How to Boost Efficiency with Digital Workflows

By Kate Eby | April 22, 2022 (updated November 21, 2022)

Digital workflows can transform your processes from labor-intensive and uneven to efficient and reliable. This article is a comprehensive guide to understanding and implementing digital workflows.

Included on this page, you’ll find information on how to automate manual processes, examples of digital workflows, and solutions to common challenges and questions.

What Is a Digital Workflow?

A digital workflow is a sequence of goal-oriented tasks that team members complete using computers and software. These workflows are generally automated and tend to be more efficient than similar manual processes.

Digital workflows can automate many manual tasks, especially those that are routine or repetitive. By implementing digital workflows, project managers can improve existing processes and facilitate the creation of new processes, thereby saving time and increasing efficiency.

Why You Should Digitalize Your Workflows

Digital workflows reduce the labor hours required to complete repetitive and routine tasks. Consider digitalizing your workflows when you find that your team is spending an excessive amount of time completing the same simple tasks.

By automating routine tasks such as onboarding, vacation requests, and reporting, you can free up thousands of labor hours, which means team members will spend more time doing meaningful, engaging work and less time performing dull, monotonous tasks. Going digital can also save you money on office supplies and storage space by reducing the need for paper, printer ink, and filing cabinets.

Kaci Ackerman

Digital workflows can even allow you the freedom to take a day off. “Knowing that you can take a vacation and disconnect without your business going up in flames,” says Kaci Ackerman, expert on workflow and systems and online business manager. “Digital workflows remove the need to always be present and allow your business to keep running, even if you aren't there.”

In addition to increasing efficiency, many digital workflow software programs automatically create process visualizations, so teams can review and improve workflows more easily. Existing digital workflows can also act as templates to simplify the creation of new workflows. 

Digital workflows are useful for both small businesses and established organizations. Project managers in any industry will find that they can quickly streamline processes and reduce waste by implementing digital workflows.

Benefits of a Digital Workflow

Digital workflows come with a number of benefits. From saving time and money to increasing visibility and decreasing redundancies, we’ve outlined some of the primary advantages of digital workflows below:

  • Error Reduction: Once your digital processes are functional, you can continue to use them to perform assigned tasks without the risk of human error that is inevitable in manual processes.
  • Increased Cost Efficiency: Automating administrative tasks can save storage space and free up money in your budget that would have gone toward office supplies. When filing, invoicing, and onboarding tasks are digital, you need less paper, printer ink, and physical file storage space.
  • Improved Customer Service:
    Ruben Gamez
    When you digitalize workflows, you free up time for employees to spend on more critical tasks. Employees who are not tied to routine administrative tasks are available to provide quality service to customers. “The most prominent benefits we have seen are increased productivity and efficiency. Since going digital, we have reduced our processing time by half. This has helped improve our customer service considerably,” explains Ruben Gamez, Founder and CEO of SignWell.
  • Increased Labor Efficiency:
    Cristina Tabag
    Digital workflows can save hundreds or even thousands of labor hours. After implementing software that automates simple administrative tasks, your team will have the time to accomplish more important, fulfilling work. “Digitizing makes doing business easier. We can focus on growing rather than getting bogged down by our administrative processes,” says Cristina Tabag, Marketing Director for CodeUX Creative Technologies.
  • Increased Morale: Employees want to feel productive. By freeing them from repetitive tasks, you give them time to do meaningful work and to complete their projects well. “Having everything digital makes it much easier to run your business, and team members feel more empowered and confident in working with you,” says Ackerman.
  • Increased Visibility: Good project management software can track process completion and time spent on each step, making it easier for project managers and team members to review progress and identify areas for improvement. Maintaining visibility across a team is vital for reducing errors and increasing efficiency.
  • Reduced Redundancies: When auditing workflows for digitalization, you will likely identify redundancies. Clearly laying out each step can help you spot pain points and unnecessary tasks for you to weed out in your digital workflows.
  • Standardized Processes: When you create digital workflows, you make it easy for other departments and teams to apply those workflows to their processes. Digital workflows can help standardize processes and reporting throughout an organization.

