When it comes to managing documents, there’s a fine line between having a perfectly functioning document approval process workflow and losing your mind to constant inefficiencies.
In project management, the approval workflow can often be a hit-or-miss undertaking.
It’s a crucial element for streamlining your operations and keeping order in your work processes, but not all of us have managed to nail it just yet.
In this article, we’ll outline a five-step strategy for improving your document approval workflow, why it’s important, and how you can use PandaDoc’s automated software to streamline the approval process.
Let’s dive right in!
What is an approval workflow?
Document approval workflows are a set of rules for collaborating, reviewing, approving, submitting, and tracking documents.
They are often used to review large contracts, major purchases, HR policies, and other official communications between parties involved in a project or transaction, such as expense reports, sales proposals, employment agreements, etc.
For example, here’s how the document approval workflow of an employment agreement might look:
- Employee submits an employment agreement to HR for review.
- HR approves/denies the document.
- If approved by HR, the document is routed to the legal department for review.
- Legal reviews and either approves or denies the document (adding comments where necessary).
- If approved by the legal department, it’s then routed to the Vice President of Finance for final review and signature.
- The VP signs off on the document with comments (if applicable).
- The signed document is routed back to HR for archiving.
Now, this process of approval looks fairly simple.
But what if we take a contract involving three companies? And what if they each have their own legal departments?
How do you keep track of all the minutiae that are involved with getting all parties on the same page?
The reality is that processes can be extremely complex or fairly simple, depending on your organization’s needs and goals. That’s where document approval workflows come into play.
To understand why document approval workflows are so important for your business, let’s take a look at their main benefits.
Why document approval processes are crucial
They help automate your workflow
Tasks like contract review can be extremely time-consuming for companies when performed manually.
Using an automated workflow, documents can be routed for approval, signed, and reviewed by multiple parties, and returned to their originator faster than ever before.
They facilitate team communication
A clear path defined for each document means that there are fewer chances for misunderstandings or mistakes to slip past.
They increase efficiency
An approval workflow makes it easier for employees at all levels in an organization to submit documents, papers, or requests that have been reviewed by others before they are submitted for final approval.
The result is that time is saved at every level, which in turn creates increased efficiency throughout the organization.
They provide a clear framework
There’s always a clear and transparent record of who has seen a document, who has approved it, who is responsible, and when it’s been submitted.
This means that you’ll never have any issues related to late submissions or incomplete work.
Approval workflow best practices
1. Get the right document management system
The first step to crafting the perfect document review and approval process is to pick a document management system that supports your workflow.
A document management system is a way to store and manage files electronically.
A well-designed system will allow you to browse through documents, comment on them and assign tasks to different people.
It also enables you to set different permission levels for your files.
For example, you might want some of your team members to be able to read the contents of a file, but not change it.
A well-designed system will also provide a user-friendly interface that allows you and your team members to easily submit work for review, discuss it with others in the team, and track its progress.
For instance, PandaDoc’s cloud-based content management system keeps everyone involved in the process and up to date with real-time chat and comment moderation.
2. Separate types of approval: Internal approval should be distinct from client approval
Simply put, don’t use the same approval process for internal documents as you do for client-facing documents:
- Internal documents are used for internal operations, and the approval process can be more streamlined and informal.
- Client-facing documents, however, need to go through a formal approval process before they can be sent to your clients. These include legal documents, contracts, proposals, and many others.
When you use two different types of approval processes for internal and external documents, each displays its own approval cue—you can easily tell from the document name which process it needs to go through first.
Also, if your business uses two different approval processes, you can streamline internal checks by automatically assigning documents to teams or individual members.
PandaDoc’s advanced automation features let you automatically assign customers, projects, or even entire departments to specific employees or teams with custom rules.
3. Define each step of your document approval workflow
Once you’ve figured out the different types of documents that need approval, it’s time to work out how they’ll flow through the approval process.
For example, will your sales rep initiate the document and pass it to accounts receivable or will a customer service representative approve it first?
This step is about defining the actual workflow lifecycle — how documents will move once they’re initiated.
PandaDoc’s workflow tool allows you to create customized approval steps.
You can set due dates, reorder approval steps by dragging and dropping, and configure email notifications from the dashboard.
Once you’ve set up your custom document review and approval process, you’ll be able to assign documents to approvers and keep track of every document submission in your Audit trail tab.
4. Designate the people who approve, manage, and submit your documents
Now that you’ve laid out the workflow for your entire submission process, it’s time to assign responsibilities.
- Submitters. These employees submit the documents for approval when they’ are ready.
