What defines life at the office? Is it a dystopian place, defined by dreary meetings to determine who is responsible for what tasks, endless face-to-face conversations to hammer out details, and long days stuck in your cubicle, confused about what to do next? Or is it a happy and productive place where people know their roles and have the tools to succeed?
In the past, a certain degree of dystopia and dysfunction were the norm in many offices, but that is beginning to change with technologies like workflow systems and process automation. In fact, workflow systems are one of the fastest-growing categories of software applications. According to some estimates, the market for workflow applications is expected to grow by 23 percent by the year 2021, reaching sales of more than $9.87 billion.
Tools like these are transforming how we work and make managing a busy office easier than ever before. Here are three ways workflows and automations are transforming life at the office.
1. Streamlined management
Workflow systems are a type of automation that makes it easier to complete a process by following a predefined set of steps. For the automations involved in a workflow to work, it's critical that the processes be defined carefully, with the right individuals or teams assigned to each task. This is called process modeling, where each process is defined and diagrammed visually, often with a graphical user interface.
The parts of the process that don't require human intervention are automated, such as delivering emails, sending work orders or sharing documents. The workflow system tracks each step, sending notifications to each team member as needed. This makes it easy to uncover, report on and revise areas where processes aren't working well.
Workflow processes are defined with not just the needs of the business, but industry best practices and benchmarks in mind. They can also address the manner and order in which tasks are accomplished. Before defining a workflow, many offices and organizations might use an ad hoc or sequential process. Using a workflow, the organization may find that many of these tasks can actually be managed in parallel, saving time. Meetings and status reports also take less time, leaving employees free to focus on their more important duties.
All of this makes for a more efficient workplace. A review of academic case studies found that when companies introduced automated electronic workflows, processes sped up by 20 percent or more.
2. Higher quality and productivity
Workflows have been proven to improve quality in a variety of settings that involve complex processes and lots of paperwork, such as healthcare, manufacturing, the legal industry and finance.
In healthcare, workflows have a direct impact on the quality of patient care. Industry studies indicate that one of the major benefits workflows bring is the clarification of processes when an organization is faced with competing priorities. To use an example in the study, if a hospital's housekeeping manager sends workers to the ward that calls the most, instead of the ward a workflow directs them to, it means rooms are not ready for the next patient and nurses are more frustrated with their jobs, ultimately impacting patient care.
Workflows also improve quality in organizations that process large volumes of paperwork, such as the legal industry. Workflow software helps ensure that no documents that need to be signed or approved fall through the cracks, and that each step of a process is followed correctly.
3. Solutions to people problems
One of the biggest human challenges in any office setting is when people are unclear about their roles and responsibilities. They might be unsure about when they are supposed to accomplish a task or where to store a work product when the task is complete. This confusion inevitably leads to frustration and conflict in an office setting.
A workflow eliminates the confusion by providing a step-by-step procedure for every process or task. It allows a company to make the most of its people by removing a lot of the distractions and disorganization that can make them less productive.
Workflows can predetermine tasks such as the naming conventions on a document, what software to use, where to store a document, who must sign for or approve it, and in what order these steps happen. In fact, the things an office workflow might include is limited only by the needs of the office in question and the best practices of its industry.
Thus, workflows and automations are transforming the once-dystopian office into a happier workplace. When each individual understands their role and how to best accomplish each task, it's easier to focus on the goals of the business and work efficiently as a team.