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One of the most important questions we all have to ask as business owners and leaders is: How can we make our teams more efficient? And in the world of digital transformation, this largely translates to: How can we make our teams’ digital workflows and collaborations more efficient? While searching for documents might seem like a marginal issue in the big picture of your team’s performance, its daily tax on productivity has shown to result in significant wasted time at work—and not just for IT or fully digital teams. 

A 2023 report found that on average, employees spend nearly three hours per day searching for documents or other information needed to perform their jobs. For the average full-time employee, this means that more than one-third of their day is spent scouring for the data they need to do their job, rather than doing their job. 
Of course, some degree of information searching and data collection is inherent in any job, but this, and similar reports, demonstrate a problem of debilitating information overload—not from too much information, but information in the wrong places.

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Why Are We Spending So Much Time Searching For Documents?

Let’s be clear: this is not a case against knowledge sharing. To allow your business to grow, decentralizing core knowledge and ensuring that your team has open access to the information they need is crucial to promoting accountability, enabling strong decision-making, and allowing your business to grow. 

Granting trusted team members with access to company knowledge puts the ownership on them to get the job done—reinforcing accountability and engagement. Not to mention, limited access to data is actually a contributing factor to many employees’ wasted time searching for documents. Nearly one third of the 4,000 respondents in Coveo’s study reported that lacking permissions hindered their search for essential information.

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What these studies tell us, then, is not that employees are being given too much access to information, but that the information is not adequately searchable. In other words, it’s cluttered and disorganized. For many businesses, digital clutter is a side effect of being ill-prepared for their digital transformation; for some, it’s the result of unchecked business growth; and for others, it’s a symptom of platform fatigue

What’s clear is that digital clutter creates time traps, contributes to employee burnout, and weighs on your company infrastructure, ultimately impeding business growth. 

Beyond the wasted time searching for documents, digital clutter can slow your technology, pose security threats, and weaken your team’s collaboration. But before we dive into that, let’s get clear on this phrase, “digital clutter.”

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What is Digital Clutter?

When we say digital clutter, we’re referring to the accumulation of unnecessary, disorganized, or redundant data and information within any digital environment used to conduct business. This includes email inboxes, storage software, CRM platforms, and additional business management tools. Without proper data hygiene practices, these systems can become cluttered with outdated, inaccurate, or duplicate files. 

How Does Digital Clutter Impact Business Operations?

Limited Collaboration

Digital clutter doesn’t just increase the individual’s time searching for documents, but it can quickly lead to miscommunication, get in the way of employee collaborations, and slow digital workflows.  

Consider, for example, a file that goes through multiple rounds of editing by multiple different people before being delivered to a client. Without clear and consistent guidelines for naming and storing different versions of the same document, an incomplete product could easily be delivered to the client, hurting not only your internal efficiency but also negatively impacting your client relationship.

Consider a project that has multiple touch points—it begins in research and development before it moves to design before it moves to implementation or delivery. Multiple individuals across teams are communicating about this project—emailing, Slacking, and messaging in Asana. If there aren’t clear guidelines in place for when to use which communication platform and how to sync projects across platforms, it will become increasingly difficult to trace important messages and to track moving files. 

Not only could this chaos result in duplicate work and lost reference materials, but it increases the time that every involved party has to spend searching for documents and sifting through project updates—significantly slowing the project’s movement. 

Slowed Technology

Clutter doesn’t just slow people down—it slows our devices too. When it comes to individual computers, overfull hard drives and desktops can slow computer operating speeds, leading to longer loading times for files and software crashes. 

When a disorganized system requires employees to have excess tabs open or run too many programs simultaneously, some software will lose functionality and efficiency, increasing lag times that both directly and indirectly slow productivity by promoting distractibility, causing crashes and lost work, and contributing to frustration and burnout. 

Security Threats 

Without a proper system of organization, sensitive information is more easily misplaced, and it can end up somewhere that is unmonitored or undersecured, undermining your digital security measures. So while you’re stuck searching PDF documents, malware and cyber criminals may have an easier time finding it. 

Primarily a threat to larger scale operations dealing with masses of sensitive information, digital clutter creates an environment where security incidents more easily go unnoticed for extended periods, affording attackers more time to uncover vulnerabilities and exfiltrate data before detection. 

In isolation, any one of the problems caused by digital clutter are relatively small, but the thing about clutter is that it tends to domino into constant tiny issues that erode a team’s productivity and infect workplace culture. The daily setbacks and frustrations of fruitlessly searching for documents can quickly lead to team overwhelm, employee burnout, and plummeting retention. Meanwhile, customers might experience unnecessary delays and recurring errors that chip away at their trust and loyalty.

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Tips for Reducing Digital Clutter

Reducing digital clutter might be a time-consuming process initially, but the good news is that once you’ve done the initial overhaul and established systems of organization, maintaining digital order and workflow optimization can actually be quite easy. Here are a few ways you can set yourself up to spend less time searching for documents and more time doing meaningful work. 

