Simplify your approval processes with automated workflows
Simplify your approval processes with workflow software, eliminate bottlenecks, and enhance communication. Unlock the benefits of approval management and improve compliance with this comprehensive guide.
Businesses deal with approval processes daily. 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 lots of floundering.
But approval processes are essential. They keep businesses consistent, communicative, and compliant. The good news is that you can eliminate many of their cumbersome elements with automated approval management software.
With automated workflow software, you can prevent miscommunication, time-wasting, and the extra work that comes with a manual approval workflow. Workflow software 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?
- Why approval workflows are required
- Elements of a typical approval workflow
- Benefits of having an approval workflow
- The roles involved in approval workflows
- Types of approval workflows
- How to create an approval workflow
- Managing approval workflows
Before we delve into the finer details of approval workflows, let’s start with the basics.
What is an approval workflow?
You can think of a workflow as a chain of repeatable tasks an organization performs to achieve a specific goal. An approval workflow is a set of these tasks whose completion requires approval from different departments. Approval workflows usually involve getting an invoice, order, or document approved before the designated department in the company can execute it.
These requests may be for capital expenditures, new hires, document processing, contract reviews, leaves of absence, or any other work needing relevant departments' approval.
The bigger the organization, the more requests various departments deal with daily, meaning approval requests directly impact how efficiently organizations operate. Since most traditional manual approval systems are grossly inefficient, more approvals mean more problems.
For example, common bottlenecks in traditional approval systems include:
- Time: The need to manually send documents needing approval from one person to another often slows the process, making team members less productive.
- Miscommunication: Miscommunication is more likely to occur during data and information transfer if there isn’t an established repeatable process.
- Modern work styles: Getting proper sign-off on an approval might mean working around 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 and reliably. Once every party in the approval chain has a clearly defined role, they can sign off on approvals quickly.
Why are approval workflows required?
Even the most egalitarian and decentralized organizations have some level of approval requirement, whether a request to hire a new staff member or purchase equipment above a certain dollar threshold. Without an automated approval workflow in place, these processes can drag out.
Imagine you’re the head of your company’s marketing department. You’ve got some pretty big growth initiatives in play, and you need to hire two new content marketers to run them and achieve your department’s goals.
Because you don’t have any workflow automation in place, you email your CEO and explain the hire you need to make.
They don’t reply for a week and only do so because you sent a second email. They tell you to fill out a ‘new employee request form,’ which you must get from HR.
You email HR, and they reply in two days with the form. You fill it out and forward it to the CEO for approval.
At this point, you’re two weeks in and no closer to hiring those marketers. You haven’t posted the job ads yet.
But with an automated workflow in place, much of this happens automatically.
Workflow automation platforms clarify each step of the process. In this case, the first step is to fill out the new employee form. Automation even auto-populates some important details, such as your name and role in the business.
The form is automatically forwarded to the CEO, and your automation app can be set to send an automated reminder if they don’t provide approval or request more details within a set timeframe.
Using an approval workflow, you streamlined the process and minimized the time between your original request and the final approval.
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, some common components of efficient automated workflow systems exist.
Task submission portal
Approval processes usually start with submitting an invoice, document, or purchase order. The workflow system should provide a portal where stakeholders can easily submit sign-offs.
Plus, a submission receipt feature is handy to help keep individual records of each submission and avoid potential future miscommunication.
After submissions, another team member 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.
Deadlines and due dates are essential to shipping work and hitting KPIs. They promote smooth workflows, prevent delays, and make your team more productive. The more precise your deadlines are, the better your results.
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.
Ideally, a workflow should have an automated record of every activity performed. This element encourages consistency and transparency by serving as a reference point for all teams. 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. Adopting consistent workflows is much more effective as a business than leaving processes to chance.
Approval workflow benefits also include the following:
- Improving efficiency and speed
- Establishing approval permission ownership
- Maximizing compliance
- Reducing costs
- Improving team culture
- Encouraging clear communication
- Eliminating errors
What are the roles in an approval workflow?
The exact roles in an approval workflow depend on your type of approval workflow. In general, there are two prominent roles in any approval workflow:
- The requester
- The assessor
Using a content approval workflow as an example, the content marketer and the marketing manager are involved. The content marketer acts as the requester, as they are requesting approval for the content they’ve just created. The marketing manager acts as the assessor by approving the content or providing feedback.
Some approval workflows involve more than two parties. This happens most often on the assessor's side. For instance, the content writer might initiate the document approval workflow, with an editor initially reviewing and approving the doc before forwarding it to the marketing manager for sign-off.
Four types of approval workflows
There are no hard and fast rules regarding the approvals you can and can’t create. Instead, creating an approval process is the best approach starting with assessing your organization's needs.
Who needs to know about certain approvals, and how can you get them on board? Here are some examples of approvals your organization can use:
1. HR approvals
HR approvals can include job application requests or managing departmental approval requests 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 approvals
Your team is constantly working on new projects. You need a way to approve their approach for completing these new projects; new approvals do just that.
3. IT SaaS client onboarding approvals
The SaaS buying and onboarding process can be complex, especially concerning compliance. You can ensure all stakeholders have the final say on whether to onboard a new SaaS application.
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 now have a general idea of the types of approval workflows you can create. But with the right tools, you can even create advanced logic approvals. To do so, you must understand how to create an approval workflow using the software.
1. Pick a workflow software
Before you can build a workflow, you need a solid workflow automation tool.
A solid workflow software platform can help you:
- Automate employee workflows: Automatically handle specific employee-related functions and notify employees of the tasks needing attention with regular reminders.
- Create faster vendor workflows: Delegate important tasks to appropriate parties for execution, and provide vendor approval, renewal, and termination information quickly. The best workflow software even sends notifications for contract renewals, offering ample evaluation time.
- Set up time-saving IT automation: Execute repetitive tasks in the background, saving time and removing the potential for human error.
- Manage out-of-office delegation: What happens when you’re out of the office due to illness or travel obligations and a request needs your approval? Workflow software promotes easy authority delegations so the approval process continues even in your absence.
2. Define your starting points
Determine what will trigger an approval process. Starting points are typically:
- Financial: Think of buying a new software, canceling a subscription, or renewing one.
- Organizational: Think transferring teams, onboarding a new employee, or offboarding an employee.
Create as many starting points as needed to automate approval workflow processes as possible. Once your starting points are defined, the next step is creating the actual workflow for approvals.
3. Define the workflow
Outline and list the steps in every process, then map them to who’s responsible for each approval. Do you need the accountant’s approval before the request can pass? The CEO?
Remember that workflow structures can be simple or complex. If your workflow is complex, establishing a multi-step approval process may be necessary, but automation will make it easier.
Say you’re creating an approval process for capital expenditures. The set of steps (assuming approval at each stage) could be:
- Employee submits capital expenditure form
- The team lead provides an initial review
- Director approves
- VP approves
- Finance manager approves
- CFO approves
- President approves
- Board approves
- The approval workflow is finalized
With the right tools, you can have plenty of flexibility in creating your processes. Since no two organizations are the same, you need approval workflow software that matches your needs.
4. Onboard relevant employees
Lastly, you need to onboard the relevant stakeholders and ensure they understand the following:
- How to use the workflow tool
- Their role in any workflow
This could be like adding managers who have to give approvals to different sales reps or 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 someone 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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Vendr is the SaaS buying platform that helps procurement teams manage the entire software purchasing process, from sourcing to contract creation and vendor management.
With Vendr, you can:
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