Posted in Workflow Automation

What is a Workflow? Everything You Need to Know [+Examples]

Every organization depends on processes to keep things running smoothly — onboarding new hires, approving purchase orders, managing payroll, etc.

But these processes become inefficient when they’re handled manually. Employees waste time figuring out what to do next, and managers have no way to tell where things stand.

The cost of these inefficiencies can add up over time.

Workflows bring structure to business processes and streamline repetitive tasks. Employees can work more productively instead of chasing signatures or hunting down old paperwork.

If you’re looking to improve how things get done, learning about workflows and how they work is an excellent place to start. 

In this article, we’ll explain what workflows are, how they benefit your business, and how to make them more efficient. We’ll also look at a few workflow examples and the tools you need to build automation into your workflows.

Click the links below to jump straight to the section you want to learn more about:

What Is a Workflow?

A workflow is a series of well-defined and repeatable steps carried out to accomplish an objective, according to a set of procedural rules.

These objectives can include anything your organization gets done on a regular basis, including things like onboarding new hires, approving employee purchase orders, or registering students.

For example, these are the steps in a typical purchase order approval workflow, illustrated in a workflow diagram:

Workflow diagram example for purchase orders

A workflow diagram is a visual representation of a workflow that uses standard notation and symbols to create a flowchart.

Workflow diagrams make it easy to help people understand the steps in a workflow. This is particularly useful when you’re training employees on a new workflow, or trying to get feedback on a workflow you’re optimizing.

The Differences Between Workflows, Processes, and Projects

Workflows, processes, and projects focus on achieving specific outcomes. 

While these terms are frequently used interchangeably, they differ in many ways. Understanding the differences will be helpful as you leverage automation throughout your organization.

Workflows

Workflows are defined and repeatable. They’re a bit like a factory — the sequence of steps to get to the ultimate output are the same every time, and it runs on a regular basis.

Workflows move data. Regardless of how many steps or tasks there are in a particular workflow, it delivers data from one step to the next. This data could include things like a completed form, a digital signature, or a manager’s approval.

Well-defined workflows ensure that employees follow the same set of procedures, whether fulfilling a purchase order or onboarding a new client. In both cases, you don’t want to leave employees to their own devices as that will lead to inconsistent work.

Processes

“Workflow” and “process” are often used interchangeably, but processes are different from workflows in that they can encompass broad organizational goals.

A business process is a series of interconnected tasks that, when completed, help organizations achieve certain outcomes. Each step is clearly defined and repeatable.

Processes can include a series of individual workflows.

For example, a typical procurement process includes workflows for invoice approval and purchase orders, and also involves things like responsible sourcing and vendor relationships.

Projects

Projects consist of multiple tasks and dependencies, but unlike workflows, projects are not repeatable. Teams must typically make ad-hoc decisions since the exact steps are not predetermined.

An example of a project might be moving to a new office location.

The Benefits of Workflows and Why You Need Them

Because they’re clearly defined and repeatable, workflows streamline the things employees do every day, reduce delays and errors, and improve productivity.

Well-designed workflows help organizations operate more efficiently. They establish what tasks need to be completed and who is responsible for them. This degree of transparency helps keep things moving in the right direction.

Here are some additional benefits of workflows. 

Improves the Customer Experience

Companies that formalize customer satisfaction workflows are able to deliver a superior customer experience by reducing errors and responding faster to customer complaints.

They’re also likely to understand what customers want and react in appropriate ways, fostering loyalty and delighting customers.

Quickly responding to customer issues is vital in today’s fast-paced world. 56% of consumers have stopped doing business with a brand due to a single bad customer service experience in the last 12 months.

With a workflow management system, you can create workflows that automatically route customer support tickets to the right agent. This helps organizations manage and respond to tickets promptly.

Delivers Better Business Insights

Workflow analysis helps you quickly analyze your business, measure performance, and identify areas for improvement. 

With modern workflow management tools, you can record and optimize performance in real-time across the entire enterprise.

The resulting efficiency goes directly to the bottom line and boosts profitability.

Maintains Business Standards and Compliance

Automated, well-defined workflows ensure that business norms aren’t bypassed or violated. In an automated workflow, no one forgets a particular approval step because the system handles approval routing automatically. 

These workflows also help improve compliance with regulatory requirements by making sure employees follow standard operating procedures without deviation.

Eliminates Unnecessary Work

Well-designed workflows quickly expose redundant activities. These superfluous tasks waste valuable employee time that could be spent on more productive work, like caring for patients or serving customers.

