The ROI for replacing email with workflow notifications

Written by Peter Hilton | 5 min read
Published on: June 30th 2016 - Last modified: November 13th, 2020

The first part of the business case for workflow automation, based on reducing the cost of reading and writing routine email notifications

Just about every business would benefit from replacing email and spreadsheets with workflow management. This article explains why replacing email with automated workflow notifications can create a return on investment (ROI) by itself, with typical cost savings of €25000 per month.

Businesses rely on email, in particular, because its universal adoption make it the default choice for asynchronous communication. However, as we all know, we overuse email and would prefer less of it.

Emailing each other about the work we do

A small percentage of the email we send and receive communicates specific kinds of updates about the work we’re doing, such as writing a report. Sometimes we send each other status updates.

Subject: Q2 progress report

Hi Anne, I’m back from holiday and I’ve started writing the report you asked me to work on.

In face to face conversation, it’s polite to respond somehow when someone says something to you, so we often do that by email as well.

Subject: RE: Q2 progress report

Hi Peter, thanks for letting me know. I look forward to reading the first draft.

We also combine status updates with task handovers, when you ask someone else to continue the work, which is a fundamental aspect of collaboration.

Subject: RE: Q2 progress report

Hi Anne, I’ve finished the first draft - attached. Please review and let me know what you think.

We send these emails as a matter of course when we work in a team, to keep people informed and to keep the work moving, until the work is complete.

Subject: 2016 second quarter - progress report

Dear all, please find attached the final version of this last quarter’s progress report.

When you look at all of this activity from a process point of view, you can see that the important parts of the work are writing the report and reviewing drafts. Sending these emails, on the other hand, is just a hassle. What’s more, it turns out to be unnecessary hassle.

Politeness - the hidden cost of emailing status updates

The previous section illustrates how we send emails that serve as status updates for a business process, such as writing and distributing a report. Aside from the visible cost of sending and receiving these emails, they also incur a hidden cost.

The email examples above are artificially short. In practice we tend to write longer emails than that, even when we don’t have anything extra to say. For example, the first email would probably start with some ‘small talk’.

Hi Anne, how’s it going?

I just got back from holiday in Singapore, which was great. The city is amazing and you can get all kinds of food there - the chicken and prawn satay was the best street food I’ve ever had. It’s too hot all the time, though…

Anne will probably start her reply with some comment on South East Asia, good food or tropical weather. It would almost be rude not to. Now both email and reply have twice as many words.

These short business emails often have additional written politeness at the end as well. As colleagues become friends, or at least vague acquaintances, emails gather forward-looking friendliness.

You know, it’s been ages since we had a chance to catch up. We should get lunch sometime.

Catch you later,

… etc

The final cost of these longer emails, apart from the obvious that they take longer to type, is that the essential information gets buried in the small talk. Business process status updates sent as informal emails take longer to read.

Reducing the cost of email updates

workflow automation reduces the cost of status updates by sending email notifications automatically. This eliminates the time spent writing those emails that simply report a status update or inform someone of a task handover. Instead, workflow automation sends a standard email.

Hi Anne,

Task ‘Review report’ (Q2 progress report) was assigned to you.

-- workflow automation

To unsubscribe:

The standard email is does not contain any unnecessary information and always has the same format, which makes it faster to read. Standard emails avoid the hidden cost of the politeness that email normally requires, which is acceptable because we recognise automatic email notifications as such and don’t expect them to be personal.

The cost of a single email

The first factor in the ROI calculation is the time cost of sending a single status update email. This depends on several factors.

  • Composition time - the average time taken to write an email
  • Follow-up time - the total average time taken to write follow-ups for emails that get ignored or forgotten
  • Reading time - the total additional time taken to read a personal email, compared to a notification, including multiple readings

Here are rough estimates:

  • Composition time = 2 minutes
  • Follow-up time = 0.5 minutes (half of emails sent require a one-minute follow up)
  • Reading time = 0.5 minutes (15 seconds more than for personal email, read twice)

Adding these together, each status update email then costs 3 minutes of employee time.

Calculating ROI for workflow automation

To calculate email replacement’s contribution to the ROI for workflow automation, we only need to consider the number of status update notifications that caseworkers send by email each day. This is simpler and more useful than estimating the number of processes that can be automated, the number of notifications per case, and the number of cases per day.

To calculate the cost of sending email manually, start with rough estimates for a typical organisation using workflow automation and whose employees work on a moderate number of cases each day:

  • Time spent per email = 3 minutes = 0.05 hours (see above)
  • Number of notifications = 5 per employee per day
  • Case worker employee cost = €50 per hour
  • Number of caseworkers using workflow system = 100

The email costs that you could save by using workflow automation are therefore:

  • Cost saved per month = time per email × update emails per employee per day × days × rate × employees = 0.05 hours × 5 per day × 20 days per month × €50 per hour × 100 case workers = €25000 per month

This is significant when compared to typical software costs, which are likely to be lower and do not all depend on the number of users. Set-up costs, such as maintaining process models, do not increase with the number of people or the number of cases, so they increase more slowly than the savings.

Although these are substantial potential savings, the amounts are sensitive to the various factors in the calculation, so it is important to adjust the initial numbers for your own situation. For example, with some discipline, you can reduce the length of time it takes to write a status update email, but in practice you probably only end up doing that if you have correspondingly more cases to deal with each day.


These estimates suggest that time saved on email alone may provide the return on investment for workflow automation. This is more likely to be the case for organisations that handle a relatively large number of cases per month, for one or more processes. Organisations should therefore make their own estimates and calculate this ROI.

Reducing the cost of email is just one of many factors in the ROI for workflow automation. These estimations are just for email - we didn’t even look at the spreadsheets yet.

Photo: Snapshooter46 / CC BY 2.0

Published on: June 30th 2016 - Last modified: November 13th, 2020