Expense management

What is approval workflow and how is it important for your business?

Apr 05, 2024

Efficient management of approval workflows has become a cornerstone of organizational success. Approval workflows, enabled by cutting-edge approval workflow software, are not only vital for finance but span across various sectors, including expense approval workflows and financial approval workflows.

These workflows are the lifeblood of modern organizations, ensuring that decisions and actions are executed methodically and in alignment with established policies and regulations.

For instance, expense approval workflows streamline the process of reviewing and approving business expenses, ensuring they meet company spending guidelines and tax regulations.

From inception to execution, this guide will navigate you through every crucial aspect of approval workflows.

Whether you're a seasoned professional looking to optimize existing processes or a newcomer seeking to grasp the fundamentals, our journey will encompass the intricacies of customization, integration, security, and the transformative power of automation.

What is approval workflow?

An approval workflow is a systematic process used by organizations to manage and streamline the approval of documents, requests, or tasks. It involves a series of steps and actions that ensure that the right people review and authorize specific items.

Approval workflow software is often employed to automate and monitor this process efficiently.

In various industries, approval workflows play a crucial role in enhancing operational efficiency and compliance. For example, in finance, they ensure expense reports are reviewed and approved in line with company policies.

In healthcare, they help secure patient data access and medication orders. In manufacturing, they guarantee product quality through quality control checks.

The significance lies in reducing errors, increasing accountability, and saving time, as automated approval workflows reduce the need for manual interventions, ensuring tasks and decisions are made consistently and in compliance with established standards.

The importance of approval workflow

Approval workflows, often facilitated by approval workflow software, are pivotal in modern business operations, ensuring efficiency, compliance, and accountability. Here are six key aspects of their importance:

1. Efficiency and productivity

Approval workflows automate and standardize the approval process, reducing the time and effort required to get decisions made. For instance, in an expense approval workflow, employees can submit expense reports electronically, and managers can quickly review and approve them.

This streamlined process enhances productivity by eliminating manual paperwork and administrative bottlenecks.

2. Accountability

Approval workflows establish clear chains of responsibility. Each step of the workflow identifies who is accountable for reviewing and approving items.

This accountability ensures that decisions are made by the appropriate individuals, reducing the risk of unauthorized actions or negligence.

3. Compliance and regulation

In industries with stringent regulations, such as finance, healthcare, or manufacturing, compliance is paramount. Approval workflows help organizations adhere to industry-specific regulations and internal policies.

For example, financial approval workflows ensure that expenditures comply with budgetary constraints and auditing requirements, reducing the likelihood of regulatory violations and contributing to better overall expense management.

4. Error reduction

Manual processes are prone to errors, but approval workflows minimize the chances of mistakes. Automation ensures that each step is executed consistently and accurately.

This is particularly critical in financial approval workflows, where mistakes can lead to financial losses or compliance issues.

5. Visibility and transparency

Approval workflows provide transparency into the status of tasks or requests. Stakeholders can easily track where an item is in the approval process, who has reviewed it, and when it was approved.

This visibility fosters trust among employees, customers, and partners, as they can see that decisions are being made fairly and transparently.

6. Streamlined workflow

By defining a structured sequence of steps, approval workflows eliminate ambiguity and prevent tasks from getting lost or delayed. This ensures that operations move smoothly and that important items are not overlooked.

In financial approval workflows, for instance, this means that invoices are paid promptly, avoiding late fees and supplier dissatisfaction.

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Types of approval workflows

Approval workflows come in various forms, each designed to suit specific business needs and processes. Two fundamental distinctions among approval workflows are sequential vs. parallel and dynamic vs. conditional:

1. Sequential vs. parallel approval workflows

Sequential Approval Workflows: In a sequential workflow, approvals occur in a linear, step-by-step fashion. Each approval stage follows the previous one, and an item or request cannot move to the next step until the previous one is completed.

This structure is common in scenarios where a strict order of approvals is necessary, such as financial authorization processes.

Parallel Approval Workflows: Parallel workflows, on the other hand, allow multiple approvers or departments to review and approve an item simultaneously.

All parallel tasks can proceed independently, and the item advances as soon as all parallel branches complete their approval. Parallel workflows are useful when different stakeholders need to review the same item concurrently, such as in project management or quality control.

2. Dynamic vs. conditional approval processes

Dynamic Approval Workflows: Dynamic workflows adapt to changing circumstances. They allow for on-the-fly adjustments based on certain criteria or conditions.

For example, if an expense request exceeds a specific threshold, a dynamic workflow might route it to a higher-level manager automatically. Dynamic workflows are flexible and responsive, ensuring that items are processed efficiently and in compliance with evolving requirements.

