How Can I Set Up an Email Filing System?

email-inboxSetting up a filing system for your emails is a huge step in managing those sometimes insurmountable inboxes. However, sometimes those filing systems are as difficult to manage as the inboxes themselves, if folders are created on-the-fly or as seemingly needed for specific emails. One way to avoid this is by developing a filing system based on your retention schedule. Not only will you be creating a system where classification is easy, but you’ll also ensure that your emails are being retained for the proper amount of time.

So where do you start? Well, don’t start by trying to develop a complicated folder structure based on what you think you have – do some preliminary weeding to ensure that you are classifying only the emails that you are responsible for maintaining for the full retention period. The first step would be to delete any emails that are non-records. This would include any personal email, any CCs (if someone else is in charge of handling the matter being discussed and you’ve received the information as a courtesy), any unsolicited mail (vendor advertisements, miscellaneous news articles, non-work related emails from coworkers about upcoming baby showers or happy hours), any convenience copies (where you know that the record copy is maintained elsewhere), and any spam.

StanleyNext, you need to figure out which emails in your account are the record copies. Identifying record copies gets a little more difficult when you are talking about emails. Typically, the sender copy is the record copy. The sender is the one who wrote and sent the email, so they are usually responsible for keeping the record copy. However, if you receive an email that (1) requires you to take some kind of action or (2) documents some action that you took, then your copy will also be the record copy. For example, if my boss sent me an email that said, “Erica, Fire Bonnie,” she would retain her copy since she is the sender and it documents an order she gave me, and I would need a copy to document the reason I fired Bonnie. (Note: This is only an example, I would never fire Bonnie; she’s great!)

Now you are ready to start thinking about where to file these emails. Using the retention schedule to set up a filing system helps ensure that emails are classified correctly by their content and ensures that they will be preserved for the full retention period. You might be thinking, “That’s impossible, there’s no way to manage a file system with that many folders!” Yes, the local schedules are rather lengthy and have hundreds and hundreds of record series. However, if you actually examine the types of emails that you send and receive, you’ll probably find that they fall into ten or fewer records series, which is easily manageable.

The other handy thing about using the retention schedule to develop a filing system is that you can include the retention period in the name of the folder, so that you automatically know how long the emails in that folder need to be retained. For example, if you are a supervisor, you might have a folder named “Leave Requests – FE + 3” where you retain the emails your employees send to notify you of when they will be out of the office. To make retention and disposition even easier, you could have subfolders under the main folder for each fiscal year. When it is time to do disposition, you can easily dispose of an entire folder, knowing that everything filed in it has met its retention. This saves you from having to go through one huge folder, cherry picking out the emails that fall within certain dates.

In general, emails will fall into two main categories: correspondence and records related to your specific job responsibilities (which we’re going to call your “program records”). If you’re wondering how an email could be considered anything other than correspondence, please see Emma Martin’s excellent blog post on the topic.

Within correspondence, there are three types: administrative, general, and routine/transitory. For a breakdown of these series, please see Bonnie Zuber’s blog posts about the topic here and here. Within your correspondence folders, you can use your own system to further classify your email by whatever topics make the most sense to you. Once you have your correspondence categories in place, it’s a good idea to go a step further and subdivide by year or fiscal year, to make disposition easier. For example, I consult with local governments and state agencies about their SampleInboxrecords management programs. Under my correspondence folder, I have subfolders for local governments and state agencies. Furthermore, under the state agencies folder, I have a subfolder for each state agency I am assigned to consult with. That way, if I need to quickly reference an email sent by or sent to a particular agency, I simply have to locate the folder, click on it, and up pops all of my correspondence with that agency. It’s much easier than having to hunt through an enormous folder filled with a mix of correspondence from many entities.

Your program records are going to be emails that fall under very specific categories based on the individual tasks related to your job. Some examples might be complaints, directives, or public information requests (and these might not apply to you – everyone has different program records based on their job!)

So what would all of this look like? Well, I’ve created the example to the right so you can see how this might work in practice. Of course, you are free to customize your filing system so that it makes sense and works for you.

Of course, if you want to, you can set up a folder structure for your emails outside of the mail system.  The email server is often the most expensive place to store something, so creating a file structure outside of it can save you money.  Additionally, there are tools that can classify your emails for you, with a bit of training.  Read about one of these tools here in Joshua Clark’s blog article about the Department of the Interior managing email.

Let us know how you are managing your inbox in the comments below!  For even more tips on managing email, check out our archived webinars on the topic, available here and here!




4 thoughts on “How Can I Set Up an Email Filing System?

  1. In a perfect world or in my dream world, TSLAC would say – just keep all emails 2 yrs. Weeding thru and discerning where and how long, etc. can become almost a full time job and trying to get everyone on board on doing it is in itself and can be challenging. But then my dream world would also be that all gov’t files be kept 10 years and be done with all the trying to figure out is it this record? is it that one? is it this retention? is my copy the record? Who has the time and trying to make the time is difficult but seeing that it is require nonetheless, it also seems a lot is open to matter of opinion. In my opinion, this item could be this – 1 yr but someone else can look at the same item and call it something else – 2 years. Wish I had my dream world of a flat retention for everything! Thanks for the article though!

  2. This is not helpful for the new 30 day deletion of emails. Can’t use this organization system for emails that are automatically deleted.

  3. Sometimes there can be confusion between IT policies and records retention. Every state agency is still required to keep email based on the contents, so there cannot be a flat 30-day retention for everything. I highly recommend consulting your agency’s records retention schedule and contacting your agency Records Management Officer (RMO) to seek clarification. Your RMO may also be able to provide some additional guidance on how to better organize your email.

    I’m assuming that IT departments clear out all emails that haven’t been filed after 30 days, but that still leaves the responsibility of each person filing their emails appropriately so that they aren’t letting the documentation of government business be deleted automatically.

    Think of it in terms of the paper equivalent. If you had a stack of letters on a desk, but someone comes by to clean every week and throws them out, you would’ve had to place the letters in a filing cabinet to prevent their loss. So if IT has a policy that they clean out emails every 30 days, that means each employee needs to implement a filing system – possibly saving emails on a shared drive if needed – to prevent the loss of government records.

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