Employees spend an abundance of time on “work about work” activities — low-value tasks like finding documents, confirming details, etc.

Getting rid of irrelevant tasks allows employees to focus on higher-value work. It also lowers the risk of delays. For example, a stalled purchase order can easily lead to downstream effects where a product delivery deadline is missed.

Improves Collaboration

Workflows reach across functional areas of the business. 

For example, onboarding a new hire involves HR, IT, Finance, and more. With a clearly defined workflow, the responsibilities of each team are clearly articulated, making it easier to collaborate.

Improves Accountability

Employees spend an average of 5 hours per week waiting on others for information they need to do their jobs. That’s wasted time that could’ve been spent on a more productive task like closing new deals.

Structured workflows are precise and measurable. It’s easy to understand who needs to do what and when. Once a task gets assigned to an employee, they’ll know what to prioritize next.

With well-defined, automated workflows in place, managers spend less time on oversight, and employees feel more empowered to get important jobs done.

Everyone can see what’s getting done, who’s responsible for any delays, and what tasks are pending. Workflows not only improve productivity but also increase job satisfaction. After all, no one likes to be micromanaged.

Manual vs. Automated Workflows

Workflows make processes more efficient. They create a standardized procedure for employees to follow from start to finish. But it’s important to distinguish between manual and automated workflows.

Manual Workflows

Manual workflows require more time and effort to complete than automated solutions. Let’s use travel requests as an example.

An employee prints and fills out a travel request form. They hand it over to their manager for review, who then passes it to HR to approve and process the request.

Manual workflows are not only time-consuming, but they’re also prone to error. An employee may fill out their request form incorrectly, send it to the wrong person, etc.

If a manager spots a mistake, they would have to send the form back, and the employee would have to repeat the whole process.

Automated Workflows

Now let’s look at automated workflows.

Instead of having to deal with physical forms, employees can simply fill out a travel request form online and submit it.

The form then automatically routes and sends a notification to the appropriate approvers — no need for employees to chase down approvals or send constant reminders.

Automated workflows also create clear audit trails. Managers can monitor the progress of a workflow without having to send back and forth emails.

Automated workflows are far more efficient than their manual counterparts. When implemented correctly, you can boost productivity and reduce processing costs.

So how do you create automated workflows? How can you measure their performance and improve efficiency?

This is where workflow management comes in. 

What is Workflow Management?

Workflow management is the process of defining, analyzing, and optimizing workflows through automation. The goal is to streamline repeatable tasks and improve how work gets done.

Consider the steps involved for a purchase order — an employee creates a PO, then sends it over to their manager for review. Then the PO gets routed to a CFO for final approval before it gets sent to the vendor.

A key part of workflow management is to identify bottlenecks. Sending every purchase order through to a CFO isn’t the best use of their time. It can lead to a backlog of work, which can delay the procurement process.

One way to streamline this is to incorporate conditional rules. For example, you can add a rule that only routes purchase orders to a CFO if it exceeds $10,000.

Conditional rules make workflows more efficient. Facilitating this entire process is a workflow management system — software that allows organizations to create automated workflows and build conditional routing into them.

Purchase orders are just one example of a business process that benefits from workflow management. Automation can also be applied to other areas across an organization.

For example, sales teams that leverage workflow automation software report efficiency improvements of 10 to 15% and sales uplift of up to 10%.

It’s hardly surprising that more companies are turning to workflow management to increase output and gain competitive advantages in their respective industries.

Workflow Example: New Employee Onboarding

Even for small companies, it’s important for productivity and employee satisfaction to have a simple, online new hire onboarding workflow that follows onboarding best practices

Here’s what the onboarding workflow looks like for our company:

Employee onboarding workflow
  1. HR sends a welcome email with a link to the onboarding workflow.
  2. The employee completes and submits an online form. The system checks for any missing or erroneous information.
  3. Using information the employee provided in the form, including a digital signature, the workflow system automatically generates PDFs for Federal and State W-4s, a Federal I-9, and any other required paperwork. 
  4. The system then automatically routes the employee’s information to IT to create the relevant accounts, assign security credentials, and set up training.
  5. The system routes the employee’s information to HR, which sets up payroll, vacation, and benefits.
  6. When all of the previous steps are complete, the workflow system saves a copy of the employee’s documents to our internal systems and emails a copy to the employee.

The systematic workflow makes onboarding a new hire painless for everyone involved. 

HR and IT get all the information they need, promptly and with no errors. There’s no back and forth over email to clarify details.

New employees can start getting acquainted with their team and learning about their new job within 15 minutes of arriving at the office. They don’t get bogged down for hours with paperwork.

