How to Organize Your Files & Folders Effectively

The key is to structure your digital files and folders in a way that matches how your team works.

If you’ve ever struggled to locate an important file with an auditor impatiently tapping their foot, then you know firsthand the importance of a well-organized file system. 


Organizing your files and folders is one of the most critical things you can do to set your team up for a successful audit. And now that many disability service agencies are working remotely at least part of the time, it’s more important than ever to have your files digitally accessible and organized.


Below are some tips and examples that will help you organize your files and folders effectively.

Files vs. folders vs. filters: What’s the difference, and which one should you use?

Setting up a digital file and folder structure can be pretty overwhelming, especially because there’s no one “right” way to do it. The way you organize your files and folders depends on your specific needs, so it will look different from one organization to the next. This flexibility is also what makes a good file and folder structure so useful, though, so hang in there. 


Before we go any further, let’s define what we’re talking about when we say ‘files’, ‘folders’, and ‘filters’. 


Files are the basic unit of storage on a computer. A file can be a PDF, a Word document, a scanned form, a photo or video, or a spreadsheet — to name a few. Files that contain text are sometimes referred to as documents.


A folder is a group of files that go together. Just like manila folders in a file cabinet, folders help you organize multiple files. Folders can be empty. They can also contain other folders, which are called subfolders.

Filters are separate from files and folders, so they don’t affect how you set up your file structure. A filter, as the name implies, is a tool that lets you sort your files and folders. Filtering will temporarily hide some of your files and folders so you can focus on only the ones that match your criteria.

A screenshot showing folders in SETWorks with files nested underneath.

Now that we have a basic definition of files, folders, and filters, let’s look at some best practices for setting them up.

1. Scan your documents

The first step in creating a digital filing system is to scan your documents. Of course, you can skip this step entirely if you’re already paperless.


Depending on how many documents you have, scanning everything can be a time-consuming task. One way to make the process go faster is to hire students to scan your files over the summer. Instead of tying up your team, it’s an affordable way to get your files digitized and help local students pay for their tuition. 


Keep in mind that each scan creates a single file, so if you scan a 100-page document all at once, it’ll create one 100-page file. Which brings us to our next point: Scan your files in smaller batches. 


Scanning dozens of pages in one go might seem like a timesaver at first. However, that time savings will quickly disappear when you have to scroll through a massive file to find the information you need.


Instead, a better method is to split up large documents into multiple, smaller files. One way to do this is to break up your documents by topic. Rather than having one huge file for training, for example, you might split it up into CPR training, first aid training, abuse and neglect training, and so on. You can then organize these files into a training folder so you can quickly find what you need without having to scroll.

2. Rename your files to be more descriptive

When you scan a document, your file will automatically be assigned a name based on the date and file type. It will typically be named something like ‘scan20211104_07293383.pdf’. 


Naturally, that’s not much help when you’re trying to figure out what’s inside a file. Taking a second to rename your scanned documents with something descriptive can make it easier to locate the information you need without having to open up the file. The same goes for digital files like Word documents and PDF forms. 


It’s also a good idea to set up a standard file naming structure. This could be something like ‘service_clientfirstlastname_date’. It could also simply be a descriptor like ‘Official Authorization’, ‘I-9’, and so on. 


How you name your files is up to you, but what matters is that it’s consistent across your organization. Naming files in a logical and predictable way will make it much easier to locate the information you need once audit season rolls around. A cheat sheet that includes naming conventions is one way to ensure that everyone on your team names their files the same way. 

3. Create your folders

Once all your files are in a digital format and named descriptively, it’s time to map out your folder structure. 


Again, how you organize your folders will depend on the services you provide, the files you need to keep, and the types of audits you will encounter. The important thing is to find a structure that matches how your team works, and that will be easy for you to maintain. 


Some organizations prefer to create a top level folder for each year, then subfolders for each category under that. Others find it more useful to create folders for each category and subcategory, with subfolders for different years. 