- Approvers. These employees approve or reject submitted materials and communicate with submitters if there’ is a problem with the content or formatting of the document.
- Intermediaries (also known as editors). These employees act as a go-between for approvers and submitters, reviewing documents for clarity and suggesting changes if needed. They don’t approve or reject the documents; instead, they provide feedback to help improve the quality of submitted materials and prepare them for review by approvers.
- Managers (also known as workflow managers or workflow administrators). These executives oversee the entire approval process to make sure it’s going according to plan and that everyone is doing their job correctly.
You can also scale up your documentation efforts for new markets without adding any additional headcount by using the role-based permissions that come with PandaDoc’s granular permissions feature.
This lets you onboard new partners and consultants outside your team who can access and comment on documents without having full access to all of your workspace.
5. Set up conditional approval rules for your workflow
Conditional rules allow you to route documents based on criteria that you set.
You can also use conditional rules to flag specific workflows for attention, make approvals automatic, and add a step to the process that triggers a notification.
If you’re using PandaDoc as your document approval system, for instance, you can set up a conditional rule that will automatically flag any expense reports over $10,000 and send them straight to your CFO without going through the rest of your company’s finance team first.
Here’s how this would look in the PandaDoc Editor:
6. Include reviews at various stages
Another way to save time in your document approval process is to add reviews at various stages.
You can either do this manually by regularly going over your content, or you can automate this part, too.
The process for this is as follows:
- Figure out what reviews are needed and at which stages.
- Answer the following questions; do the reviews need to be done by particular individuals or can there be a few people in order to avoid delays?
- Make decision approvals/sign-offs obligatory and use deadlines. This can keep the document approval process flowing and avoid any bottlenecking.
7. Build review stages with the use of visibility
The most critical thing to take into consideration when deciding on the stages in a review process is visibility.
Visibility means taking a holistic view and considering more than just the project at hand when thinking about the information you require.
When considering multiple projects, you should determine the following:
- What information do you want to be able to quickly identify?
- Why might there be a delay in the workflow?
- What upcoming deadlines are there, and what is their status?
Visibility into these areas can help you to formulate more intelligent review stages.
8. Establish client engagement guidelines for outside evaluation
Often, you’ll be including external stakeholders in your document approval process.
In order to ensure this goes smoothly, it’s worth establishing the following guidelines:
- Who will be your point (or points) of contact?
- Which documents can or can’t be shared with external team members or clients?
- How will sensitive documents be protected?
- How will the team decide what can be shared externally?
- How will feedback be incorporated?
- How many times will you accept feedback before progressing to the next stage?
These questions will help you to establish a process for external evaluation, as well as allowing you to gain clarity on your internal deadlines and processes.
9. Take advantage of reminder systems
Delays can be a big issue when you have multiple review stages and both internal and external reviewers.
Whether you’re waiting for teammates to provide specific information, or waiting for stakeholders to respond to you, using reminder systems can help you with time management.
Automated notifications can be great here—and not just about the overall project.
Each stage should have its own deadline to be completed by, in order to keep everything on track.
10. Utilize templates for automated workflows
Many companies choose to create automated workflow templates in order to apply a standardized set of information and decision steps across several different projects.
Usually, the more you can standardize your processes with templates, the better it will be for your efficiency.
A handful of templates will probably be enough to automate a multi-step approval process.
This will help you to avoid mistakes and duplications, and allow your team to breeze through the approval workflow process at a faster rate.
Document approval process examples
A document approval process for a piece of written content could look like:
- The SEO (search engine optimization) team performs keyword research and identifies areas they want to target
- The content manager approves these areas
- The content team create outlines for potential blog posts
- The content manager approves them or feeds them back for changes
- A writer completes a first draft
- An editor makes any necessary changes
- The content manager approves content to be published.
An employee contract approval workflow could look like this:
- HR sends the standard employment contract to the new hire
- The new hire either signs or asks questions
- If questions are asked and the contract is changed, it will go to the legal team to ensure it’s watertight
- The new hire signs
- The contract is signed by HR
- The contract is stored appropriately.
The right document approval workflow can save your business time and money
In the end, a well-thought-out document review and approval process can do wonders for your organization. It can save you time and money by leaving little room for miscommunication and mistakes.
If you make sure to effectively plan, develop, and implement an automated approval workflow that’s also efficient, you’ll be amazed at how much faster your documents move through the system.
Contact PandaDoc today, and see how our solutions can help you start easily achieving these goals!
Originally published March 15, 2022, updated March 17, 2023