Think of a file as a story about what has happened from beginning to end on a matter. It should be a story that you can look at to see what happened, but it should also be a story someone else will be able to read and make sense of.
It is very important if you get phone calls and make decisions on a file to document that by writing a note and putting it on the file by date. You will not remember later what transpired and what arrangements were made. When someone new looks through the file they will see a chronological record of incidents. You want to file letters, faxes and e-mails received and sent chronologically. E-mails should be filed by date and time if you have more than one on a particular day.
Your file should be neat. Papers that belong together should either be stapled or clipped so it will be evident to anyone looking through the file what belongs together. Fax transmission sheets and courier slips are also part of the story and provide proof that a document has been sent so should be kept stapled to the correspondence. If you send an e-mail with attachments, the attachments should be printed out and stapled to the e-mail to keep an accurate record of what was sent.
Occasionally it may even be necessary to keep the envelope on the file and that should be stapled to the correspondence it came with.
It is important to date stamp all received correspondence to have an accurate record of when a document was received.
What if I make a mistake?
Everyone makes mistakes, but the file has to have a record, even of our mistakes if it will help tell the story. If an error was made and something was sent to the wrong address, e-mail address or fax number, strike through the correspondence with a pen or put a note on the file saying Sent in Error. It will avoid confusion and gaps if someone is looking back trying to figure out what happened on a particular matter.
If an e-mail is sent and comes back undeliverable, print a copy of the undeliverable message and put it on the file with the e-mail or make a note on the e-mail copy on the file. It may mean following up and phoning or faxing a document if you can’t send it by e-mail, but you should have a record that you tried and it failed. Your boss at some future date may be sure he or she sent an e-mail and the failed message will be a reminder of what happened.
We would all like to forget about our mistakes, but if you make a mistake on a file and that is part of the story - make a note of it and put it on the file.
As we march on to a paperless society we need to be filing our electronic documents in a similar fashion to the hardcopy file. What story are we telling?
If your document management system has the capability and has a place to put the file number along with the name, that will make it easier to find a document. It is all about “finding” it again. Try to make it simple.
We can now receive faxes by e-mail, we can scan documents and our regular e-mail can all be saved into our document management system making it easy to make an almost complete electronic file. Some things we still have in hard copy and require our paper file, but whatever we can file electronically we should do so and in a common-sense way to make it easy to retrieve when needed.
Being consistent in how documents are named will make it easier to retrieve when needed. Your company may even have a policy on their naming procedures. The key is to make it easy for anyone to find. No longer do we have our “own” filing system, but our files should be recognizable to all who need to read them.
File neat and file smart and that will go a long way in making your life and those of your co-workers a lot easier as we go searching for that needed document.