Examples of Digital Workflows

Many common workflows can be made digital, but some are more suited to digitalization than others. We asked experts for examples of the digital workflows they use most often in their everyday work.

Invoicing Workflow


Invoicing is a great candidate for digitalization because the process is simple and repeatable. Digitalizing your invoicing process saves time for your accounting department and can save money on office supplies such as postage, printer ink, and paper for your company. 

“Just last year we shifted our invoicing to a workflow engine from using spreadsheets,” explains Tabag. “The manual process of making an invoice through Google Sheets, downloading it as a PDF, sending it to the client, and then reminding the client to pay was starting to bog our processes down. In some cases, client payments wouldn't even be on time because of our former process. 

“Now we file invoice requests using software and tag our accountant,” Tabag continues. “He then creates an invoice with the details we submitted and sends it. Our client receives an automated email and more automated emails once they settle the invoice or they miss the due date. We track payments and disbursements and reconcile them through our software as well.”

Certification Workflow

Certification Test and Licensing

Sid Bergstresser

Sid Bergstresser, Chief Technology Officer of Everblue, explains how digital workflows facilitate certification testing and licensing for both the proctor and the test taker, and how digitalization can streamline more complicated manual processes.

“We've been working with several state government agencies to modernize their certification and licensure processes,” says Bergstresser. “By digitalizing the state's paper-based exams, we're able to save time for the test administrator and the test taker. We provide exam registration through an e-commerce solution and instantly enroll the user into their digitally administered exam. The student can immediately take their exam online without scheduling a test appointment or leaving their house to drive to an in-person testing center.

Bergstresser continues, “We verify their identity and monitor suspicious behavior during the exam using virtual proctoring software. When the exam is over, we're able to provide a pass/fail score immediately and report that back to the state, again saving administrators from having to grade thousands of paper-based tests manually. With this digital workflow, we are reducing time and frustration for all parties.”

Review Approval Workflow

Review and Approval

Review and approval processes tend to include team members’ complex communication that is worthwhile to automate in a digital workflow. Whether for financial requests or creative mockups, it is easy to set up a digital workflow to streamline and simplify complex manual processes and ensure that team members can obtain all necessary approvals swiftly. 

Cody Miles

“We chose to digitalize the creative review and approval process because, without digitalization, it tends to be rife with inefficiencies.,” says Cody Miles, Founder and CEO of Ashore. “While many of our workflows are digitalized, our review and approval workflow by far runs the most frequently. We use it to go over any collateral we produce. 

“The process starts with reviewing the work,” Miles elaborates. “Reviewers can use markup tools to leave comments at specific places on the page, adding context to their feedback. Once we’ve completed a round of revisions, we can upload new versions for further review. After there are no more edits to the work and everything on the list of items to review is accounted for, assigned approvers can mark the document as approved. The process is simple, intuitive, and much faster than it was manually.”

How to Transition to Digital Workflows

Identify a straightforward and time-consuming process that your employees use frequently, then perform a workflow audit. This helps ensure that your digital workflow makes a significant impact on your everyday business. 

Before creating your digital workflow, ensure that each step is as efficient as possible. Once you have selected and audited your process, you are ready to begin creating a digital workflow. Use your workflow engine to translate manual workflows to digital versions. Introduce them slowly, and test to ensure that they are working before rolling them out to your team. As your business grows, check in on old workflows regularly to make sure that they are still operating as efficiently as possible. 

As you add new workflows to your processes, expand existing workflows or use them as templates. Many workflows can scale up as your business grows to include more users, more complex logic, and more relevant notifications.

Digital Workflow Steps

To create digital workflows, first identify the best candidates for transformation. Audit the chosen process for efficiency, and use a workflow engine to translate manual actions into a digital process. Test your digital workflow for accuracy, then roll it out.

Below is an itemized list of these steps, with examples to help you as you transition your manual processes into digital workflows:

1. Identify Routine, Repetitive, and Time-Consuming Processes

These will vary by company and industry but include such items as reporting, invoicing, onboarding, and recruiting.

Example: Your company currently recruits candidates using manual processes but could save time and money by automating them. In this case, good options for digitalization would be reviewing resumes, distributing job listings, and scheduling interviews.

