Making Basic Approvals More Advanced
The concepts behind the Teams Approvals app are well known: simple workflow that’s easy to use. Well, things get a little less simple but remain still simple to use with the introduction of approval templates. Microsoft signaled the new functionality at Ignite last March, blogged about approval templates (among other features) in April, and followed up with message center notification MC246003. The latest update is that approval templates will achieve general availability at the end of May 2021 with all tenants receiving the functionality by mid-June. The feature is available now in preview, if this is allowed by your tenant.
Up to now, only basic approvals are available. Basic approvals use a standard form which Microsoft recently upgraded to support eSignature capabilities. However, the basic approval request is very basic and includes approver names and some details about the request. It’s enough to get some work done, but not good enough for many workflow scenarios. This is where approval templates come in.
Sample Approval Templates and the Role of Forms
Microsoft 365 roadmap item 81408 briefly informs us that “User can simply choose a template provided by their tenant admins or a Team Owner when creating a new approval request.” Putting some more flesh on the bones of this sketchy description, to give customers a start, Microsoft has a set of sample approval templates in the “template store” (Figure 1).
Organizations can use the sample templates as the basis for the templates they publish to users or create new templates from scratch to satisfy specific business requirements. Sample templates like purchase orders, business trips, and item maintenance show how to be creative when composing templates, but you’re always limited by the form designer. Teams has chosen a cut-down version of Microsoft Forms for this purpose which supports a subset of the field types available in normal Forms. In saying that, you can still get a lot of work done with text fields, date fields, attachments, and choices. The good thing about choosing Forms is that users can process approvals on mobile devices.
Not everyone needs access to approval templates. When you create a new template, you scope it to define who can create approval requests using the template. The choices are:
- Org-wide: Anyone in the organization can use the template to create a new approval request.
- Org-wide but limited to specific people: Only the specified users can use the template.
- Team-wide: Any team member can use the template.
Creating a New Approvals Template
Now that we know the basics, let’s move on to how to create a template. On an ongoing basis, the Office 365 for IT Pros team conducts chapter reviews to ensure technical accuracy and to pick up errors like grammar and spelling mistakes. At present, we are in the middle of a full-scale review cycle as we prepare for the launch of the 2022 edition in July. Given this, it seemed to make sense to build an approval template from scratch to allow an author to ask an editor for a technical or copy edit.
Anyone with experience of using Microsoft Forms will not be challenged when creating a new approvals template. A three-stage process is used:
- Assign basic settings like the template name, its category, description, and scope.
- Edit the template layout (Figure 2).
- Add workflow settings. For example, can the requester decide who should approve requests or should the template include a fixed set of approvers. You can also set custom responses for approvers and define if the sender needs to include an attachment. As you can see in Figure 3, our template mandates an attachment (the file to review) and we use custom responses to approve or deny requests created using the template.
After saving the template, you can preview it to see how approval requests look like when created. This is useful, but a better test is to use the template to create a new request to see how the form looks when received by an approver. Figure 4 shows why. On the left, the descriptions used for the fields in the form are quite long, so they take up a lot of space when viewed by an approver. Making the descriptions shorter (the right-hand image) allows Teams to display more of the important data. Including that an attachment is present. Figure 4 also shows how the custom responses appear to a reviewer.
Apart from displaying different information to a basic approval request, the processing of requests created using a template follows the same route. Users can see the requests they have sent and received through the Approvals app (Figure 5). There’s no obvious difference in the appearance of requests created using the basic form and those created with a custom template.
The Approvals Admin Team
The first time you create a custom approvals template, Teams creates a new team called the Approvals App Admin team. While team owners can create new approval templates for use in their teams, the owners of this team are allowed to create new org-wide templates. Although the Teams development group wants to use their own product, a mail-enabled security group would be a better choice for this purpose, not least because the danger that the team is removed by an expiration policy because of lack of activity. If something happens to the team and it isn’t restored in the 30-day soft-deletion period, the link between the Approvals app and the team will be broken. Microsoft isn’t saying, but I assume that some support magic will then be needed to restore the connection.
Adding approval templates makes the Teams Approvals app much more functional while retaining its ease of use. There’s a lot to like about the new capabilities and it will be interesting to see how inventive people are in how they use templates. I expect Microsoft to add more features (and probably more sample templates) over time to build out the Approvals app. It’s something worth keeping an eye on.