How much of your day do you spend performing repetitive tasks that take time away from work you'd rather be doing? Many of us have to perform the same tasks over and over across multiple applications that don't talk to each other. We are also not programmers, so figuring out how to get them to talk to each other isn't within the realm of possibility--or is it?
Enter the world of automation services: these productivity apps feature pre-built ‘recipes’ to connect the different applications you use and automate tasks. They make life simpler by creating connections that wouldn't otherwise exist between apps that you use. IFTTT is probably the most well-known, and Zapier is a close second. Microsoft is now in the game, too, with Microsoft Flow. Flow is free to use with a Microsoft or Office 365 account at http://flow.microsoft.com.
The service supports automating interactions and workflows between more than 100 services such as Salesforce, Dropbox, Blogger, Twitter, Google Drive, Github, and Basecamp.
So, how can Flow save you time? From the interface, you start by creating a flow, Microsoft's name for an automation rule. You can browse or search for templated flows that other users have already created, or you can build your own from scratch. You will find templated flows for things such as automatic notifications, data collection, approvals, calendar syncing, and file copying.
1. Getting automatic notifications
A common use of Microsoft Flow is to get a notification when something happens. Notifications can be emails, text messages, or push notifications on your phone. For example, you can have a flow that sends you a reminder 10 minutes after you push a button on your phone:
Using this flow you can send yourself a custom delayed reminder - for example, when you are close to completing a meeting or when you step into the office.
Or, if you're tired of getting caught in the rain without an umbrella on your way to work, you can set up a flow to notify you if there's a good chance it will rain tomorrow:
Are you a Twitter superuser? Then you might find it helpful to have Tweets that containcertain keywords emailed to you instead of scouring Twitter yourself:
This flow will track tweets about a keyword and send them to your Outlook.com inbox. You'll get an email every time there's a tweet about your keyword along with some basic user details.
To learn more about setting up notifications, check out this online training from Microsoft.
2. Copying files
Today, it's very common to use a file storage service, such as OneDrive, Dropbox, or Google Drive. Have you ever needed to copy files from one storage service to another? Microsoft Flow has a huge set of templates that move and copy files between two file storage services:
To learn more about copying files, check out this online training from Microsoft.
3. Collecting data
Automating the collection of data is probably the number one time saver for digitally savvy workers. You can collect data from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and store it in Excel. For example, if you want to keep track of all the tweets about your business, you can automatically archive all them to an Excel file stored in Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Drive.
If you want to take things a step further, you can run sentiment analyses on tweets and push results to a Power BI dataset:
Or, you could do something more simple like tracking the number of hours you worked on a project:
Using this template, each button tap will log the current time to an Excel table.
To learn more about collecting data, check out this online training from Microsoft.
4. Getting approvals
Are you looking to make it easier to manage things like making vacation requests and booking time off? Microsoft Flow can help. For example, you can create a custom flow that begins with having your employees create vacation requests in a SharePoint list. Whenever a new request is added to the list, a notification is sent to the supervisor to approve it. When the supervisor approves the vacation request, an approval email is automatically sent back to the employee. Then, you can use a pre-built template to book the time off in your calendars:
This flow blocks time in the employee's and supervisor's calendars for approved time off.
Check out this training from Microsoft on how to build vacation request flows.
5. Sync two calendars together
Many of us spend too much time working between our various calendars saying things like, “OK, I’m free at that time on my work calendar, but what about my personal calendar?” Instead of switching back and forth between calendars, you can use a simple template that copies your personal calendar (ie. Google) to your work calendar (Office 365):
For a detailed description of how to set this up, check out this post on Medium.
We've barely scratched the surface on the kinds of flows you can build in Microsoft Flow, but hopefully you've gained some insight in to how you could use it to free up more time for doing other things.
Microsoft Flow is an extremely open platform that allows anyone to submit their own connectors for anyone else to use. It is available for business and IT users both on the web and via Android and iOS apps. Check it out and let us know what you've been able to accomplish with it in our comments section below.