Posted in Approval Processes

How to Create an Automated Document Approval Workflow

Organizations heavily depend on processes to get work done. Standard processes ensure that tasks like employee onboarding and procurement are completed in an efficient manner.

But among the more time-consuming are document approvals. Certain documents, such as purchase orders and invoices, must flow through a series of steps to ensure compliance and standardization.

Doing things manually or not having a formal approval process in place at all will cost your business over the long-term.

So, how do you create a document approval workflow? What tools are available that can automate the approval process?

In this article, we’ll look at what document approval workflows are and the elements that make them up. We’ll also look at how you can design an approval process using workflow automation software.

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What is a Document Approval Workflow?

A document approval workflow is a process that organizations follow to submit and approve documents. Examples include purchase orders, expense claims, contracts, employment agreements, etc.

Here’s an example of a document approval workflow for a purchase order:

  1. An employee creates a purchase order form
  2. An employee sends it to their manager for review
  3. A manager reviews and signs the PO
  4. A manager sends it to the finance desk

There may be even more steps involved. In some cases, a VP may need to review purchase orders with higher values (e.g., $15,000 or above).

Because there are so many steps, doing things manually isn’t practical or efficient. It also leaves a lot of room for error — an employee may not know who to send a form to, or they may duplicate work.

Manual approval processes are also extremely tedious and time-consuming. Workflows can’t move to the next step unless an approver has reviewed and approved a document.

Employees spend 5.3 hours each week waiting for information — that’s time that leads to processing delays and higher operational costs.

The solution is to create and implement an automated approval workflow process for documents like purchase orders and business contracts. 

Creating an automated workflow for the document approval process:

  • Improves efficiency: With automated workflows, documents route to the correct individual. Employees won’t have to waste time chasing signatures from an approver.
  • Increases visibility: Workflows increase visibility into the approval process — team members know what task they’re responsible for, and managers can monitor progress. 
  • Reduces human error: Automated workflows combined with dynamic forms help minimize the risk of human error, such as transcription errors.
  • Provides an audit trail: If something goes wrong in the approval process, you can review the logs and see details like when approvals were made and who was responsible for them.

For these reasons, more organizations are transitioning to automated workflows for document approvals — they standardize the process and ensure that everyone follows the same steps.

Elements of an Automated Approval Process

Document workflows vary for every organization, depending on specific needs and requirements. However, document approval processes tend to include the following elements.

Documents

Documents that need approval (purchase orders, budget approvals, contract renewals, project proposals, legal documents, etc.) are created — often from a standardized template or form — and submitted.

Approvers

Approvers are individuals (managers or supervisors) who review submitted documents and decide whether to approve or reject them. An approver may send a document back to the submitter if data is missing or filled out incorrectly.

Permission Levels

For any document workflow, it’s important to set permission levels for each user. This allows you to determine who can view, edit, approve, and reject submissions. Setting permission levels also ensures that employees don’t bypass an approval step. 

For example, you don’t want employees to approve their own vacation requests or expense claims. For these documents, it makes sense to have multiple approvers to minimize the risk of fraud.

Due Dates

Each task in a document workflow should have due dates. Otherwise, there would be no sense of urgency, and employees would simply take their time. Due dates ensure that documents are submitted and approved in a timely manner.

Alerts and Notifications

Alerts are an important element of the document approval process. These can include status updates or approval requests that alert users when documents require their attention.

Conditional Rules

Conditional rules specify what happens when certain conditions are met. They can make a business process efficient when used correctly.

For example, having a VP review every single purchase order isn’t the best use of their time. It can lead to a backlog of work and result in longer processing times. A conditional rule can be added to route a purchase order to a VP only if it exceeds a certain value.

Signatures

Collecting signatures is another key element of the approval process. Signatures show that a supervisor or manager has reviewed and approved a document.

Logs

Recording each step of the approval process increases transparency and provides an audit trail. Reviewing these logs can help identify bottlenecks in case of a discrepancy.

Document Approval Workflow Use Cases

Practically every organization has to deal with paperwork. But this doesn’t mean you have to get bogged down and lose countless hours to this process.

Here are different use cases for document approval workflows.

Purchase Orders

Purchase orders allow your organization to procure the necessary goods and services you need to operate. In other words, they play a crucial role in your organization’s profitability.

Yet, many businesses don’t have automated workflows in place for this process. Employees fill out forms by hand and waste time chasing approvals. 

By creating an automated workflow for purchase orders, you can remove paperwork entirely and reduce cycle times.

Creative Approvals

Creative approvals are typically used for creative assets that need to be approved before publication. Examples include content for a website or artwork for a marketing campaign.

For an article, the content approval process might include steps for drafts and revisions until the piece is finally approved. Workflows help you manage this process from the first draft to the final publication.

Sales Orders

Sales orders are commercial documents that are issued to customers to confirm the sale of goods. These include details like delivery dates, payment methods, and more.

As with any business-related document, sales orders consist of many steps and typically require approvals from certain individuals before they’re processed.

