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Approval Workflows: Everything You Need To Know To Get Started

SaaS Buying

Written by
Ariel Diaz
Published on
January 16, 2022
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Businesses deal with approval processes on a daily basis. To book a leave of absence, you need approval. Want to purchase for your department? You need approval. What about hiring a new employee? You’ll need to submit a new hire request—and wait for approval. 

For many businesses, this means piles of paperwork, back and forth emails, numerous phone calls, and of course, lots of floundering.

But approval processes are important. They keep businesses consistent, communicative, and compliant.

Good news: an automated approval management system will eliminate the miscommunication, time-wasting, and extra workload that comes with a manual approval workflow. Enter workflow software. It simplifies the approval process and gives your organization a more efficient approval management process.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through:

  • What is an approval workflow?
  • Elements of a typical approval workflow
  • Benefits of having an approval workflow
  • Typical approval workflow issues
  • Types of approval workflows
  • How to create an approval workflow
  • Manage approval workflows

Before we delve into the bulk of approval workflows, let’s start with the basics.

What is an approval workflow?

An approval workflow is a business process involving a sequence of tasks or steps that need approval from different departments in an organization.

These may be requests for capital expenditures, new hires, document processing, contract reviews, leave of absence submissions, or any other work that needs approvals from relevant departments.

An approval workflow usually involves getting an invoice, order, or document approved before the designated department in the company can execute it. 

The bigger the organization, the more requests they deal with daily—which means these requests have a direct impact on how efficiently organizations operate

You can think of a workflow as a chain of repeatable tasks performed by every organization to achieve a specific goal. The problem is most traditional approval systems are grossly inefficient—which means more problems for an organization to solve.

For example, some common loopholes for traditional approval systems can be:

  • Time: The need to send documents by hand from one person to another for approval often slows down the approval process, making team members less productive.
  • Miscommunication: May occur during data/information transfer from one party to another if there isn’t an established repeatable process to go by.
  • Lack of flexibility: Depending on who needs to sign off on approval, you might have to deal with a hybrid work environment, a remote team, or an async team that doesn’t lend itself to clunky manual processes. 

Thankfully, approval workflow software is designed to eliminate or at least minimize these concerns. Accurate information and data get to the right people seamlessly; once every party in the approval chain has clearly defined roles, they can sign off on approvals in less time and have a reliable way to communicate. 

Are you ready to improve your business operations? Before we discuss the steps to creating an approval workflow management system, we need to lay the groundwork with the elements that make up a strong approval process. 

Elements of a typical approval workflow process

Although approval workflow structures differ across organizations, these are some common components of efficient automated workflow systems:

Task submission portal

Approval processes usually start with the submission of, say, an invoice, document, or purchase order. The workflow system should provide a portal where stakeholders can submit sign-offs with ease. 

Plus, a submission receipt feature comes in handy here to help keep individual records of each submission to avoid miscommunication in the future. 

Defined approvers

After submissions, another officer (or officers) assesses the tasks and approves or rejects each approval accordingly. If your approval process involves different approval stages, your workflow system should be capable of appointing independent approvers at each stage. 

Established permission levels

An approval workflow should clearly define authority. Most automated approval systems have features that enable management to grant individual permissions to editors, viewers, and administrators. This helps dictate who has access to approve, reject, or review submissions, which helps eliminate the confusion that can ensue with approval requests. 

Set timelines

Deadlines and due dates are essential to shipping work and hitting your KPIs. They promote smooth workflows, prevent delays, and make your team more productive. The more clear your deadlines are, the better your results. 

Automated notifications

Most approval workflow software sends automated updates to relevant team members—making for a much faster approval process. This way, teams stay on top of approval statuses, rejections, and approval progress. 

Activity log

Ideally, a workflow should have an automated record of every activity performed. This element encourages consistency and transparency. Activity logs work as a point of reference for teams to work from. Any time approvals need to be revised, activity logs eliminate confusion and increase process ownership. 

Benefits of having an approval workflow

Approval workflows cut administrative time in half and keep everyone compliant. As a business, you’re better off adopting approval workflows than leaving them to chance. 

Approval workflow benefits also include:

  • Improving efficiency and speed
  • Establishing approval permission ownership
  • Maximizing compliance
  • Reducing costs
  • Improving team culture
  • Encouraging clear communication
  • Eliminating errors 

Typical approval workflow issues

Approval workflow issues only work to slow you down and create more inefficiencies. These are some of the most common ones you’ll come across: 

Approval bottlenecks. What happens when an approval request needs to be signed off by two team members that happen to be on vacation? When this happens, it inevitably causes bottlenecks that can slow down any approval system. Planning for this ahead of time can save you a lot of administrative headaches. This is where conditional automation can come in handy. 