Conditional Approval Workflows: Conditional workflows involve approvals that are contingent upon specific conditions being met. These conditions can be predefined rules or parameters. For instance, a purchase order may only require approval if the total cost exceeds a certain amount.

Conditional approval workflows prevent unnecessary approvals and streamline the process by applying rules intelligently.

In practice, businesses often combine these distinctions to create tailored approval workflows that suit their specific needs. For example:

A procurement process may involve a sequential workflow where purchase requests are approved one after the other. Still, within each approval stage, parallel approvals can occur simultaneously among different departments like finance and procurement.

An HR onboarding process may employ a dynamic workflow that automatically triggers different approval paths based on the position level of the new hire. For higher-level roles, additional approvals or background checks may be required.

Approval workflow stages

Approval workflows typically consist of several distinct stages that guide the process from initiation to final resolution.

Here are the key stages involved:

1. Initiation

The workflow begins with the initiation stage, where a request, document, or task is created and submitted for approval. This stage marks the entry point into the approval process.

2. Routing

After initiation, the workflow determines the appropriate route for the item to follow. This could involve determining who the initial approver or reviewer is and the subsequent steps the item will undergo.

3. First-level review

The item is reviewed by the first-level approver, often based on predefined criteria or rules. If necessary, this stage can also involve conditional routing to different approvers or reviewers based on specific conditions.

4. Conditional routing

Conditional routing allows the workflow to dynamically adjust based on certain conditions, such as the item's value, type, or urgency. This ensures that approvals are streamlined and efficient.

5. Intermediate review

In some complex workflows, there may be intermediate review stages involving multiple levels of approval or review before reaching a final decision.

6. Approval

Once all required reviews and conditions are met, the item is approved by the relevant stakeholders. This stage signifies the successful completion of the approval process.

7. Rejection

If an item does not meet the approval criteria or is rejected at any stage, it is sent back for revision or further action. Rejection allows for refinement and resubmission.

8. Document management

Throughout the workflow, documents and records related to the item are managed, ensuring that the necessary documentation is stored securely and can be easily accessed.

9. Final review and confirmation

Before finalizing the approval, a final review may be conducted to ensure that all conditions have been met and that the decision aligns with organizational objectives.

10. Archiving and audit trail

Approved items are archived for future reference and auditing. An audit trail is maintained to track all actions and decisions taken during the approval process, ensuring compliance and transparency

11. Reporting and analytics

Data collected during the workflow is used for reporting and analytics purposes. This information helps organizations assess process efficiency, identify bottlenecks, and make data-driven improvements.

Building an effective approval workflow

Building an effective approval workflow is crucial for organizations to streamline processes, improve efficiency, and maintain compliance. Here are the key steps to create and implement an effective approval workflow:

1. Identifying workflow needs

Assess specific needs

Begin by understanding your organization's unique needs and objectives for the approval workflow. What processes require approval, and what are the goals of those approvals (e.g., cost control, compliance, quality assurance)?

Identify key stakeholders

Identify all stakeholders involved in the approval process, including initiators, approvers, and reviewers. Define their roles and responsibilities in the workflow.

2. Workflow design and mapping

Plan workflow structure

Design the workflow's structure and sequence. Determine the steps items will go through from initiation to approval or rejection. Consider whether it will be a sequential or parallel workflow or if there are conditional routing requirements.

Map decision points and hierarchy

Clearly define decision points and approval hierarchies. Specify who has the authority to approve or reject items at each stage and under what conditions.

3. Technology and tools

Select workflow automation software

Choose the right approval workflow automation software or tools that align with your organization's requirements. Ensure the software is capable of handling the complexity of your workflow and integrates with other systems.

Integration with existing systems

Integrate the workflow automation software with existing systems like ERP, CRM, or document management systems to facilitate data exchange and information flow.

4. Customization and configuration

Tailor the workflow

Customize the workflow to fit your organization's unique processes and requirements. This may involve configuring approval paths, notifications, and forms to collect necessary data.

Define rules and triggers

Implement rules and triggers for conditional approvals. For instance, establish criteria for when an item should be automatically routed to a higher-level approver or when specific documentation is required.

5. Testing and optimization

Thorough testing

Before deployment, conduct comprehensive testing of the workflow. Verify that all steps, conditions, and notifications work as intended. Test various scenarios to identify potential bottlenecks or issues.

Continuous optimization

After deployment, gather feedback from users and monitor performance metrics. Continuously optimize the workflow based on feedback and data to improve efficiency, reduce errors, and adapt to changing business needs.

