What is a Workflow? Everything you need to know
Tips & Tricks

What is a Workflow? Everything you need to know

Tips and tricks to create the perfect workflow for your company, department, or team.

Whether through conversations or some sort of company-wide osmosis, you probably already have an idea of what constitutes a “workflow.”

After all, just about every job function on earth has  them: manufacturing, customer support, marketing, sales, operations—the list goes on. But every discipline’s workflow revolves around different types of data or processes—rocket scientists need to track and organize inventory while a marketing team needs to map out content review and freelancer budgets. That can make pinning down a single definition a bit tricky—and setting up the right workflow for your company even tricker.

That’s why we’re taking the time for a deep dive, getting into specifics, like, what exactly is a workflow? And why early investments in your workflows are critical, how they can eliminate bottlenecks, and of course, some tips and tricks for creating them.

What is a workflow?

Workflow is a general term that describes a repeatable sequence of tasks that make up a business process. Workflows are predictable and ordered collections of data, rules, roles, resources, and, ultimately, outcomes.

While the very essence of a workflow implies order—things getting done in a particular sequence—workflows can be endlessly complex. The larger your organization, the more moving pieces, and the more data you have, the more complex your workflow.

Unlike a simple task list, workflows need to be accomplished in a specific order. A workflow is task oriented and may contain dozens of tasks. For instance, in a content production workflow, you might have an assignment process, a writing process, an editing process, and a publishing process—but these processes are all just  just a small subsection of that workflow.

Types of workflows

The most important parts of your workflow are the “objects”—whether they are physical or material—that are core to your work. Your workflows should be built around these objects.

Workflows also typically include steps, or actions that need to occur in a specific order, and the people or teams who will own each step.  These basic building blocks can be used to create various kinds of workflows. Here are a few of the primary types.

Case workflows

If the data gathered during the workflow will determine the path of subsequent actions, that’s called a case workflow. Workflows that can be laid out as flow charts are frequently case workflows. They require logic to execute—either a human decision-maker or an intelligent bot.

Example:  Troubleshooting a technical support issue

Project workflows

Like a process workflow, a project workflow follows a structured path but allows for a certain degree of flexibility. This type of workflow is used for one-time projects where you need to allow for the possibility of variables and frequently updated information.

Example:  Opening a business or launching a new product

Why should you invest in your workflows?

Ideally, people create workflows to manage every project, but in reality, workflows are usually mapped out only after a situation becomes too complex to manage in an ad hoc way. Collaborators find themselves operating in silos, data gets duplicated or misplaced, and ultimately, deadlines get missed. Investing in a well-designed workflow brings you better clarity, order, speed, and results.

More clarity with less micromanagement

The more people involved in a process, the greater the need to invest in your workflow. Once your workflow has been mapped out, it can be shared with multiple stakeholders, keeping everyone operating uniformly. The end result is usually fewer mistakes and far less need for micromanagement.

Higher quality products and services

Since long before Henry Ford and the Model T, the manufacturing industry created workflows to produce higher-quality products more efficiently. In fact, there’s an indisputable correlation between a smoother process and a better product. Just think about the best customer service you’ve experienced lately. You may never have even been placed on hold, and when the agent chatted with you they were friendly and direct, able to solve your issue so quickly you barely remember what the issue was. Behind that experience was a web of processes, that all weave together to create a functional workflow.

Improved employee engagement

While most people agree that a well-documented workflow will improve the outcome of just about any process or project, many organizations have a hard time wrapping their collective minds around how to implement them. In fact, one survey from Deloitte shows that only 39% of employees are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their organization’s day-to-day process workflows. Deloitte's suggestion? Consider the human side of workers when creating your process workflows.

Better all-around productivity

If one of the goals of creating workflows is to be more effective and productive, consider this: McKinsey predicts that process automation could increase global productivity by 0.8-1.4% per year. Sure, that might not sound like much at first blush, but consider that the steam engine contributed to 0.3% productivity growth, early robots contributed to 0.4%, or that information technologies were responsible for a 0.6% year-over-year growth.

Now, that 1.4% seems pretty huge, right? In other words, whatever steps you can automate, you should automate.

Hint: Airtable integrations allow a wide range of process automations aligned with other tools and technologies you’re already using.

Find a platform that helps you automate workflows, streamline operations, enhance communication and collaboration, and measure your goals as you work.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Workflows can also help teams improve organizational efficiency by eliminating redundant processes and reducing errors, accelerate business outcomes, create additional visibility, and improve employee morale by reducing mindless and time-consuming manual processes.

What are some examples of workflows?

So let's take a look at a few workflows that help improve operations and facilitate project management, starting with a customer support workflow.

Example of a customer support workflow

In the previous section, we gave the example of how an amazing customer experience might feel for your users. So what happens on the other side of the equation?