With a workflow in place, you can ensure that sales orders are automatically routed to the right individuals and collect their signatures.

Contract

Businesses may enter contractual agreements with clients or suppliers. These documents detail the scope of work and budgets, and are considered legally binding.

Work typically can’t start unless a contract has been agreed upon and signed by both parties. Manual processes can prevent projects from moving forward in a timely manner.

Workflows can drastically reduce the time it takes to prepare contracts and get the appropriate signatures.

Annual Budgets 

Most companies prepare an annual budget of projected expenses for the following year. These budgets typically need to be reviewed and approved by the finance department before funds are released.

A document approval workflow is especially helpful for annual budgets. You can set up a budget system, define approval rules, and set conditions with a workflow.

Expense Reports

Manually submitting expense reports is extremely tedious. You print the expense form, chase signatures, and then wait to get reimbursed. It’s a process that can take weeks or even longer.

With workflow automation software, you can create an automated approval workflow for expense reports. It’s far more efficient and less prone to fraud.

An estimated two-thirds of employees haven’t read their company’s expense policy. Having a workflow helps employees understand what they’re entitled to and encourages them to submit claims.

How to Create a Document Approval Workflow

Your organization likely already has a document approval process in place. But any inefficiencies in that process are eating away at your bottom line. 

Workflow automation software allows you to automate the document approval process and improve efficiency. Follow these steps to create and implement a document approval process workflow.

1: Map Out a Document Approval Workflow

The first step to creating an approval process is to map each step of a workflow. 

While you can use a pen and paper for this step, you’ll find it much easier with frevvo.

Use the software to build a workflow from scratch by adding and configuring each step. Or you can choose from one of the available pre-built templates. 

Here’s a look at some of the templates we have available.

Pre-built templates in frevvo

Simply click the “Install” link to get started with a template. For this guide, we’ll use expense reports as they’re necessary for cash flow purposes.

Here’s an example of a document approval workflow for expense reports.

Document approval workflow

An employee submits an expense claim and sends it to their manager for review. The manager sends it over to the finance team, who then reviews the claim and processes the reimbursement.

2: Digitize Your Forms

If your organization is still relying on paper forms, then it’s time to go paperless. Digitizing paper forms cuts down on paper usage and makes your document approval process more efficient.

With the intuitive online form builder, you can build a form entirely from scratch. If you’re using the expense report template, you can use and customize the pre-built form.

Here’s an example of an expense report form.

Expense report form

The form builder is easy to use and doesn’t require any coding. You can also make individual fields required. This is useful for signature fields.

3: Set Conditional Rules

Conditional rules make your workflows more efficient. Having a CFO review and approve every expense report isn’t the best use of their time. It can also lead to a backlog of work.

In frevvo, you can easily set conditional rules for your workflows. For example, you could have expense reports routed to a CFO if it exceeds a certain value.

Here’s what the precondition rule builder looks like.

Precondition rule builder

With this conditional rule, an expense report will only be routed to the CFO if it exceeds $10,000. All other expense reports under that value will go straight to the finance team.

4: Test Your Workflow

There may be some hiccups along the way as you build your document approval workflow. In frevvo, you can test your workflows and even preview how they will look on mobile devices.

Here’s how mobile previews look in frevvo.

How mobile previews look in frevvo

Everything will work exactly as you designed it, including any conditional rules you added. Be sure to run through each step to ensure that everything is working as intended.

Have your team go through the workflow as if they were submitting an expense report. If they run into any issues, you can always go back to the visual designer and make new changes.

5: Monitor and Refine Your Workflow

Once you’ve tested your approval workflow, it’s time to finally deploy it. It’s important that you provide guidance to your team on how to use the new workflow.

Continue to monitor your new workflow and encourage feedback from your team. Do they have suggestions on how it could be improved? Are any steps not clear? 

frevvo’s workflow automation software provides in-depth reporting that allows you to measure productivity.

In-depth reporting in frevvo

Here, you can see how many workflows are active and how long each takes. With this data, you can refine and improve your workflows.

Automate Your Document Approval Workflow

Document approvals can be rather tedious and time-consuming when you factor in time spent preparing forms and routing them to the right person for their signature.

Performing these tasks manually is not only inefficient, but also increases the risk of data entry errors and even lost paperwork — both of which lead to unnecessary delays and frustration for everyone involved.

If document approvals at your organization are getting bogged down by manual processes, it’s time for a change. With frevvo’s workflow automation software, you can use the visual editor to design forms and create automated workflows.

Try frevvo for free today to see just how much better document approvals can be when you use our software to automate them.

Author:

Ashish Deshpande has worked in the process automation space for over 20 years. He has been instrumental in successfully deploying frevvo’s software at hundreds of organizations such as HBO, New York University, and Boston Public Schools. Ashish has contributed to leading publications such as Forbes, business.com and readwrite.com. Ashish received a PhD in Computer Science from Yale University, and a Bachelor of Technology in Computer Science and Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India.