6. Documentation and training

Document workflow procedures

Create clear and concise documentation outlining the workflow procedures, including roles, responsibilities, and escalation paths. Ensure that all stakeholders understand how the workflow operates.

Provide training

Train employees on how to use the workflow software and follow the defined approval processes. Ensure that they are aware of any updates or changes to the workflow.

7. Monitoring and compliance

Regular monitoring

Establish a system for ongoing monitoring and oversight of the approval workflow. Regularly review audit logs and reports to ensure compliance and address any deviations.

Compliance auditing

Periodically conduct compliance audits to verify that the workflow aligns with regulatory requirements and internal policies.

8. Feedback and continuous improvement

Collect feedback

Encourage users to provide feedback on the workflow's usability and effectiveness. Use this feedback to make iterative improvements.

Benchmark and optimize

Benchmark your workflow against industry best practices and consider adopting new technologies or methodologies to optimize your approval processes further.

Take control of your approval workflow with Volopay

Approval workflow automation

Businesses need approval workflow automation to streamline and optimize their processes for several critical reasons:

1. Efficiency

Automation reduces the time and effort required for approvals, speeding up decision-making and process execution. This leads to quicker response times, improved productivity, and enhanced customer and employee satisfaction.

2. Accuracy

Automation minimizes the risk of human errors, ensuring that approvals are consistent, compliant, and error-free. This is especially crucial in industries with strict regulations, like finance and healthcare.

3. Cost savings

By eliminating manual, paper-based approval processes, businesses save on paper, printing, and administrative costs. Automation also allows for resource allocation to more strategic tasks.

4. Visibility

Approval workflow automation provides real-time visibility into the status of requests and tasks, offering stakeholders transparency and accountability throughout the process.

5. Scalability

Automated workflows can easily adapt to changing business needs and growing workloads, ensuring businesses remain agile and responsive.

6. Audit trail

Automation creates a detailed audit trail, facilitating compliance, reporting, and tracking for auditing purposes.

Benefits of approval workflows

Approval workflows are integral to modern business operations, offering a myriad of advantages that enhance efficiency, compliance, and overall productivity.

Here are key benefits across various dimensions:

1. Efficiency and speed

Approval workflows automate and expedite decision-making processes, reducing the time it takes to approve requests, documents, or tasks. Workflow automation eliminates manual handoffs and delays, enabling tasks to move swiftly through the approval stages.

2. Consistency and compliance

Approval workflows enforce standardized processes, ensuring that tasks are executed consistently and following established protocols. Compliance with industry regulations and internal policies is facilitated, reducing the risk of legal and financial penalties.

3. Accountability

Approval workflows assign specific roles and responsibilities to individuals, establishing clear accountability for approvals and reviews. Detailed audit trails track all actions taken within the workflow, providing an indisputable record of who approved what and when.

4. Error reduction

Automation reduces the potential for human errors, such as data entry mistakes, calculation errors, or oversight, thereby improving accuracy. Workflows can include validation checks, ensuring that requests meet predefined criteria before advancing in the process.

5. Visibility and transparency

Stakeholders can monitor the progress of tasks in real-time, gaining visibility into where items are within the approval process. Transparency builds trust among employees, customers, and partners by showing that decisions are made fairly and with transparency.

6. Cost control

Automation reduces the need for manual paperwork and administrative tasks associated with approvals, leading to cost savings. In financial approval workflows, automated controls help prevent unauthorized expenses, contributing to cost control.

7. Prioritization and escalation

Approval workflows can prioritize urgent requests or tasks, ensuring that they receive prompt attention. When needed, workflows can include predefined escalation paths for items requiring higher-level review or intervention.

8. Enhanced collaboration

Workflows often incorporate collaboration features, allowing team members to comment, provide feedback, or communicate within the system. Approval workflows foster collaboration among different departments and teams involved in the approval process.

9. Document management

Approval workflows typically include document management capabilities, enabling secure storage and easy retrieval of associated documents and records. Document versions can be managed effectively, ensuring that the most up-to-date information is used in approvals.

10. Scalability

Automated workflows can be easily adapted to accommodate changes in business processes, scaling up or down as needed. Scalability ensures that organizations can handle increased volumes of approvals as they grow.

11. Mobile and remote work

Approval workflows can be accessed remotely, allowing approvers to review and approve items from anywhere with an internet connection. Many workflow solutions offer mobile apps, making it convenient for users to interact with the workflow on their mobile devices.

12. Data analytics

Approval workflows generate data that can be analyzed to measure process performance, identify bottlenecks, and make data-driven improvements. Data analytics can provide insights into approval patterns and trends, aiding in future planning and decision-making.