  • A customer emails the company with an issue
  • An automated email confirms receipt of the message and articulates how quickly the customer will be answered.
  • A customer service agent writes back and updates the ticket
  • The issue is resolved, the customer service agent closes the ticket.
  • An automated email then prompts the customer to review their support experience

Example of a workflow for onboarding new employees

Many companies realize they need to create a workflow to onboard new employees—especially large or fast-growing organizations. Here’s how that might look.

  • Upon hiring, the employee receives an email inviting them to register for an online employment portal
  • Once they register, they are directed to the new-hire forms in the portal
  • Once the new-hire forms are filled out and submitted electronically, an HR representative reviews them, signs them, and sends them back to the new employee
  • The new employee then signs and submits them
  • An HR representative enters the employee into the internal database and confirms that employment has begun

Example of an inbound sales funnel workflow

If a potential customer is raising their hands to speak to sales, you want to be sure they’re connected in the fastest, most frictionless way possible.

  • A prospect uses a chatbot to inquire about a product on a website
  • The bot asks a series of simple questions to determine what the prospective customer is looking for
  • Based on the answers, the customer is either directed to a FAQ, invited to download a whitepaper, or handed over to a human sales rep for further conversation
  • The sales rep uses a script to converse with the prospect and convert them into a customer

Example of an actual workflow: How PBS produces “Secret of a Chef”

Like all television shows, a lot goes into producing even one episode of the PBS program “Secrets of a Chef.” Typically, hours of footage are edited down to a 3-minute video. 

The project management workflow for this process—which happens each time a new episode is produced—has many steps. The production team at PBS uses Airtable to organize the whole thing. To learn more, read the case study From plate to screen: how PBS show “Secrets of a Chef” uses Airtable for post-production.

Example of an actual workflow: How Boiler Room reaches streaming music fans

The popular music-streaming platform Boiler Room reaches over 283 million people a month. Viewers are chiefly interested in discovering emerging and underground music. The brand can have up to seven social channels running at a time and countless ideas, pitches, and thoughts coming in from the team.

The team relies on Airtable to track workflows to help manage all this marketing, creativity, and, of course, the logistical aspects of running a business. To learn more, read the case study How Boiler Room reaches music fans worldwide.

Example of an actual workflow: How Frame.io runs content production remotely

Frame.io’s platform enables precise, frame-level video feedback to artists and media makers, which results in a range of content on its website—all developed by freelance writers and photographers from around the world. 

By relying on a cloud database to manage workflows, Frame.io’s team has been able to keep all these remote artists connected and organized, so projects are in sync and on time. 

If you’re feeling inspired, now’s a great time to think about creating your own workflow.

Tips for how to create a workflow

As you delve into building workflows for your business or project, there are some universal best practices to follow.

Develop and measure appropriate goals for your workflow

Before you create a workflow, it’s crucial to define and align on your goals. If there’s internal disagreement or ambiguity—on the goals or the steps to get there—your workflow will be ineffective. At Airtable, we recommend you start by filling in the blanks with this statement:

We want to _______ when _______ so we can _______.

These three pieces of information can help you design a more productive workflow.

Let’s try it for one of the examples above. For our inbound sales funnel, a company might have started by saying:

We want to respond quickly when prospects engage with our chatbot so we can route them appropriately and create a positive experience or our brand.

If you’ll recall, the workflow gave our prospect multiple options—including viewing an FAQ or downloading a white paper, because our goal was to create the best, most appropriate experience. If our goal had simply been to connect more prospects with sales, the workflow might have looked different—we might have simply routed any question-askers directly to a rep. Or if we’d wanted to learn as much as possible about our prospect, we might have asked a series of in-depth questions before routing them at all. The goal determines the steps.

Detail each step of your workflow

Once you’re aligned on your goals, map out the steps it will take to get there. This sounds simple, but will require deep, detailed thinking from your team to anticipate every possible path. You can use various formats for this: a list, a spreadsheet in the form of a grid, a visual view, a flowchart. Ideally, the tool you use to create your workflows will allow you to view the information in various ways and apply filters to drill down on specific details. Each stakeholder should be able to see exactly what they are responsible for.

Foster transparency by sharing workflows

Everyone participating in a project needs to be able to see an overview of the process and the elements they will be held accountable for. As you build out your workflows, consider how much information you’re willing to share with each stakeholder. For instance, you may give freelancers access to only a small section of the workflow near the beginning of the workflow. They don’t need to see how the review process feeds into the release, or how metrics inform the types of assignments they’ll receive. But try to remember that generally more transparency leads to a more collaborative environment. That can end up taking more time, but it often leads to a better end result.

Creating your automated workflow in Airtable

“Many organizations in the public and private sectors had not invested in digital transformation. The virus provided an immediate impetus to change. On the other side of this, organizations should have better workflows.”

— Amy Webb, quantitative futurist, and founder of the Future Today Institute (Pew)

If you’re interested in mapping out your workflows, Airtable is a perfect place to start. Our platform meshes the power of a database to your workflows—allowing you to filter, streamline, and view each step in countless ways.

For a better understanding of how Airtable can help you create the perfect workflow, read: Workflow design: Start from your team’s workflow.

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