Have you ever found yourself wasting time on tedious data entry tasks, knowing that there’s a way to automate your work? According to Zapier, the average worker spends less than three hours a day on impactful work, and almost five hours a day checking messaging apps.
Businesses have objectives to create new products and services, but employees often spend more time on business maintenance tasks than their core job functions. Enter: workflows. You can use workflows to simplify complicated and analog processes both in project management and in logistics (like employee onboarding and scheduling, for example).
Read more to learn about what workflows are, why creating a workflow process is important for time management, how to build a workflow, and how to optimize workflows using automation.
Let’s get started with the basics.
What is a workflow?
A workflow is a collection of fixed tasks and sequences that help you achieve efficiency and precision.
There are many different types of workflows across different departments and teams. HR departments use many workflows to expedite HR activities like time-off approval. In this workflow, an employee submits a request for time off using the HR platform. The platform first checks that the request is within the bounds of the employee’s benefits. If it is, it then sends a notification to the employee’s manager and prompts the manager to either approve or deny the request. The employee then receives the results of their request. Thanks to this workflow, the manager doesn't have to check in with the employee's benefits, which speeds up the approval process.
Team leaders used to sketch out workflows on paper in order to outline the order of operations within their team. As computers got more sophisticated, businesses started to see the appeal of using digital automation tools to create efficient workflows. The downside of this was that sophisticated workflows required developers with coding knowledge. Today, the emergence of low- and no-code platforms make it easier than ever for managers to create their own workflows with no coding skills.
In the example above, an efficient workflow can automate the process of approving time off as well as integrate with other platforms like email and Slack to facilitate smooth communication.
Why workflows are important for time management
Workflows are powerful tools that can streamline a business process and improve productivity. Workflows are especially useful for simplifying complicated processes that involve many interdependent pieces and stages. Without an efficient workflow, employees waste time on clunky and time-consuming tasks.
Here are 4 signs that it’s time to improve your workflows:
- Your business has grown or pivoted: By streamlining workflows, you can improve productivity and enable future growth as your business scales. If you’ve recently changed your services or products, you should adjust your workflows to reflect the changes in operations.
- Employees are frustrated: If you’re receiving feedback from your employees that they’re frustrated with extra (and often recurring) steps, then it’s a sign that your current workflows aren’t working for you. It’s important to avoid this kind of frustration, which can spread to other areas of work.
- There are frequent communication issues: A clunky workflow can increase mistakes and lead to communication breakdowns where team members aren’t clear on who’s responsible for what tasks. If you notice frequent communication issues and mistakes, then it’s a sign that you need to create better workflows.
- Output has slowed down: If your team isn’t performing well, then it could be a sign that there’s an inefficiency somewhere in the process.
Creating a workflow process can eliminate redundancies by ensuring you only need to complete a task once. The process of creating a workflow can help you spot and correct bottlenecks in common processes by understanding the dependencies between tasks. Workflows also reduce micromanagement and increase accountability because they automate management processes. Workflows create a lot of data that managers can easily turn into actionable business insights.
How to build a workflow in 7 steps
It’s not easy to create workflow, and it requires a lot of intentional workflow design. Whether you’re optimizing an existing workflow or creating a new workflow, these seven workflow steps will guide you.
1. Start with what you have
You likely already have some sort of process in place, even if it’s not particularly efficient. The first step in workflow creation is to understand how your teams are currently moving through processes. Is there an intentional workflow in place? Identify what tools your teams are using to create workflows. Talk to the people in your organization that this process affects the most. What are their experiences? What’s working, and what isn’t?
You might discover that something you thought was working isn’t — and vice-versa. Another important thing to consider is what tools your organization has access to, and any security considerations for using new tools and platforms.
2. List out every task
The next step in creating a workflow process is to list out every step of the workflow, no matter how small it is. For every task or step that you write down, try to think if you can break it down into smaller tasks. This step may take some time, especially if this is your first workflow, but the more time you spend listing everything out in the beginning, the less likely it is that you’ll have to change your workflow later.
Once you’ve listed out all of the tasks, start thinking about what tasks are conditional on the completion of other tasks. Some tasks form an exclusive branch, meaning that you need alternate paths based on the input from the previous task. For example, in a time-off approval workflow, there could be a step that checks if the request meets company guidelines. If it does, then the system forwards the request to the employee’s direct supervisor. If it doesn’t, then the platform automatically denies the employee’s request. In this case, the task of supervisor approval exclusively happens if the request meets the company guidelines.
Listing out tasks and organizing them into dependent tasks will start to give you a clear picture of how the workflow should look.