13. Enhanced security

Workflow systems often incorporate robust access controls, ensuring that only authorized personnel can access and interact with sensitive data. Approval workflows employ encryption measures to safeguard data during transit and storage, reducing the risk of data breaches.

14. Customer and vendor satisfaction

Speedier approvals mean quicker service delivery to customers, enhancing their satisfaction. In procurement workflows, timely approvals contribute to positive supplier relationships and improve vendor satisfaction.

15. Process optimization

Approval workflows encourage organizations to continuously evaluate and optimize their processes for greater efficiency and effectiveness. Lean principles can be applied to eliminate waste and non-value-added activities within approval processes.

How to automate approval workflow?

Automating approval workflows can significantly streamline processes and improve efficiency.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do it effectively

1. Identify business requirements

Begin by understanding the specific needs and objectives of your organization. Identify which processes require approval and the goals you want to achieve through automation. Determine the stakeholders involved in each approval process and their roles.

2. Research and select the most suitable automation software

Research and evaluate approval workflow automation software solutions available in the market. Consider factors such as ease of use, scalability, integration capabilities, and cost. Choose a software that aligns with your organization's requirements.

3. Customize approval workflow

Customize the workflow to match your organization's unique processes and requirements. Configure the software to define the sequence of approval steps, assign roles, and establish decision points.

4. Integrate with existing systems

Integrate the workflow automation software with your existing systems, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), or document management systems.

Integration ensures seamless data exchange and information flow between systems, including data related to vendor invoices and purchase orders. This facilitates smoother processing of approvals for vendor payouts.

5. Establish approval rules

Define approval rules that determine when items should be approved or rejected. These rules can be based on criteria like item value, type, or urgency. Ensure that rules align with your organizational policies and compliance requirements.

For instance, approval rules can be set for specific vendor payout thresholds or specific vendor categories, ensuring proper oversight within the vendor payment process.

6. Implement conditional routing

Implement conditional routing to enable dynamic workflow paths based on specific conditions. For example, high-value purchase orders may automatically route to senior management for approval. This enhances flexibility and efficiency in the approval process.

7. Conduct user training

Train employees and stakeholders on how to use the workflow automation software effectively. Ensure that they understand their roles and responsibilities within the workflow. Provide guidance on how to initiate requests, review approvals, and track progress.

8. Monitor performance

After the workflow is deployed, monitor its performance closely. Track key performance metrics, such as approval cycle times, error rates, and user feedback. Identify any bottlenecks or issues in the workflow.

9. Optimize and make changes

Continuously optimize the approval workflow based on performance data and user feedback. Make iterative improvements to streamline processes, reduce delays, and enhance user experience.

10. Scale as needed

As your organization grows, ensure that the approval workflow can scale to handle increased volumes of approvals. Adjust the workflow and software as necessary to accommodate changing requirements.

11. Security and compliance

Prioritize security and compliance throughout the automation process. Ensure that data is encrypted, access controls are in place, and the workflow complies with industry-specific regulations.

Streamline approvals effortlessly with Volopay.

How to choose the right approval workflow automation software?

1. Scalability capacity


Ensure that the software can handle the growing volume of approvals and adapt to your organization's changing needs.

 Feature requirement

Look for scalable software that allows you to easily add new users, workflows, and processes as your organization expands.

2. Integration capabilities


Many organizations rely on multiple software systems (ERP, CRM, etc.). Integration is crucial to ensure seamless data exchange between systems.

 Feature requirement

Choose software that offers robust integration options, supporting connectivity with your existing software ecosystem.

3. Customization


Each organization has unique approval processes and requirements. The software must be highly customizable to fit your specific needs.

 Feature requirement

Opt for software that allows extensive customization, including defining approval workflows, roles, rules, and forms tailored to your organization's processes.

4. User-friendliness


User adoption is critical for successful automation. The software should be user-friendly to encourage acceptance among employees.

 Feature requirement

Evaluate the software's interface and usability. It should be intuitive and require minimal training for users to navigate.

5. Notification and alert features


Timely notifications are essential to keep users informed of pending approvals and deadlines.

 Feature requirement

Choose software that offers robust notification and alert capabilities, including email notifications, mobile alerts, and in-app notifications

6. Conditional logic


Many approval processes involve complex decision-making and conditional routing based on specific criteria or rules.

 Feature requirement

Verify if the software supports conditional routing and complex decision-making. It should allow you to define rules and triggers for automatic routing or escalation.

7. Security measures


Ensuring the security of sensitive data and approval processes is paramount.