Work doesn’t get shipped on time. Missed deadlines and due dates only set your team back—resulting in poor results and inaccurate projections. 

Last-minute approvals. If approvals don’t have a reliable way to get to stakeholders, they might be approved in a hurry and inefficiently. Last-minute approvals can set back deadlines and affect production quality. 

4 types of approval workflows

There are hard and fast rules to the types of approvals you can and can’t create. Rather, creating an approval process is the best approach starting with assessing the needs of your organization. 

Who needs to know of certain approvals, and how can you get them onboard? Here are some examples of approvals your organization can use: 

1. HR approvals

HR approvals can include job application requests or managing the approvals from different departments to recruit for a newly open role. HR approvals keep administrative tasks compliant and running smoothly as a key part of the organization. 

2. New project approval

Your team is constantly getting through new projects. Yet you need a way to approve their approach to completing it successfully. New project approvals do exactly that. 

3. IT SaaS client onboarding approval

The SaaS onboarding process can be involved, especially where compliance is concerned. You can make sure all stakeholders have the final say on whether to onboard a new SaaS application or not. 

4. Budget approvals

Budget approvals can include invoice approvals, quarterly budget approvals, or approvals for the financial forecasts of a new project. Budget approvals keep your organization financially sound. 

How to create an approval workflow

You have a general idea of the types of approval workflows you can create. With the right tools, you can even create advanced logic approvals. It starts with learning the process of creating your approval workflow with software. Here’s how:

1. Pick a workflow software

The better your approval software, the easier time you’ll have managing all the steps involved in approving or rejecting requests. This is why it’s important to do your due diligence when researching what software tool can help you remove approval bottlenecks for a smoother approach to approval management. 

Approval workflow management software stands out with matchless workflows and automation features that help you get the job done from beginning to end. 

With it you can: 

  • Automate employee workflows: Automatically handle specific employee-related functions and notify employees of the tasks that need their attention with regular reminders. 
  • Create faster vendor workflows: Delegate important tasks to concerned parties for execution, and provide vendor approval, renewal, and termination information quickly. It sends notifications for contract renewals, offering plenty of time for evaluation. 
  • Set up time-saving IT automation: Execute repetitive tasks in the background while you save time and energy without needing to reinvent the wheel.
  • Manage out-of-office delegation: What happens when you’re out of the office due to illness or travel obligations, and there’s a request that needs your approval? Workflow software promotes easy authority delegations. That way, the approval process continues even in your absence.

2. Define your starting points

Determine what will trigger an approval process. This could either be:

  •  Financial: Think buying a new piece of software, canceling a subscription, renewing a subscription
  • Organizational: Think transferring teams, onboarding a new employee, or offboarding an employee

Create as many starting points as you need to automate as much of the approval workflow process as possible. Once you have your starting points defined, the next step is to create the actual workflow for approvals.

3. Define the workflow

Outline and make a list of the steps involved in every process, and map them out to who’s responsible for each approval. Do you need the accountant’s approval before the request can pass? Do you need the President’s approval? Consider that workflow structures can be simple or complex.

If your workflow is complex, it may require establishing a multi-step approval process. However, automation should make this easier to manage. 

Say you’re creating an approval process for capital expenditures. The set of approval steps could potentially look like this: 

  1. An employee submits capital expenditure form
  2. His or her team lead provides an initial review
  3. The director approves
  4. The VP approves
  5. The finance manager approves
  6. The CFO approves
  7. The President approves
  8. The Board approves
  9. The approval flow is finalized

Here’s a look at another example. A leave of absence workflow could look like:

  1. An employee submits a request for leave of absence
  2. His or her HR manager reviews it and either approves or denies it
  3. The employee’s team lead then reviews and approves or denies it
  4. This HR manager inputs the leave of absence in their HR software to confirm approval
  5. Everyone that needs to know of the approval receives an email notification
  6. The HR software automatically updates the team calendar

With the right tools, you can have plenty of flexibility in the creation of your processes. No two organizations are built the same. Therefore, approval workflow software that molds to your needs is a must. 

4. Onboard relevant employees

For multi-level approval workflows, you need to bring relevant stakeholders onboard the software. This might look like adding managers who have to give approvals to different sales reps or adding HR managers for vacation approvals. 

If the approval has to be authorized by a group, determine whether the group has to give individual permission. Set up backup approval routing for when a person is unavailable, so the process continues in their absence. 

Once every stakeholder is successfully onboarded to the approval software, you’re in for fewer miscommunication mistakes and process bottlenecks. 

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