Skip to main content

Office 365: Approvals, forms and workflows for Outlook

(Image credit: Image Credit: Helloquence / Unsplash)

Outlook is one of the most used pieces of software in the corporate world. For a reason, of course - while it’s main use is as an Email client, it usually ends up being a lot more.     

It offers several other features that help organize your daily work, such as syncing your emails with your calendar. This makes setting up and keeping track of meetings and obligations much easier.   

Outlook offers state-of-the-art security features to boot, which makes it an excellent choice for businesses of any size. In addition to all that, there’s a more “default” use for the software - as your main hub for task management and scheduling. 

While that isn’t the main purpose of Email, it just ends up like that. You receive tasks on Outlook, you send out updates on Outlook, you schedule meetings with Outlook - you get the idea. You end up using it as de-facto workflow & task management tool, something it wasn’t really created for.   

Outlook Workflow Management Uses   

Right now, Outlook’s main functionality is, of course, as an email client, but other than that, it’s used as a calendar and scheduling tool for meetings or deadlines. Outlook allows you to sync all of your tasks and meetings to the calendar, creating a “centralized” hub for your to-dos. 

To get more out of the software, you can take advantage if it’s integration with Sharepoint. Outlook has the option of using some features of a workflow software, such as approvals or forms, through Sharepoint. While this is a step towards the right direction, it severely limits the software’s potential - forms and approvals are both the most basic and essential components of any process or workflow. These functions, however, are far from covering most of workflow needs.   

One potential use for approval would be, for example, to keep track of a contract. Using outlook, you see in real-time how many decision-makers sign a certain contract. While this is, of course, convenient, there are a lot of different types of workflows that can be a game-changer for any sort of business. 

Then, other than Sharepoint, there’s the occasional workflow addon for Outlook. Those tend to be rare and a bit outdated: They use flowcharts as their main schema for workflow definition. While that was the standard years ago, now it’s a relic of a bygone era. Flowcharts can span across an entire wall. Nobody will ever look at, let alone - follow a flowchart that big.     

Flowcharts are hard to navigate on mobile. As most devices today are mobile, this can be a bit of a disadvantage. They are also “static” references designed for robotic work. People today work in a collaborative, agile way. Many of us (reading this article) are not highly paid because we follow flowcharts. 

They’re also very robotic. It’s common knowledge that business processes are rarely static - if you always get the A-B-C flow you’d planned in advance, then you’re just lucky. For flowcharts to be relevant to today’s business processes, they have to be agile - able to change depending on the situation. Otherwise, if a process gets de-railed one way or another, it might turn the entire workflow useless.   

If the world is agile, on the other hand, you can freely include the different “ifs” and “whys,” allowing your team to go through with the workflow, despite whatever might come on. 

In a theoretical scenario where one is indifferent to the aforementioned flaws, and manages to create viable workflows with Outlook, then there’s a separate issue, one very much typical for workflow software as a whole.   

Workflows tend to consists of 2 separate key parts. One is the workflow itself - being able to keep track of every step, and know how everything is moving along. The other is the management of processes themselves, and that’s something lacking in most companies.   

Most workflow software focuses on the first, neglecting the later. For workflows to go smooth, however, all the tasks and processes must be made as easy to handle as possible. 

With Outlook as a base, the best you can do is schedule the tasks using the calendar - something not meant for task management. While the calendar works perfectly for scheduling meetings, it’s not the best tool to juggle your day to day tasks.     

This holds especially true if you end up suffering from Email overload. “Who, what, where, why?” become words often shared with coworkers. If you miss out on noting down a task, you’ll end up looking for the right email with the details for hours.   

You need a central hub for your to-dos, to learn at a glance what, exactly, you have to do for the rest of the day. Plus, your personal responsibilities are often not the only thing you have to keep track of. If you depend on 3 other people to complete a task, you might end up in a situation where no one has any idea of what’s going on.   

Until now, you could use Google Chrome as a means of customizing your Gmail experience. This meant adding all sorts of functionalities on top of the regular Email client - everything ranging from standard inbox management to transforming the client into a state-of-the-art CRM.   

This, however, used to work specifically with the Chrome browser, not the Email client, severely limiting the capabilities of the Email client for anyone who wasn’t using the browser.   

At the last Cloud Next conference, however, Google announced that they’d be developing a solution to ensure that Add-on’s work on all devices - not just on the device they were installed (like on a desktop browser). This means that from here on out, Gmail will have a lot more functionality than your average email client.   

This exact same thing, if replicated by Microsoft, might give Outlook a giant boost, allowing for capabilities far beyond that of typical email management software. 3rd party plugins would allow for much better and “smarter” workflow management capabilities, making Outlook the one-stop-shop solution for all the collaboration needs - be it workflow management, task management, and anything in between. 

Amit Kothari, Founder and CEO, Tallyfy (opens in new tab)

Image Credit: Helloquence / Unsplash

Amit spent a decade in London (where he’s from) implementing complex BPM systems in large companies – and built Tallyfy after seeing the frustrations of BPM and workflow. Tallyfy is workflow management software in the cloud and the company is based in St. Louis, MO. It makes defining, tracking and improving any workflow incredibly easy.