 Feature requirement

Assess the software's security features, including data encryption, access controls, role-based permissions, and compliance with industry-specific security standards.

8. Reporting and analytics


To optimize workflows and monitor performance, robust reporting and analytics capabilities are essential.

 Feature requirement

Look for software that provides comprehensive reporting tools, allowing you to track key performance metrics, identify bottlenecks, and make data-driven improvements.

9. Mobile accessibility


In today's mobile workforce, mobile accessibility is crucial for remote approvals and on-the-go decision-making.

 Feature requirement

Ensure that the software offers mobile apps or a responsive web interface for users to access and participate in approval workflows from their mobile devices.

10. Audit trail and compliance


Regulatory compliance and maintaining a clear audit trail are critical, especially in industries with stringent requirements.

 Feature requirement

Confirm that the software maintains a comprehensive audit trail, recording all actions and decisions. It should also facilitate compliance with relevant regulations.

11. Cost and ROI


Balancing the cost of the software with the expected return on investment (ROI) is essential for budget-conscious organizations.

 Feature requirement

Evaluate the software's pricing model, including licensing fees, subscription costs, and implementation expenses. Consider the potential ROI in terms of time savings and efficiency gains.

12. Software reputation


You want a reliable software provider with a good reputation for support and service.

 Feature requirement

Conduct thorough research to assess the software's reputation, reliability, and customer support. Read user reviews and seek recommendations from peers.

13. User training and support


Adequate training and support are vital for successful implementation and user adoption.

 Feature requirement

Inquire about the availability of training resources, user guides, and customer support options provided by the software vendor.

14. Trial period


To evaluate whether the software meets your organization's needs, a trial period is valuable.

 Feature requirement

Look for software that offers a trial period or a pilot program to test its functionality within your specific workflows before committing to a full implementation.


In conclusion, automating approval workflows offers organizations significant benefits, including enhanced efficiency, compliance, and transparency for processes like expense reimbursement. Key takeaways include the importance of customization, scalability, and integration when selecting workflow automation software.

Moreover, user-friendliness and robust security measures are essential for successful implementation. As we move forward in an ever-evolving digital landscape, approval workflows will continue to play a pivotal role in streamlining operations and adapting to changing business needs.

Embracing automation and staying agile in workflow management will be essential for organizations striving to maintain a competitive edge and meet the demands of the future.

How does Volopay help automate your financial approval workflow?

Volopay is the ideal solution for automating your financial approval workflows. With Volopay, you can streamline and simplify your financial processes, making approvals faster and more efficient. Beyond approval automation, Volopay offers expense tracking, vendor management, and real-time spending insights.

You can easily integrate it with your existing systems and take advantage of its robust security measures. Volopay ensures compliance with policies and provides a clear audit trail. Plus, it offers mobile accessibility so that you can manage approvals on the go.

In summary, Volopay is a comprehensive platform that not only automates approvals but also enhances your overall financial management.

Experience seamless expense management with Volopay


What types of processes can be automated with approval workflows?

Approval workflows can automate a wide range of processes, including expense approvals, purchase orders, leave requests, document reviews, contract approvals, compliance checks, and more.

Essentially, any process that involves a sequence of approvals or reviews can benefit from automation.

What is conditional routing in an approval workflow?

Conditional routing in an approval workflow refers to the ability to dynamically route items or requests based on specific conditions or criteria.

For example, if an expense report exceeds a certain amount, the workflow might automatically route it to a higher-level approver. Conditional routing ensures that the approval path is flexible and adapts to changing circumstances.

How can I get started with implementing expense approval workflows?

To implement expense approval workflows, follow these steps:

● Identify your organization's expense approval needs.

● Select suitable approval workflow automation software.

● Customize the workflow to match your processes.

● Integrate with relevant systems like accounting software.

● Define approval rules and conditions.

● Train users on the workflow.

● Monitor and optimize the process for efficiency and compliance.

Is approval workflow automation secure?

Yes, approval workflow automation typically includes robust security measures. These measures can include data encryption, access controls, role-based permissions, audit trails, and compliance with industry-specific security standards.

However, the level of security may vary depending on the software and how it's configured, so it's important to choose a reputable provider and configure security settings appropriately.

How does approval workflow automation work?

Approval workflow automation works by using software to digitize and streamline the approval process. It typically involves defining a sequence of steps, assigning roles to approvers, setting rules for approval or rejection, and automating notifications and escalations.

When a request or item enters the workflow, it follows the predefined path, with decisions and actions made automatically or by designated approvers. Automation ensures consistency, speed, and accuracy in the approval process while providing transparency and auditability.