Everybody knows that a good folder structure is important, good findability has always been a key component of a strong digital employee experience. Employees have to be able to find what they need quickly and effortlessly; when findability is poor, it is not only a drain on productivity with time wasted but it can also be very frustrating.
There are various elements of the digital workspace that contribute to good findability including an intuitive navigation, a powerful search tool, tagging and filters that allow employees to hone their search, and a well-organized folder structure to find documents. Of these, digital folder structures do not always get the love and attention they deserve, even though they are an important way that employees discover and find content. In this article we hope we can start to redress the balance by covering some tips for deriving a good folder structure.
Why folder structures matter
Unfortunately, folder structures are often a huge mess. Whether in your file network or in individual SharePoint libraries, there has usually been no governance applied and multiple people involved. This means they end up being a dumping ground for files and can even be a "black hole" where documents get dumped, never to be found again!
One of the reasons folder structures can end up being a nightmare is that not much thought was given to the folder structure in the first place. It is well worth spending some time considering a good digital folder structure that will:
- save people time finding the items they need, sometimes at short notice
- reduce the risk of people using the wrong document
- contribute to an overall good employee experience
- encourage people to think about where they place their documents rather than using the folder structure as a digital dumping ground
- make your overall digital workspace easier to manage and more sustainable
- support future structured approaches to managing content, such as content or SharePoint migrations, or introducing new search capabilities.
What makes a good folder structure?
At a high level, a good folder structure has three major aims:
- It helps employees find what they need quickly and with confidence
- It guides employees to store files inside the directory structure in the right place, again with confidence
- It is sustainable, so the folder structure can evolve and grow without having to be reorganized, or without the folder turning into a dumping ground.
To achieve all three aims a digital folder structure usually must have the following attributes:
Intuitive labeling so folders are easy to understand, reflect the subject of the files within them and guides the user to what is below it in the hierarchy. If your folder structure lacks clarity because you're using confusing labels then it won't succeed.
Has the right balance between granularity and findability. You want the right number of folders and an appropriate number of items within them. For example, you don't want to create hundreds of folders with just one document in each, but you don't want to create a few folders with hundreds of documents in each one.
Has the right depth. How many levels does a person need to go down to find what they need? You probably don't want a hierarchy that goes to 12 levels, but at the same time, you don't want too few levels as this may not be deep enough to contain all your content.
Consistent in how it is structured. A consistent approach helps employees navigate a folder structure through an inherent logic; however, there may be different elements of your folder structure that may have to be organised differently. This is the case where you are working across a wider folder structure serving a number of different audiences and purposes.
Has a structure that is sustainable and is flexible enough to evolve with your needs, for example where you can add further categories and more documents without breaking the original folder structure.
Has the right governance. You'll want to make you have the right security permissions in place, that somebody is tasked with keeping the integrity of the original structure, and perhaps different owners of parts of the structure.
How do you work out a strong folder structure?
Before you start out trying to work out a robust folder structure, there are two things to remember. Firstly, no directory structure is perfect. Everybody thinks differently and will have a view on what should go where and how to organise your information. Sometimes a great folder structure has an element of compromise in it.
Secondly, if different parts of your folder structure serve different needs and functions you may well have to adopt slightly different approaches. For example, perhaps your marketing team think about work they carry out in terms of clients or industry sectors. But perhaps your Project Management Office and all your company's project managers think about projects in terms of the year they are carried out. These can have a bearing on how you organise marketing and project information respectively.
So, your digital folder structure also needs to consider different factors such as:
Your audience and how they think and work. Who is going to be using or accessing the folder? And who is going to be accessing documents? And how do they think? What work processes do they follow? This detail really can dictate folder structure. For example, you may adopt a very different approach for a folder of documents that everyone is going to access across your company, and just those that are more working documents for a project team.
The purpose of the documents within the folder structure. Different parts of your folder structure may have different purposes. It may be solving a business problem and need to be accessed regularly. Other folders may be a more of a reference tool kept for compliance purposes. Others may be working documents involved in everyday project delivery that include draft versions. Again this purpose can influence your folder structure.
Permissions. This may dictate how you apply some of the structure as permissions will apply at the folder level.
Control. Do some people have or need control over part of your folder structure? If so this may dictate how you need to structure it as overlapping areas of control could get very messy.
Taxonomy and controlled terms. Do you already use certain controlled terms in your organisation? If so this may dictate how you label your folders.
Language. Do you have multiple languages in your organisation? It's likely that you'll be using one core language but it can also impact the labels that you need to consider, so that everyone can understand it.
Example of a good folder structure and a bad folder structure
It's quite difficult to define a good directory file structure because there are so many variables. What may work for one organization may not work for another. But here is an example of a confusing digital folder structure and a much better example of a good file structure.
They relate to a folder of HR procedures and forms that everybody in the company needs to access regularly and often, ensuring they have the latest version. The HR function control and are responsible for the folder.
Example of a bad folder structure
The above example has lots of issues, including:
- a folder marked HR Dept even though it needs to be accessed by all staff.
- Confusing labeling may not mean much to non-HR professionals who may not know what C&B "Compensation & Benefits" or "PTO" is "Paid Time Off".
- a folder for "Drafts" when clearly draft documents should not be accessed by all staff
- the use of "Other" several times which gives no clue as to what is in these sections
- missing information that is another folder somewhere else, for example relating to learning and development
Example of a good folder structure:
Policies, procedures and forms
HR & People
Careers & promotions
Learning and development
Maternity & paternity
Pay and benefits
Working from home
This digital folder structure example works better with:
- clear labeling
- no obscure "other" folders
- alphabetical order
- a more complete and granular list of topics
- sits inside a structure which could also include other procedures such as those belonging to IT, bringing all polices and procedures into one place.
A new file directory structure: getting started
Often, it is the groundwork that is the hard work, and creating the file directory structure with the right folders is the easier part. For example, in Workspace 365 one of the most popular features is the Document AppDocument Management app, a game-changing capability that can bring all documents that employees work with into one online workspace and folder structure.
This gives the opportunity to redefine the folders that employees access their files on, bringing together Microsoft 365 (previously known as Office 365), your file server, One Drive, and SharePoint (including your Teams folders). Here you can create your ideal file directory structure design, by:
- Working out policies taking into account some of the things we've covered
- Sorting out the governance - ownership, permissions etc.
- Working with local stakeholders
- Getting their input and work with data inputs (e.g. existing structures, taxonomy etc.) to draft a structure
- Test the new structure with users and document creators - do they understand it?
- Map your old structure to the new structure
- Implementing the new file directory structure in the platform you are using
- Making improvements if necessary.
Want to rethink your folder structure? Book a demo!
It really is worth taking care of your folder structures. If your folder structure has broken down, you have the opportunity to rethink it from scratch and create a great file directory structure.
If you'd like to see how Workspace 365 integrates your file network, SharePoint sites (including Teams documents) and your OneDrive in one handy document app and through one folder structure, then get in touch or try our free demo!