rolling legal form- boulder hybrid monstrosity, barreling downhill towards a densely populated area at a velocity too great for any human force to stop!”
But fear not! There is a way to prevent this disaster. Before we start moving things around, we just need to come up with a game plan.
1. Figure Out How Much Space You Have and How Much You Need
You have to honestly assess your organizational capabilities. Many factors play vital roles in this, such as available technology and space. For many small businesses, space is a precious and quickly depleted resource. A document retention policy comes in handy when you are low on space.
Depending on the state in which your business is located, certain documents such as tax documents, licenses, or leases need to be kept in their physical form indefinitely. However, other documents only need to be kept for a certain period of time. By developing a document retention policy based around your state’s laws, you can decide exactly how much physical space you need to stay organized.
2. Explore The Possibilities of Digital Filing
One helpful alternative to keeping massive amounts of paper is to digitize your documents. Electronic copies are easy to manage, take up no space, and will keep your office neat and clean. Digital libraries work especially well when you need to store and maintain documents and forms that you don’t use regularly, such as PTO request forms, blank contracts, or employee tax forms.
The first rule of maintaining an electronic library is “Save, save, save!” Be sure that you always back your files up to an external hard drive and/ or cloud storage. Though it may seem tedious, this simple extra step will save you from many a headache, should your computer ever crash. This way, instead of scrambling to reproduce forms, templates, and documents, you can rest, assured that your files will remain available.
3. Invest in a Shared Drive
Shared drives — be they cloud-based or physical — are ideal for files that are shared by multiple departments. Buying and maintaining your own server can be costly and difficult if you aren’t a technologically savvy person. However, there is no need to fret! There are several wonderful programs that offer cloud-based storage for little to no money at all.
A great example of this is Google Drive. Google Drive is completely free, and all you need is a Gmail account, also completely free. Drive offers a large storage capacity, and even has collaborative abilities. By converting your Word, Excel, etc. documents to Google Docs, you can have multiple users access the same file simultaneously, and, best of all, you can completely control who has access to what files.
4. Sort Your Physical Documents
Even though there are many wonderful digital options to keep your files stored safely, completely moving away from paper is nearly impossible. Now, remember that document retention policy I mentioned earlier? This is where it comes in to help de-clutter your office. By keeping only the necessary physical documents, you can have more space to file them away.
Start by sorting out files into groups: financial, legal, etc. As you sort, look for correlations between sections. Your lease, for example, could be considered both a legal and an administrative document. In such situations, try a hybrid method of organization. One section can house the physical copy, and then keep a digital copy in the other section. This way, if it just needs to be quickly referenced, you have the digital copy at your disposal, and you won’t have to pull out the original document unless necessary.
5. Color Coordinate
Now that you have your documents sorted into groups, I suggest color coordination. This offers an at-a-glance recognition for which section at which you are looking. Do you need to reference a check? Look for the yellow folders. Do you need a release form for a photo shoot? Oh, well those are in the blue folders. Do you need a non-disclosure agreement? Well, just check the orange folders!
Once you’ve chosen the appropriate color for your folders, label them. Exactly how you label your files depends on what works for you. I have my way of labeling: for checks and invoices, I start with the month and year that is are covered within that specific folder. In the space below, I input the check or invoice numbers covered. This offers quick and easy access if I ever need to undergo an audit. For contracts or proposals that have specific deadlines, I keep the name of the contract/ proposal at the top of the label, and the due date below.
Discover Your Own Personal Style
The most important organizational tip of all is to tailor your own organization style. These tips and tricks are only effective if you are willing and able to maintain them. Through trial and error, you can find your own personal sense of organization. Once you find what works for you, consistency is key. This should get you well on your way to being a well-oiled organizational machine!