3. Visualize and create workflow
Now that your workflow is starting to take shape, it’s important to zoom out and visualize the overall shape of the workflow. You can use a tool like Microsoft Visio to create a workflow diagram or use a simple workflow management tool to drag and drop elements to create workflow templates. A flowchart and Gantt chart are also useful process mapping tools for putting together the visual representation of your workflow.
Once you have an overview of your workflow, start filling it in with all of your tasks. Add functions like forms, user input, and calendar integrations.
4. Assign accountability
It’s important that you assign accountability to every single task in the workflow. One of the most common causes for bottlenecks is that team members are unsure about who’s accountable for a specific task, and the whole workflow slows down as that task remains outstanding.
Start off with determining all of the parties involved in the workflow. Who are the stakeholders and who are the managers? Based on this information, start assigning tasks to specific people and defining who can be a contributor to each task. And remember, for every task that needs to be approved, you should assign a task to the supervisor for approval. Automatic reminders are useful in ensuring that the workflow moves along in a timely manner.
As you’re assigning tasks, integrate a scheduling tool into your workflow so that you can schedule meetings automatically. Clockwise automatically manages everyone’s schedule so the whole team has the perfect balance of Focus Time and meetings.
5. Test your workflow before deploying
Your workflow may make perfect sense to you, but until you test it, you won’t be sure if it actually meets the needs of the teams using it. Connect with the teams that will be using the workflow and have them provide feedback. Running the workflow once or twice can also help spot inefficiencies.
6. Train your team
No matter how inefficient a previous workflow may have been, you might run into some resistance as you change processes. When people get used to doing things a certain way, they may assume that a new method will introduce complexities. Training your team on the new workflow can help ease some of these hesitations and improve utilization of the workflow.
Once you’ve tested the workflow and trained your team, it’s time to deploy the workflow. Keep an ear out for feedback, and don’t be afraid to iterate on the workflow you’ve built.
How to create an efficient workflow using automation
Automation is what makes a workflow efficient. Instead of burdening employees with menial tasks, an automated workflow can improve productivity and provide powerful business insights. A good workflow automation tool gives you the full advantage of powerful automation, while still making the process of creating a workflow as simple as drawing one on paper.
When choosing a digital workflow platform, it’s important to consider the following:
- How flexible is the tool? If your business processes are often changing, you’ll want a workflow that you can easily change and adapt.
- Can employees do everything on one platform? Frequent context switching can reduce productivity, and employees may feel frustrated if they have to learn multiple new platforms.
- Does this tool meet your security standards? Some organizations have stricter privacy and security requirements. If that’s the case, look for workflows you can build using platforms that your company has already approved. Especially when considering tools that integrate between apps, take a close look at the permissions to ensure that you’re still adhering to your privacy policies.
There are many no-code workflow tools that make it easy for anyone — regardless of coding skill — to create efficient workflows. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Virtus Flow is a no-code digital process automation platform that has built-in features for workflows. Virtus Flow goes beyond just providing a workflow template and includes features like dynamic forms and ticket management. With these workflow editor features, it’s easy to see how you can use Virtus Flow to configure a custom workflow. The potential downside of Virtus Flow is that it doesn’t have robust integrations, so it’s best for creating an internal workflow that doesn’t need to integrate with other applications.
- Zapier, on the other hand, is the ultimate integration tool. Zapier integrates with thousands of applications to make it easy to create a workflow across multiple environments. The basic idea is to create a “zap,” an if-then scenario between two applications. For example, you could create a zap that automatically schedules a meeting when a new lead comes in via email.
- Clockwise is a powerful scheduling tool to include in any workflow. Clockwise integrates with your Google Calendar to automate the process of scheduling meetings. Clockwise creates Focus Time for heads-down work. Team members can easily send scheduling requests internally and externally with Scheduling Links. Flexible Meetings eliminates the need for multiple back-and-forth emails by automatically scheduling the best time for all parties. Plus, if someone’s schedule changes, Clockwise automatically resolves the conflict. Clockwise also integrates with Asana to automatically add Asana tasks to your calendar. Clockwise syncs your calendar with Slack to update team availability.
Automated workflows improve productivity by helping employees regain their time to focus on their core tasks.
Almost 1 in 5 workers say that they spend an hour or less on their core job functions, pointing to a real problem in productivity. Creating a workflow process is an important part of business process management. It reduces inefficiencies and gives workers the opportunity to spend more time on high-impact activities, instead of wasting time on menial logistical tasks. There are many different use cases for workflows, including simplifying HR tasks, creating more efficient project management processes, and even creating a personal workday workflow.
We covered how to create a workflow, seven easy steps to create workflow, and why automation tools are so important in creating a workflow process. A well designed workflow not only improves productivity, but also leads to employees who are more satisfied and fulfilled by their work.