2. Determine Which Workflow Is the Best Choice for Digitalization

Choose the workflow that will give you the most time back by automating. For your first time automating a workflow, choose something that is not overly complex.

Example: You decide that automating resume reviews is a simple task that will save your staff the most time of the three options.

3. Audit the Workflow

Ensure the workflow is in its most efficient state by analyzing each step and making necessary changes. Make sure that your workflow reflects all current software and technology used by your company.

Example: Note the key metrics you currently use to choose candidates to interview, such as work experience, education level, licenses and certifications, or language skills. 

4. Make It Digital

Translate the workflow steps into your workflow engine. Different engines will have different procedures for implementation, so consult your provider for specific instructions. Ensure that you set notifications and reminders for the appropriate users as needed.

Example: Use software, such as an applicant tracking software (ATS), to scan digital resumes for key terms and sort resumes into groups based on their content.

5. Test and Implement

Test your new digital workflow by applying it to a single process for a short amount of time. Ensure that the software sends notifications and reminders when needed and that the workflow steps progress as intended. Once you are confident that your workflow functions as planned, implement it in your everyday procedures for your team.

Example: Test your digital workflow on a single job posting with few fixed requirements. Verify that every resume the software recommends contains these requirements and no resumes were wrongly excluded.

6. Revisit and Update as Needed

Revisit your old workflows periodically to ensure that they remain relevant and up to date. It may be beneficial to perform regular audits on existing workflows on a rolling basis to catch any potential problems.

Example: As your company begins to require more complicated roles, add more metrics for the software to review. Build on existing job postings to create a more complex workflow for other roles that require additional screening.

The Easiest Workflows to Digitalize

Most workflows can be digitalized, but some are easier to transform and more immediately impact efficiency and morale. To start, digitalize workflows that are straightforward, routine, and repetitive. Below is a list of the most common candidates for digitalization:

  • Approvals: Digital workflows can facilitate timely approvals and create organized records for later reference. Set up digital workflows to automatically approve items below a certain dollar value and to send a notification for manual approval of items that exceed that value. 
  • Form Filling and Filing: In a setting like healthcare, a new user usually needs to provide information to a company before services can be rendered. Set up a workflow that will send a standardized email with links to necessary forms to each new patient as soon as they schedule an appointment. Once they have filled and submitted the forms, the software can automatically file them, which will decrease the total time a patient spends in the waiting room.
  • Inventory and Ordering: Many workflow engines can function in combination with inventory and ordering software to periodically check the inventory of items and automatically order more when necessary.
  • Onboarding: Similar to form filling, onboarding often requires exchanging information between the company and a new client or employee. Digital workflows can allow a new user to input their data into the system and provide compliance information, new employee handbooks, and training materials.
  • Reporting: Almost all companies use reports, from the standard project report to more critical incident reports. You can use digital workflows to gather information, send it to the appropriate department or individual, and store it for future reference.
  • Vacation or Time-Off Requests: A workflow engine can check an employee’s available time off and compare it to the requested dates. If the employee has the time available and there are no blackout dates, the software can approve the request automatically. This workflow can also send a notification to a manager for ultimate approval.

Digital Workflow Fallacy

Just because you complete a task on the computer does not mean it is an efficient workflow. Digital workflows should focus on removing the need for human input at every step and increase efficiency wherever possible.

Emailing back and forth is generally more efficient than paper correspondence, but it can still be time-consuming for employees. Using software tools to automate certain emails, data entry, and approval requests is a real time-saver.

David Reid

David Reid, Sales Director of VEM Tooling, explains how his team traded in digital spreadsheets for full-blown automation. “We used to check dates and events manually and enter them into a system of digital spreadsheets manually,” he says, “but there was a time when even this became too time-consuming. We sought the best solution for this issue and found that automation was the answer. It is all about fully digitizing the most time-consuming processes in the companies to streamline the results. When I applied automation into the business, there were some drastic changes that I recorded and learned from quickly.

