Workflow Automation: What Is Workflow Automation?

Workflows are used to organize, manage, and think about common and repetitive business processes. Learn more about workflow automation.

What is workflow automation?

Workflow automation refers to the use of software to complete some tasks and activities, without the need for human input. It’s a tool for making work faster, easier, and more consistent. 

By automating workflows, companies reduce the need for manual work and repetitive tasks. As a result, processes become more efficient and workers spend more of their time on value-adding activities. Workflow automation also plays a crucial role in process orchestration.

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Automation examples

Every workflow contains some tasks or activities that can be automated, but the degree to which a workflow can be automated varies. Below are some examples of tasks that are frequently managed by workflow automation software:

  • Emails and form fills are converted into service requests
  • Calendar events created and invites sent
  • Workload distribution by volume, time, or other criteria
  • Work items are assigned/routed to the appropriate person
  • Emails or alerts sent when work items change status
  • Alerts triggered when work becomes late or approaches deadline
  • Messages delivered via Slack, WhatsApp, SMS, or other platform
  • Documents or sales contracts are generated and delivered for signature
  • Notifications sent when an approval or review is needed
  • Data synchronized whenever an email is received or form filled
  • Reports and dashboards are created from data in the workflow

There are numerous opportunities for automation in most workflows. In general, if a task is repetitive, predictable, simple, scheduled, or happens frequently, it can be automated. When multiple tasks in a workflow are completed by software, the workflow itself is automated. 

When a workflow management system is integrated with other apps and software, even more complex workflow automations are possible.

10 advantages of workflow automation

BenefitWhat it looks like
Higher productivityEmployees aren’t bogged down by repetitive tasks and have more time to strategize, solve problems, and generate value for the company.
Cost savingsEfficient workflows reduce costs because they consume less time and workforce energy.
EfficiencyFewer resources are wasted on repetitive, time-consuming tasks.
CollaborationAutomation creates a more cohesive collaboration model in which team members from other departments can view, contribute to, and comment on work items.
AccuracyAutomation reduces opportunities for errors by eliminating unnecessary inputs and updating records as new information is captured.
SpeedWork items move along more quickly when they don’t have to wait on human input.
CommunicationGaps in communication are eliminated or minimized when emails, feedback requests, notifications, and alerts are automated.
AccountabilityResponsibility for each step in the workflow can be automatically assigned to a specific user(s), improving accountability.
VisibilityManagers can track the progress of a specific task in the workflow, see who is involved, and stay ahead of deadlines.
Employee experienceAutomation helps prevent burnout by relieving employees from the repetitive and redundant tasks that keep them from more meaningful work.

How to automate workflows

Anyone can learn to automate a workflow: managers, employees, or citizen developers. It’s just a matter of understanding the workflow components, identifying the automation opportunities, and then setting them in motion with workflow management software.

#1: Know your workflow

Every workflow is composed of the same basic elements: people, tasks, information. Every workflow begins with an input (or trigger) and produces an output (result). By mapping out your workflow — the sequence of steps that produce the outcome — you can identify each task or activity in order to decide if it can (or should) be automated.

Learn more about the basic components of any workflow.

#2: Identify your automation opportunities

Once you’ve mapped out your workflow, create a list of the tasks that you’d like to automate. These might include:

  • Creating a new sales agreement whenever a prospect enters the closing phase
  • Assigning a marketing request based on type or topic
  • Emailing documents to a candidate who signs a job offer
  • Notifying a supervisor whenever a work item requires their approval
  • Starting a new ticket whenever a service request is received
  • Issuing an approval request whenever a new PO is generated

Learn more about task automation.

#3: Choose your automation tool

Low-code automation software is the most popular choice for managing automations. The drag-and-drop interface of these platforms allows any user with permission to create and modify automations, without the need for IT. Choose workflow software that integrates with a variety of apps and platforms to expand your automation possibilities.

workflow automation example
Low-code software with a drag-and-drop interface makes automating workflows easy and helps avoid IT bottlenecks.

#4: Create your automation

Setting up the automation is the easy part of this process. Once you’ve identified the tasks or activities you want to automate, the visual drag-and-drop interface of workflow automation tools means any automation is just a few clicks away.

Workflows vs. spreadsheets

Spreadsheets remain a popular choice for tracking work items, but their automation capabilities are limited, and they depend on complex formulas. Workflow management tools provide a simpler path to automation, especially for processes that need to scale or evolve. Here’s how: 

Spreadsheets are notoriously difficult to troubleshoot and fix when formulas break or need updating.Workflow management tools provide a drag-and-drop, visual interface that makes it easy to build and modify automations. Low-code tools mean anyone with permission can make changes: no need to wait on IT.
As businesses evolve and scale, spreadsheets become unwieldy and more difficult to manage. Workflow management tools provide a visual interface that makes it easy to scale and modify automations. Low-code tools mean anyone with permission can make changes: no need to wait on IT
Spreadsheets are vulnerable to fraud due to their lack of controls, and can be high-maintenance when it comes to regulatory compliance.With workflow management software, security and compliance features are baked in
520Number of hours an employee spends doing repetitive tasks each year
$13,203Cost per employee of time spent on repetitive tasks
PR Newswire: US Businesses Wasting Up To $1.8 Trillion Annually on Repetitive Employee Tasks

Workflow automation software

The tools used to automate workflows go by a couple of names: workflow automation software, workflow management systems, or simply workflow systems. No matter the name, look for a platform that includes value-adding workflow system features and provides integration capabilities in order to increase the range of automations you can implement.

Learn more

Our series of articles on workflows and automation is designed to help everyone — managers, executives, and citizen developers — better understand how to build, control, and optimize their workflows. Learn more about workflow automation with any of the links below.

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