How to organize and dispose of old office files

How to organize and dispose of old office files

As offices continue to eliminate paper records in favor of digital filing systems, you may be asked to dispose of dozens or even hundreds of old paper office files. Having a plan to quickly and efficiently dispose of them, after saving needed documents by scanning them into an electronic filing system, will save you from becoming overwhelmed.

  1. Assess what files need to be kept

    Do the old paper files exist in one room or several rooms? Which rooms need to be emptied first? Answering these questions at the outset will help you prioritize disposal and scanning. Make sure your manager has a clear understanding that you will need adequate time to accomplish this job, alternating it with your other responsibilities.

    Get input from others in the office who need to use information contained in the files. If you’re not familiar with what’s supposed to be in the file, ask this person to explain it to you so you can determine if the file is complete or not. You will need to know if a critical document is missing and ask what to do if the file is not complete.

    Your office may choose to scan documents older than a certain amount of time into a computerized filing system and dispose of the paper file. Some offices may choose to keep both a paper file and a scanned copy (for instance, if the account is active and there are still documents coming in) for a certain length of time and, once that’s past, destroy the paper file.

    Industry-specific laws and guidelines exist for how long information must be retained, such as this one for state medical record laws from Financial and tax records need to be kept for seven years and some experts recommend keeping tax returns forever. It’s best to check on these laws and practices and discuss with your manager, a lawyer, or tax professional before you start the disposal process.

  2. Begin dismantling the files

    You may need to spread out several documents at once, especially if the files must be complete before you scan them. Prepare adequate space on your desk or use an empty desk or work area for physically taking the file apart. Designate a space for documents waiting to be scanned. It’s sometimes not necessary to save everything (duplicates, handwritten notes, etc.). Check with your manager if you are unsure.

    Some vinyl accordion files or cardboard file folders can be recycled for future use. Designate a place in the office where these will be stored. Still-usable office supplies—paper clips, note pads, file folders—can be recycled and combined with those already purchased. When there’s a big enough quantity, this will avoid some future office supply purchasing.

  3. Scan documents that must be saved

    Most office copiers are equipped with a scan function that scans at a higher speed if you have hundreds of pages to copy, as in medical records. Be sure to find out if you can batch the records together before you scan them — for example, can all medical records for a person be scanned together, or must each one be scanned separately?  

    Once scanned, you will want to save them into your computerized filing system using a logical structure that reflects best practices in your industry.

  4. Dispose of unneeded documents

    Once the scanning is done for a batch of files, you must shred unneeded but sensitive documents. You may use an in-office shredder and then recycle the shredded documents if you have office recycling.

    If there are too many documents or no time for in-office shredding, or you don’t have in-office recycling, use a local mobile shredding service. These services will bring a truck to your location on a schedule you set up, provide bins for shredding and pick up filled bins from your office. Once the shredding is done, the empty bins are replaced, and the contents recycled by the company. Some companies allow you to watch the process and offer compliance certificates, such as for HIPAA.

  5. Keep up with document disposal needs

    Set aside time each week to dismantle, scan and dispose of old files. If you’re the first one to see incoming documents—for instance, if you distribute the mail—rely on the protocol you’ve established for whether to scan and dispose of it right away, or scan and keep the paper document for a certain amount of time. If you can’t process incoming documents right away, designate a space in the office where they can be temporarily kept neatly and out of the way until you can. You may need to ask coworkers who use some files on a regular basis and keep them at their desks to let you know when a file is ready to be disposed of. Whatever you do, don’t let them pile up!

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