“Mundane tasks like data entry are still among the most time-consuming processes that hinder the productivity of the workers in our business,” Reid explains. “Automating these activities allows them to concentrate on what matters most and helps them with the easiest tasks, making them more efficient and productive. Accordingly, their workloads could be scaled up in quicker intervals than before.”

What to Expect When You Implement Digital Workflows

Implementing digital workflows can bring many positive changes to your organization. We’ve outlined some common changes to expect when your workflows go digital, from a reduction in time spent performing manual tasks to standardization of procedures across departments and teams:

  • Better Scalability: Digital workflows are easier to scale than manual ones. As your business grows, expand existing digital workflows and create new ones. “There's nothing wrong with starting small to solve the problem that originally motivated you to pursue a digital workflow, but once you experience all the benefits firsthand, you'll want to add more,” explains Bergstresser.
  • Reduction of Repetitive Manual Tasks: Digital workflows reduce the time needed to complete tasks. When you introduce digital workflows, your team will have more time to spend on more challenging, engaging work. “Digitalization solves the problems associated with manual workflows. Roles are assigned, ensuring that everyone knows what is expected of them, notifications and reminders are sent automatically, keeping everyone on track, and every action taken is documented, allowing us to refer back to them when needed,” notes Miles.
  • Temporary Learning Period: It will take time for your staff to learn and adapt to the new digital processes. Workflow engines and project management software will have support staff in place that are ready to help ease your transition.
  • Increased Opportunities for Automation: As you adapt to digital workflows and begin automating simple tasks, you will discover new candidates for automation. “Technology can improve so many processes. After you see how quick and easy these workflows are to set up, you'll want to see how much more you can automate, ultimately eliminating much of your frustration and freeing up your time to focus on more important projects,” says Bergstresser.
  • Improved Understanding of Workflows: As you become more familiar with digital workflows and the limits of your engine, you will learn to design workflows more efficiently from the beginning. Rather than thinking about email responses and printed documents, you will begin to conceptualize processes in terms of notifications and cloud drives.
  • Better Interdepartmental Cohesion: Universalizing workflows increases efficiency between departments in the long term. When teams come together to create the workflows that feed into one another, they benefit from increased efficiency and fewer lapses in communication. “Our marketing and client-related workflows run every day,” says Ackerman. “Our marketing workflows keep us on schedule with content and take care of moving the pieces forward to the next team member. Then our client-related workflows connect our clients with their next steps, onboarding, and offboarding, without our team lifting a finger.”

Challenges of Implementing a Digital Workflow

Implementing digital workflows presents challenges. We’ve rounded up some common hurdles new users might face, from feeling overwhelmed to managing a range of technical aptitudes across a team, and we’ve provided tips and expert advice for approaching each:

  • Overwhelming Prospect: The idea of digitizing all of your company’s processes can feel insurmountable. Where do you even begin with so many different workflows across different teams and departments?

    How to Overcome: Start small and get help. Choose a simple but time-consuming task and automate it. Approach workflows one at a time, and before you know it, you will have built a library of functioning, time-saving digital workflows. Enlist the help of project managers and department heads to help simplify the process. “The overwhelming feeling of needing to have them all done at once was hard to overcome,” acknowledges Ackerman. “I knew that setting up my workflows was important, but I also knew I had more on my plate and needed to get those things done too. To overcome those challenges, I broke them down into departments and had team members help me build them.”
  • Tech Aptitude of Users: Each employee has a different background, experience with software, and tech skill level. How do you ensure that your new digital workflows will work for everyone across your company?

    How to Overcome: Once you have chosen a workflow engine, schedule group training sessions and assign particularly tech-savvy employees as experts to provide help as needed. When workflows go digital, be open to suggestions from team members who use them. Let your team know where to find support when they have questions.
  • Cooperation Between Departments: Many companies operate with departments that work independently. How do you create workflows that move seamlessly between departments?

    How to Overcome: Consult with department leaders when workflows interact, and work with them to figure out who to notify and when. Give department leaders the ability to make suggestions and changes. Start with a single workflow, and add more incrementally as the first ones prove functional.
  • Audits of Existing Workflows: If you are not used to thinking of your business processes as workflows, the most overwhelming part of digitalization can be simply identifying all the individual steps in your existing workflows. How do you know which parts of your workflows are redundant and which are necessary?

