How to Get Started with SharePoint Workflows

Grace Windsor
By | Updated October 30, 2019 | 7 min read
How to Get Started with SharePoint Workflows
A workflow is a way of getting tasks done in a logical way.

According to Forrester, employees who used workflow automation increased their productivity by 8 to 15 percent.


Watch: Using SharePoint Workflows for Project Team Collaboration


SharePoint workflows are “pre-programmed mini-applications that streamline and automate a wide variety of business processes.”

In this article, we’ll cover five out-of-the-box SharePoint workflows you can use on your projects:

  • Approval
  • Collect Feedback
  • Collect Signatures
  • Three-state
  • Publishing.


Introduction to SharePoint Workflows

SharePoint workflows help project teams to collaborate on documents and manage tasks easily.

SharePoint workflows run on lists and libraries. There are three types of SharePoint workflows:

  1. A list workflow is used on a list or library. These workflows are often triggered by an event, for example, the creation of a new list item.
  2. A reusable workflow is created at site level and is available in other sites.
  3. A site workflow is not connected to a list or content type, and can be used anywhere in a site. Examples include archiving completed tasks in a project site at the end of each day. This workflow must be triggered manually.


Uses of SharePoint workflows include:

  • Approving new procurement contracts.
  • Managing a help desk.
  • Assigning tasks and work.
  • Setting reminders for project phases.
  • Dealing with vacation requests.


SharePoint ships with five types of workflows. These workflows are available with every version of SharePoint.

If you are using SharePoint 2010, you will build workflows on the SharePoint 2010 workflow engine only. SharePoint 2019/2016/2013/Online can use the SharePoint 2010 or 2013 workflow engine.

Before we take a look at the workflows, it’s important to review permissions. SharePoint workflows depend on permissions, which are managed in groups.


Add a Workflow

To add a workflow, you will need the Manage Lists permission.

This is added by default to the Owners group, which have full site control.


Start a Workflow

To start a workflow, you will need the Edit Lists permission, available to both the Members and Owners group.

The Members group can add, edit, and delete site content.


As we’ll see below, certain workflows must be activated by a site administrator.


5 Out-of-the-box SharePoint Workflows

1. Approval

The Approval Workflow is used to share a document or an item in a SharePoint list or library with one or more individuals for approval.

This workflow must be activated by the site administrator at the site collection level.


SharePoint Approval Workflow



When adding the workflow to your site, you need to:

  • Specify how many people to include.
  • Decide if the tasks will run one after another (serial) or all at once (parallel).
  • Set a due date.


The workflow can be triggered manually or automatically, for example, each time a document is added to the project library.

Once triggered, the approval workflow assigns a task to each specified individual. They can approve or reject the item, request a change, or cancel the task.

The workflow can also be used to control the quality and accuracy of any new documents added to a project library.

Note – the item under review cannot be changed; instead, reviewers send the document back for updates.

Use the ‘Collect Feedback’ workflow described below to gather feedback as needed.



2. Collect Feedback

The Collect Feedback Workflow is used to gather feedback on a document.

The workflow set-up is similar to the approval workflow and must be activated by the site administrator at the site collection level.


SharePoint Collect Feedback Workflow


Feedback can be gathered in:

  • Single or multiple stages.
  • Parallel (at the same time) or serially (in order, one at a time). With this option, you can end the workflow after the first rejection.


When using this workflow, you’ll need to decide how the feedback is collected:

  • Leave comments on the task form only.
  • Insert track changes and add comments to the item itself.


If individuals can edit the document directly, you will need to set how this process will work. There are two options:

  • Collaborative environment, allowing multiple individuals to work on the document at the same time.
  • Sole-access environment, requiring each individual to check out the document for review.


If needed, you can cancel the workflow if the item under review is changed.


3. Collect Signatures

The Collect Signatures Workflow is used with Word documents, Excel workbooks, and InfoPath forms.

Again, this workflow runs in a similar way to the above workflows and must be added to the site by the site administrator.


SharePoint Collect Signature Workflow



Before starting the workflow, you must add signature lines for each required individual.

Once a signature is added to the signature line, the document is locked from all changes aside from adding more signatures.

Inserting or deleting a signature line after the first signature is added counts as a change. If a line is inserted or removed, previously added signatures are removed from the document.

To add your digital signature to a document, you must have a digital certificate to prove your identity to relying parties.


4. Three-State Workflow

The Three-state Workflow tracks the status of a list item, like a task, through three states or phases.

The workflow can be used with any list that has a choice column with three or more values, for example, not started, in progress, and done.




Before using the Three-state workflow, you’ll need to create a list with the items you wish to track.

Note – the workflow will only work with one choice column and three choices. You will need to specify the column and choices when adding the workflow to a list.

When the workflow is started, the relevant individual is assigned a task, for example, write new copy for a website. Once the task is marked as complete, the workflow updates the status, and moves the task into the next step, such as review.

To help relevant individuals work on their tasks, you can add extra information to each step of the workflow. This can include:

  • Task title
  • Description
  • Due date
  • Assigned to.


To complete a task in this workflow, users must have the ‘Edit Items’ permission for the relevant list.


5. Publishing Approval

The Publishing Approval Workflow is used for publishing new sites. It is not used for publishing site collections.

With this workflow, new content can only be published once reviewed by all approvers in the workflow.


Managing workflows is quite straightforward using the Workflow Status Page. This page lists the following information:

  • Name of the person who started with workflow.
  • Start date and time.
  • Date and time of the last run.
  • Name and link to the document or item used in the workflow.
  • Current status.
  • List of tasks assigned to the workflow participants.
  • List of all events in the history of the workflow, for example, task creation.


The history of a workflow is maintained for 60 days after the workflow is complete.


Video: Collecting Document Feedback Workflow

In this video, BrightWork Customer Success Architect, Scott Footlik, explains how to use the Collect Feedback Workflow.



Tips for Using SharePoint Workflows

Before adding SharePoint workflows to your project site, it’s important to have a high-level process for planning, adding, running, and modifying your workflows.

  1. Plan the workflow on paper before turning to SharePoint.
  2. Decide which workflow is suitable for your requirements.
  3. Add the workflow to the relevant list, library, or site collection.
  4. Start the workflow, either manually or automatically.
  5. Whilst the workflow is running, use the Workflow Status page to track progress or cancel the workflow.
  6. Spend some time reviewing the workflow data and speak with the team to identify improvements.
  7. Update the workflow as needed.



These five out-of-the-box SharePoint workflows should cover most requirements on a project, helping to save time and improve collaboration.

Grace Windsor
Grace Windsor

Grace is a content creator within the marketing team at BrightWork. She loves creating actionable content in different formats to help others achieve more project success. Grace spent far too long at university studying English literature, which instilled a life-long love of learning and upskilling. In her free time, she enjoys a challenging session at the gym, tucking into a good book, and walking the beautiful Galway coastline with her dog.

Read Full Bio
Don't forget to share this post!