Workflow Example: Expense Claims

Employees submit expense claims for any business-related expenses they incur. Examples include accommodation and transport costs. An efficient workflow for expense claims ensures that employees receive reimbursement quickly.

Here’s an example of a workflow for expense claims:

Expense claim workflow
  1. An employee fills out an expense claim and attaches their receipts to the form.
  2. The expense claim is automatically routed to a manager for further review.
  3. Approved claims are routed to the finance department. If the total exceeds a specific value (e.g., $1,000), the form routes to the CFO for further review.
  4. If the expense claim shows any out-of-policy items, the form gets routed back to the employee to correct the error.
  5. Once the expense claim is approved, the employee receives a notification, and the finance department processes the reimbursement.

Expense reporting can be rather time-consuming as approvals need to go through several people. 

43% of organizations take about eight days or longer from when an employee submits an expense claim to when they receive reimbursement.

Creating an automated workflow for expense claims streamlines this process. It also eliminates the hassles of gathering paper receipts. Employees can simply take a picture of their receipts with their smartphones and attach them to the form. 

Workflow Example: Leave Requests

Employees may need to submit leave requests because of an illness or personal emergency. A well-defined workflow ensures that management can plan accordingly, and employees can take leave when needed.

Here’s an example of a workflow for leave requests:

Purchase order workflow
  1. An employee fills out a leave request form and selects the type of leave they’re requesting. They also enter other key details like date ranges.
  2. The employee signs the form and submits it. The system automatically routes it to their manager for review.
  3. If the request is longer than five days, the form routes to the VP for further review. If not, it gets routed to HR for processing.
  4. The system automatically enters the leave request data into a database for record-keeping.
  5. The employee is notified that their request was approved.

Managing leave requests isn’t easy.

At best, you could be left understaffed for a short while. At worst, you could land your organization in legal trouble by failing to comply with labor laws.

Leave of absence laws vary for each state. Employers in New York with five to 99 employees must provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. In Texas, employers in the public sector aren’t required to offer benefits like paid sick leave under the Texas Payday Law.

A workflow management system lets employees easily submit and track leave requests. You can also connect your workflows to existing HR software, so you can compensate employees correctly and comply with labor laws. 

Choosing a Workflow Automation Tool

The sooner you automate any paper-based processes, the better off your organization will be in the long-term. But with so many different options on the market, it can be challenging to choose the right workflow tool.

Here are some of the top features to look for.

  • Code-free workflow builder: Optimizing your workflows shouldn’t require a team of coders. frevvo’s workflow automation software comes with drag-and-drop functionality, making it easy for anyone to build automated workflows without coding.
  • Dynamic routing for workflows: Opt for a solution that enables you to add business rules into your workflows. This automatically routes your forms to appropriate approvers based on certain conditions.
  • User-friendly form designer: An intuitive form designer is simply a must. You’ll quickly get frustrated if you’re not able to customize forms according to your needs.
  • Mobile-friendly out of the box: More people are using their smartphones to get work done. Look for workflow management software that offers built-in mobility for your forms and workflows.
  • Notifications and reminders: It’s easy for work to get buried when physical forms are involved. Every workflow software should automatically send a notification whenever a task is assigned to someone. 
  • Integration with back-end systems: Your workflows will be more powerful when you can integrate them into your existing systems. An example is connecting your purchase order forms to a SQL database to pull in customer data automatically.
  • In-depth reports: Finally, look for workflow management software that includes in-depth reporting. This allows you to measure the efficiency of your workflows and identify areas of improvement.

frevvo’s workflow automation software has everything you need to take your workflows online and ramp up your organization’s productivity.

How to Create a Workflow 

Here’s how to create a workflow with frevvo, boiled down to the most important steps. For more details, check out our article on how to create a workflow.

  1. Identify stakeholders and document who does what and when.
  2. Create a workflow diagram in frevvo’s workflow designer.
  3. Implement the workflow using frevvo’s drag-and-drop tools.
  4. Test the workflow.
  5. Deploy the workflow and train users.
  6. Solicit feedback and iteratively improve.
  7. Analyze your workflows with frevvo’s analysis and reporting tools. Optimize where possible.

Automate Your Workflows

Well-designed workflows improve the way that work gets done. Instead of wasting their time chasing signatures or looking for old emails, employees can focus on higher-value work.

Increase operational efficiency by leveraging workflow management software. You’ll be able to take any workflow and make it fully automated.

Ready to automate your workflows? Try frevvo free for 30 days to test our software for yourself.

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.