    How to Overcome: Write down each step in your existing process. Ask yourself at each step whether the action makes sense within the context of the overall process. If any steps seem unnecessary or redundant, consider trimming them. If you have trouble remaining objective when analyzing your workflows, consider consulting a third party. “The biggest challenge we faced was setting up the workflow for the first time. We had to really hone in and decide what elements of our manual process we wanted to keep and which we needed to do away with. However, now that we’ve set up our workflow, the process practically runs itself,” says Miles.
  • Time Investment to Convert: Converting to digital workflows costs both time and money. Will the time you need to spend automating your processes be worth it in the long term?

    How to Overcome: Calculate the total cost in labor hours of your most time-consuming, repetitive task. Then calculate the estimated cost in labor hours of that same task after automation. Repeat these calculations for multiple processes over different time periods to determine how much money your company will save with automated workflow.

    Depending on the complexity of the process, automation can take anywhere from a few hours to several days. Use the cost data you collected to determine how long it will take to see a return on investment (ROI). Once you have done so, secure buy-in and assign someone to automate those tasks. “It took a while for us to make sure our workflows were set up correctly and that they were incorporated into our business flows,” says Tabag, “but it worked out well for us in the end.”

Digital Workflow Implementation Challenges and Solutions Matrix

Digitalizing manual workflows comes with a unique set of challenges. We’ve outlined some of the most common challenges of implementing digital workflows, with suggestions for how to overcome them, in the table below.

Implementation Challenges How to Overcome
Converting from manual to digital processes can feel overwhelming. Start small. Choose one workflow at a time to digitize, and roll them out slowly.
Team members have varying levels of tech aptitude and will need time to learn new software. Schedule group training sessions and assign team experts to answer questions when needed. Utilize product training offered by your workflow engine provider.
Standardizing processes between departments can be difficult. Work with department leaders to simplify workflows, especially where they interact with other teams. Allow team leaders to make changes to automated workflows where needed.
Determining which manual processes are the best digitalization candidates can be challenging.
Audit your workflows to determine the ones that will save the most time when automated. Look for processes that are repetitive and time consuming when performed manually.
The time investment needed to convert to digital workflows can be substantial. Make it one person's job to start digitizing your workflows. Understand that the time savings over time from automation is much more valuable than the time it takes to automate.


How to Pick the Right Digital Workflow Software

Different digital workflow software options offer a wide range of features. Ensure that you choose the right tool for your organization by identifying the features that will be most important for your business processes. 

“Newcomers to digital workflows must understand that there is no one way to digitalize. Understand your company’s maturity and needs, and act based on that,” suggests Gamez.

Below are some common features to consider when selecting a digital workflow software. Review these features and determine which ones are most important for your business:

  • Availability of Support: Choose a system with a reliable support system in place. Many workflow engine software companies have teams available to help train you and troubleshoot problems as they come up.
  • Automation: Ensure that the workflow system you choose supports automation to streamline your most repetitive tasks and saves you time and money.
  • Centralized Sharing: Make sure that the system you choose allows team members to share progress easily with all relevant parties. You should be able to see what step of a workflow your team is on, as well as the next steps.
  • Cost: Consider your budget and choose a solution within your price range. Many workflow engines offer varying tiers of service and costs based on the number of users and provide limited accounts for free users.
  • Ease of Use: Choose a system that is simple to work with, requiring little or no programming knowledge, to ensure that it is accessible to as many people on the team as possible.
  • Integration with Existing Systems: Choose a workflow engine that integrates with the software and systems you already use to help ensure widespread adoption and minimize disruptive changes for your teams.
  • Size and Scope: Find a system that matches the volume and reach of your company. Some solutions cater to small teams and can be scaled to large enterprises.
  • Trial Period: Many workflow engines offer a free trial period, so you can try their service without a commitment. Take advantage of free trials to find the one that works for you and your team.

Easily Digitize Your Workflows with Smartsheet

Empower your people to go above and beyond with a flexible platform designed to match the needs of your team — and adapt as those needs change. 

The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed. 

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.



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