For example, you might start by creating top level folders for: 


  • Assessment Evaluation
  • Authorizations
  • Checklists
  • Consents
  • Correspondence
  • Financial
  • Medical Health
  • Personal Information
  • Plans
  • Progress Review


A screenshot of a folder structure in SETWorks.

Then, you can create subfolders for each category. So within the Plans folder, you might have:


  • DMH Community 
  • Transition
  • VR Employment
A screenshot of folders in SETWorks, with one folder expanded to show the subfolders nested underneath.

…and so on. You can even break things down a step further by adding subfolders for each year:


A screenshot of a file structure in SETWorks showing a folder expanded to show folders with the years 2015 and 2016 nested underneath.

A good method is to think about the types of audits you will undergo and what’s needed for that. Are you a CARF-accredited agency, or will you seek accreditation in the future? Do you get audited monthly or quarterly by a TCM entity? These are all important things to consider as you’re creating your folder structure. 


Before you actually set up folders in your electronic system, it helps to map everything out on paper. Then, try it out by auditing one consumer’s file and seeing if you have what you need. 


As you start adding files to your folders, you might find that you have more files than you thought. If you have more than 10-20 files in a single folder, consider adding subfolders to keep things organized. On the flip side, if you have a lot of folders with just one or two files, you might need to cut back.


One more thing: Be sure to name your folders something useful so that it’s easier for everyone to know what goes inside. Otherwise, you may find that a lot of files end up in the ‘Miscellaneous’ folder. 

4. Create & apply labels

One advantage to using an electronic document system is that it’s easily searchable. Instead of having to click through each file to find what you need, you can search for a specific file or folder. 


You can also take things a step further by applying labels to your files. Like folders, labels are used to categorize your files. The difference is that a file can only live in one folder, but it can have several different labels.


Once you’ve applied labels, you can easily filter your files by label. If you want to see all the assessments for a specific consumer, for example, you can click on the Assessments label in the dropdown menu. 


A screenshot in SETWorks showing a dropdown menu of filters circled in red.

If you have lots of files and folders, using labels to filter your files eliminates the confusion by only showing you those that are relevant to what you’re looking for. Some people prefer this method over having multiple levels of folders. Others use a combination of folders and labels.


By filtering your files, you can find the information you need much faster. To show you what we mean, here’s a view without any filters:


A screenshot of an unfiltered view of files in SETWorks. There are lots of different files and folders.

Now, here’s a much cleaner view with filters:


A screenshot of a filtered view in SETWorks. Only files that match the 'Assessments' filter are shown. There are fewer files than in the unfiltered view.

5. Make sure everyone follows it

Setting up a good file structure is one thing. Making sure people use it is another thing entirely. Our final tip is to make sure you think about how you’ll get people to follow your file and folder structure. 


This can be especially hard to do if you have a lot of DSP turnover. In order to maintain your organization system, each new person needs to know how documents are supposed to be filed. 


One strategy that has worked well for our clients is to create a filing guide that shows staff where documents should be filed. This way, everyone is on the same page about what goes where. 


A screenshot of a filing guide with the title "SETWorks Filing Guide". There are headings for each folder, along with a bulleted list of what should be filed in that folder.
LOQW’s filing guide serves as a “cheat sheet” for staff.

A filing guide will help eliminate a lot of the guesswork that goes into deciding where files should be stored. However, you may still find that some people are (*ahem*) reluctant to follow your filing system. 


Resist the temptation to go back and fix their mistakes for them. Instead, simply make those people go back and find the documents they filed incorrectly. Having to spend their own time digging for a file may be the gentle nudge they need to file it right the next time. 

Keep learning

By following these five tips, you’ll have a much easier time keeping all your documents organized and easily accessible. To learn more, download our free guide “5 Ways to Become a Data-Driven Organization”.

Free Guide: 5 Ways to Become a Data-Driven Organization
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