The Work from Home Survival Kit: File Management

Today’s instalment of the Work from Home Survival Kit covers another crucial yet often overlooked aspect of preserving some much-needed peace of mind in times of rapid change: file management. Chances are that you and your team have been making lots of adjustments since the coronavirus first arrived in Canada, adjustments that continue to affect workflows and personal routines alike. Now that a year has passed, however, it may be time to assess your setup––a clean desktop, cloud-based drive, and well-organized folders can make all the difference in terms of saving time, sanity, and space!


Taking Stock


Taking some time to check in with the state of your folders and files is a great way to quickly assess what areas of your day-to-day work may need renewed attention and care. With 2021 just beginning, performing a check-up is also a timely way to bring renewed vigor to your projects and develop (or re-commit to!) healthy work habits.

Start by the most obvious place: what does your desktop look like? If what you see there is a sea of app icons, free-floating files and folders, and an ever-growing collection of digital sticky notes then all signs point to a much-needed refresh. Organizing your data will not only help you create more efficient data hygiene habits, it will also likely improve your computer’s speed.

In the next section, we round up the most important steps to take to create––and maintain!––healthy file management strategies.


Getting Organized

Common wisdom suggests that the longer you wait to organize your files the more daunting it will seem to sort through them. At the same time, investing a little time upfront in cleaning up your filing system can lead to a self-sustaining hub that requires very little maintenance to keep running smoothly.

If a quick look at your desktop and/or folders reveals that you have several “unofficial” spots for saving the various documents and media you rely on, then the most obvious first step will be centralizing your filing by using a dedicated hub, which for most of us, will be our work computer. Here are some strategies to build your hub from there:


Create a Folder Hierarchy:

Folders (and subfolders… and sub-subfolders) are your best friends. Create a filing system that makes sense for you. If you are organizing large sets of photos, for example, you may want to set up a folder hierarchy that is purely chronological (think year > month > date.) If it’s an internal or client-facing project, you could create a master folder with the project’s name, and sub-folders for each aspect of the work (e.g., invoicing; reports; scoping documents, etc.) The most important thing is to create a hierarchy and then stick to it, so that all future new entries will be easy to add to the pre-existing structure.

Perform Routine Reviews:

Practice makes perfect, so make it a habit to invest a little time, at regular intervals (whether weekly, monthly or quarterly), to routinely scan your folders and make sure new files are stored where they belong. If you will not be doing this on a daily basis, you and your team could consider a “process, finished, archived” file structure to visually help you keep track of what remains to be officially sorted. This is particularly helpful if you share files with other team members. In this instance, the “process” folder is where files that are still being worked on (maybe drafts, partially designed logos, invoices waiting for approval) will be temporarily stored. Once they are complete, the final version can be moved to the “finished” folder, where you and others will be able to access them. The “archived” folder is reserved for files that contain valuable information that may no longer be active but should be retained for reference (or in the event of an audit).

Illustration by The Balance.


Consistent File Naming:


Just as crucial as sticking to an agreed upon folder hierarchy is how you name your files––especially if you will be sharing them with others or using them for multiple rounds of reviews. What you name your files will largely depend on their format and purpose, but a good rule of thumb is to always date them and have them match the structure of your folder hierarchy as much as possible.

Pro Tip: If you are organizing multimedia files like photos and videos, such as for an event, you could give all of them a particular date, or label them with the event name, followed by a number. Many media library programs will also offer the option to batch title/describe images: you can do so in the Photos app for Mac, and here is a tutorial for how to do so on Windows. This video offers additional tips for creating a custom workflow and organizing your digital photos––lots of it will come in handy when thinking about structuring file folders, too!


Add Labels:

Did you know that you can add metadata to your files to make it easier to search and retrieve them later? This is similar to how hashtags and library cataloguing systems work. You can add keywords, tags, and other labels to many types of files, and you can also colour-code your folders to create an additional layer of visual recognition. Here is a breakdown of how to add metadata on Windows as well as Mac. Learn more about the benefits of metadata in this article titled 3 Key Principles of a Valuable Tool.

Pro Tip: You can also ‘favourite’, ‘star’ and ‘heart’ many common types of files to help you easily access what you are looking for. This is an easy and immediate way to mark documents, especially if you are employing the “process, finished, archived” method. You can favourite files that are meant for immediate use, or use the function to mark files that require sorting so you can identify them faster when you are ready to organize them. Then again, use this function wisely: use it for the same purpose only… and use it when really needed to keep this strategy effective!


Manage Your Data:


After you have established a primary hub for your files, you will want to have a backup hub that follows the same folder hierarchy and sorting system. It’s not as much work as it sounds like, as many of these back-ups can be automated and can also be set up to send you reminders. You can save your backup data on an external drive and/or a cloud service––the more redundancies the better! There are several cloud-based options you could consider, such as Amazon Drive, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, as well as Dropbox, iCloud and, if you are looking for multimedia storage in particular, a photography plan through Adobe. Check out our first article in the series to learn more about back up.

Pro Tip: TechSoup Canada members may be eligible for O&O Software’s Business Suite, the latest collection of 9 system and data management applications for small- and medium-sized organisations. The suite is designed to increase network performance, backup and restore disk images, rescue data, and support network administration. Find out more by visiting our catalogue page.


Review, Edit and Delete Periodically:


In addition to periodically scanning your folders to make sure everything is being stored in the right place, we recommend periodically auditing the contents of your folders (and sub-folders!) to make sure that the space they occupy is still deserved––especially if you are paying for a premium plan or need to save GBs on your free ones. If you have taken multiple photos at an event, for example, you will most likely only need to hold on to a small handful, and you can delete the outtakes. You can move older or archived projects to a dedicated legacy external drive, or delete files that are no longer in need after an agreed upon amount of time has passed. You and your team can come up with a system and a timeline that makes sense for you based on your needs, though try to perform an audit at least annually for best results.


Further Reading

  • How to get your photo library under control (Washington Post)
  • How to Organize Digital Photos (Lifewire)
  • Zen and the Art of File and Folder Organization (How to Geek)
  • Tip of the week: How to organize your shared folders (Dropbox)
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