Information Systems: How To Organize Your Office
Daniel Emberley, August 2004
For the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C. Chapter
A good system for organizing office information is essential. It makes data accessible in real time, so we can reach for it while on the phone with a client. It provides an audit trail, which makes our bookkeepers and accountants happy and able to prepare our taxes. Benefiting us directly, it makes facts re-usable for similar projects, allows us to track late payments, and to stage vendor payments for the best cash flow.
Electronic versus Paper
We usually have information in both electronic and paper form. Both require a system to make data accessible. Your drawers of paper files and your hard drive data directory should mirror each other to the extent possible.
Electronic data is easily shared across staff, locations, and between companies. Since we usually create our data on a computer, it only needs to be saved in an appropriate directory. When it’s not, automated search tools let us find it and file it correctly. Backup programs ensure easy redundancy and protection of information. On the negative side, it has no archival life: since architects can be asked about decisions made on a project years after design, a non-technological solution is required, usually a paper printout. Software often forces divisions between data that would logically be grouped together. For example, your computer probably has your clients’ data split between e-mail, Word, and ArchiCAD files, in separate directories for each program. That complicates looking up a project’s history.
Paper can easily be grouped by client or vendor, not limited by the source of the information. Most people are more comfortable working with a paper file or drawing than with its electronic equivalent. It is also bulky, difficult to share, prone to lost documents, and easily damaged by fire or other disaster. The physical bulk of materials libraries and rolled drawings usually requires they be divided into their own systems, independent of the regular set of business files.
We need to work with information in both formats. No matter how you look at it, organizing data is still, annoyingly, filing. The following lays out a set of standard file types that you can customize for your firm. This system will minimize the annoyance of organizing your information, and make it easier for you to delegate that task while retaining control of your business.
Each company should have its own set of files. Do not mix your personal information with your business files. If you own properties in addition to your architectural practice, each company (usually, an LLC) should have its own set of files. You can use colored files to make that distinction easily visible, although proper labeling of the files should make that unnecessary.
Paper Filing Techniques
Use exterior Pendaflex folders, with manila interior folders to hold actual data. The exterior folders hold the place for files removed for use. They serve as a reminder that data exists, but is not where it is expected.
Label exterior and interior folders identically. Labels should have the company name, major division (from below), and contents at a level that makes sense at a glance.
Do not stagger labels across the width of files. The position of a label should mean something. A well organized drawer will show detail-level labels all on the right side, with the next division labels positioned to the left, and the company division on the farthest left. This makes files easy to find within information sets.
The lines at the fold of a manila file are there to make it easy to hold thick documents. Use them to make your files flat-bottomed. That will put the tabs at the same level, easy for your eyes to scan.
Types of Files
Store these alphabetically by financial institution, and within that by account number. These include bank accounts, loans, and credit cards. Typical files might read:
You’ll work with a variety of government institutions: for payroll taxes, corporate taxes, construction incentives, building codes. Create a file for each city, county, and state government you work with, and a section for the U.S. federal government. These are easiest to find if you alphabetize them by jurisdiction (rather than trying to keep track of which city is in which county, for instance). While a single file might be sufficient for a state or city you do little business with, you’ll usually need to break out common jurisdictions by government agency (e.g., DCRA, Historic Preservation Office, Tax and Revenue)
Ideally, your tax files/returns for each jurisdiction would be kept under the appropriate jurisdiction. Realistically, we often receive a packet from our accountant labeled “2004 taxes”, with all jurisdictions intermingled. Consider creating a section for “Taxes” at the end of “Government”, to keep those packets together.
It’s easiest to store these files by the life-cycle of an employee:
You could store your Blue Cross/health insurance forms and benefits brochures here, separating the initial account set-up and monthly bills to the Vendors section, below. Likewise, regular ADP or other payroll vendors’ runs will be kept here, but setup of your ADP account and invoices under Vendors.
Some vendors you use regularly each month, and some are used infrequently, maybe only once or twice. Create a file labeled “Vendors, A-Z”, to handle the infrequently used vendors. Files for regular vendors should follow, in alphabetical order. As a vendor in the “A-Z” file builds documents, consider moving it to its own file. Typical vendor files include your accountant, landlord, utilities, courier services, lawyers, subcontractors, and recruiters. You will want a section for the AIA, probably divided into membership, local chapter, forms, trainings, meetings, and benefits programs.
Materials libraries cause interesting issues. Theoretically, these are representations of vendors, and should be stored here. In practice, the samples and catalogues are used differently, by a wider audience among your staff. Also, vendor reps will expect to be able to update their sections independently. Consider storing samples, catalogues, and materials in their own file set. Typical organization methods are:
These are your most important files. I recommend storing them alphabetically by status, then client name, then address. Status is easiest summarized as potential projects, in design, in construction, and archival. That set-up makes it easy to move project files as work progresses, and lets you see all current jobs, for instance, at once. Work files and data (site photos, surveyor’s plats) should be separated from business files (contracts, invoices, payments), as these are often used simultaneously by different people in your office. A standard layout would be:
Cahokia Valley School District
1400 Eleventh Street
546 Independence Avenue SE
34 Bright Street, Silver Spring
1211 Fourteenth Street NE
5400 Farfax Drive, Arlington
2411 Lee Highway, Fairfax City
Your Customer files are NOT your portfolio. You should be managing your portfolio as a separate marketing document, hopefully in a web-site on-line, with hardcopy versions in your office and at the AIA DC Chapter House.
You will have data that doesn’t fit in any of the above categories: magazine clippings about interesting competitors, buildings to check out when you travel, brochures about management ideas. These should be stored by topic at the end of your file system. If you appear to be creating a lot of these files, see if some don’t fit into logical groupings that could be moved into the main file system above.
Once you’ve created the file system above, you will see your business with significantly greater clarity. To retain that clarity, you’ll need to perform simple but regular maintenance.
Daily: File documents as they come in, return files you’ve removed.
Monthly: Create new files as needed, move files to update status, replace worn labels and file folders.
Annual: Move dormant Financial, Employee, Vendor, and Customer files to storage.
Remember, if it’s in your files and you’re confident you can find it, you can get it out of your brain. Use those freed-up cells for something fun: like design!
Daniel Emberley is the founder of Emberley Streamlined Office Systems, providing office management services by the hour to growing firms. He can be contacted at EmberleySOS@juno.com.