1. Consolidate your files.

As much as you can, keep your files in one place. If your files are scattered across different drives and cloud storage platforms, the time spent searching for documents is magnified significantly by hopping from platform to platform—especially when you consider the added time of logins and security verifications.  

Next, consolidate by eliminating duplicates and unnecessary files and folders. Especially if you have multiple team members working on the same projects and preserving versions throughout a document’s life cycle, you’re bound to accumulate duplicates. To avoid this and to reduce the overall volume of data, create a system—whether that’s naming files with “V1” or “V2” or creating a draft folder and final product folder—and clear all old versions when a project is complete. 

You can have too many folders. Have you ever gone searching for documents and come into a folder sequence that looks like this: 

Standard Operating Procedures>SOPs>SOP Documents>Project Instructions>Project Guidelines

Not only does this redundant foldering occupy extra storage space, but it makes searching for documents incredibly tedious and time-consuming, not to mention, it’s a breeding ground for duplicate files. As a general rule, if a folder contains (and only ever will contain) one other document or one other folder, delete that folder. 

2. Develop a company nomenclature.

In many ways, creating a naming system is the most effective thing you can do to reduce the time spent searching for documents—because as long as you know the file’s name, your technology can scour your computer or cloud for you. 

A company nomenclature isn’t as fancy as it sounds—it’s essentially a template that tells you and your team exactly how to search for files so you never have to guess. For example, your naming convention for marketing campaign assets might be “CampaignName_AssetType_MM.DD.YY.” As long as your team knows this naming convention and the name of the campaign they’re working on, searching for documents will be simple.

Consistency is key when it comes to both naming and foldering. As much as possible, use the same foldering sequence for every project or client. This way, no matter which project or client you’re working with, you can reference your standard foldering system to guide your search. 

When creating these naming conventions, be careful to choose words that are specific and intuitive for those searching for documents. Avoid the solo use of words with multiple meanings. For example, if the word “development” is used, you may want to specify “web development,” “product development,” or “content development”—or maybe you mean, “in progress.” 

When creating naming conventions, choose details that everyone on your team knows. For example, if you’re naming files for a certain client and their legal name is different than their DBA, use whichever name is more commonplace in your day-to-day internal communications.

3. Develop specific communication channels.

If you’re like most teams with digital operations, you have multiple different platforms that involve direct communication. In addition to email, you might have a chat platform, like Slack, Discord, or Microsoft Teams, and a project management platform, like Zoho or Asana that have in-app threads. Plus, storage platforms, like Microsoft OneDrive and GoogleDrive, have their own commenting capabilities.

With so many places to communicate about any one project, messages can quickly get lost in the chaos, making searching for documents and updates very time consuming. To avoid this, establish specific communication channels and platforms for each purpose. For instance, you might use email strictly for client communication, use one Slack channel for all-team updates and a different slack channel for technical troubleshooting, and contain project-specific communication to threads within your project management software.  

Making these distinctions keeps your email inbox less cluttered, ensures that essential information isn’t made inaccessible within private chats, and keeps important information from getting lost in a sea of messages. 

4. Sync your storage, project management, and communication platforms.

In addition to setting clear communication rules, cross-platform integrations can help you minimize chaos and distraction when working with multiple platforms at once. Countless SaaS integrations exist to make this possible. 

If you’re using a project management tool, like Asana or Trello, you can integrate it with cloud storage services, like Google Drive or Dropbox, to directly link project-related files. Email syncing tools, like Drag for Gmail, allow for automated delegation right from your inbox, not only optimizing the email management process, but also keeping shared files and project updates all together. Plus, most team chat platforms offer integrations with project management software to facilitate better collaboration.

When you take advantage of your platforms’ automations and integrations, you can reduce lost and duplicate files, ensure that your team has easy access to the information they need, and automatically keep project-related discussions, tasks, and files all in one place, reducing time spent searching for documents.

5. Don’t use more SaaS Management platforms than you need.

When they’re organized and thoughtfully integrated, SaaS platforms can greatly enhance productivity, but at a certain point, they can also overload your digital workspace with unnecessary tools and cause what has become known as platform fatigue

In many ways, the countless SaaS solutions available have made it possible for teams to strengthen their communication, collaborate meaningfully, and become more agile in the face of digital business demands. But it’s not a given. Each additional SaaS platform introduces complexity—the more apps in use, the more time wasted moving between them and the more places time can be wasted searching for documents. 

If the benefit to your workflow does not outweigh the added complexity, additional platforms simply add to the clutter and confusion. So before integrating a new system, ask yourself (and your team)—does this platform truly promote digital optimization by adding functionality that isn’t already covered by existing tools?  

6. Conduct regular organizational maintenance.

While having these systems in place will help you maintain an organized digital workplace and streamlined workflows, clutter will still form over time. Between technical glitches and human mistakes, documents will be misplaced, folders will be created outside your conventions, and communication will happen in the wrong places.

To keep these inevitable deviations at bay and maintain the ease of searching for documents, it’s important to conduct regular organizational maintenance. Consider implementing a routine cleanup schedule to review your files and folders, identify outdated or unnecessary items, and keep your digital environment clutter-free.