Help yourself with employee self-service computer applications

Basic employee self-service systems have been around for years, but advances in web technology mean human resources professionals can pass on ever more complex processes to managers. Jessica Twentyman investigates.

For many employees, the days of dropping by the HR department to notify staff of a change of address or to hand over a holiday request form are long gone.

Employee self-service (ESS) applications have transformed the way they interact with personnel managers, enabling them to view, add or amend information that relates to them on HR systems via the internet.

ESS is most advanced in the US, where consultancy firm Towers Perrin predicts that, by the end of 2008, 99% of large organisations will allow staff to enrol for benefits using ESS systems.

In the UK, however, organisations in both the public and private sectors are some way behind their US counterparts in implementing ESS, says Martin Reddington, former programme director of e-HR transformation at Cable & Wireless and now an independent HR consultant to a number of organisations, including Essex County Council and systems integration company Morse.

“There are still organisations at the very traditional end of the scale when it comes to HR transformation,” he says. “There are some local authorities, for example, that still send out paper forms – they simply don’t have the scale to get the benefits out of a major e-HR installation.”

ESS evolution

The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is not one of those. Already, employees there can make basic changes to personal records, including to address and bank details, and can book holidays and training online, using the ESS components of the council’s Northgate HR system.

“These days, people are happy to use the internet for work and in their free time, so we were fairly confident that as long as employees could see the benefits and [the system] was easy to use, they would accept it,” says contracts manager Paul Lawrence.

But ESS is no longer confined to merely replacing paper forms, says Alex Bartfeld, director for HR software company Softscape for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, where major customers include bus operator Arriva and financial services giant Barclays.

“These applications have come on by miles over the past five years, to the extent that we hardly use the term ‘self-service’ any more,” he says. “Customers now expect, as a matter of course, that a web-based HR system will sweep away the burden of manual administrative processes.”

Manager self-service

The focus now, he says, is on more strategic applications and ‘manager self-service’ (MSS), encompassing processes such as performance management. That’s certainly true at Airwave Solutions, which implements and manages mobile communications technologies for emergency services such as police forces and ambulance brigades.

Rapid growth in Airwave’s headcount, which currently stands at around 800 staff, prompted the company to implement ESS applications in the areas of performance management and learning management. These will enable its HR department to align employee goals with business objectives, track and measure their performance, and ensure that essential training is completed, particularly in the area of health and safety, according to Emily Wylie, the company’s learning and development manager.

“The system will guide our employees and managers through every step of the review process, formalising expectations and enabling them to record their achievements in meeting these, so that they can be rewarded for their performance,” she explains.

When learning management applications are rolled out later this year, the HR department will get a better insight into the company’s talent pool from information on skills and training submitted by the employees themselves, and will be more proactive in identifying potential skills gaps, she adds. Ensuring that these applications are easy to navigate and understand was a top priority for Airwave, she adds.

“Training every member of staff to use the applications and providing extensive hand-holding simply isn’t an option – we have far more pressing issues to deal with,” she says. “And employees expect every application to be as easy to use, and as effective, as Google. Anything too complicated is a turn-off,” she adds.

Web pressure

In fact, the more like the consumer internet experience, the better, according to Reddington. “What staff want is an experience – whether it’s with HR, procurement or finance – that’s akin to shopping on Amazon,” he says.

This puts pressure on software providers to bring their products up to speed with employee expectations, says Ann Fitzpatrick, commercial director at Northgate HR.

“I get pretty grumpy if web solutions don’t work as quickly and efficiently as I expect them to, and I think most web users are the same,” she says. “So we’ve put a lot of research and development into streamlining our ESS applications.

“For example, last year, we worked with a client to make sure that the process of registering a new starter, performed by their line manager using ESS, took three minutes instead of five, and could be performed on a single screen instead of multiple ones,” she says.

“It’s not about chucking in every bell and whistle,” agrees Bartfeld. “It’s about reducing the number of clicks required to perform a function, and focusing on simplicity of layout and design.”

Time for strategy

But what do the new possibilities of ESS applications mean for HR managers? The theory of one-click self-service goes that it frees them up to concentrate on strategic matters – but is that really the case?

It can be, says Reddington, who notes that in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s recent survey The Changing Face of HR, the amount of time that HR staff spend on administrative tasks has fallen from 50% three years ago to 36% today. Meanwhile, the amount of time devoted to strategic issues has risen from 12% to 23% – and ESS is a principal driver behind that transformation, he says.

But in reality, he says, it can take an HR department time to adjust to a reduced administrative burden, and much depends on how easy to use the new employee-driven systems are.

“The results seen with ESS are occasionally disappointing, but my overall feeling is that, where it’s done right, the feedback from HR departments, line managers and employees is overwhelmingly positive,” says Reddington.

Case study: T-Mobile

After a major upgrade to its SAP enterprise resource planning system, mobile operator T-Mobile decided to do some research on how exactly employee self-service (ESS) affected its HR staff and line managers.

The arrival of a new HR director in July 2006 had led to a shift in the organisation’s culture towards being more retail-focused, and the company wanted to ensure that its HR systems reflected this.

Later that year, it conducted a number of focus groups and a web-based survey among line managers on how they felt about access to HR systems. Employees felt HR performed well on responding to staff queries via its e-mail service, 24@T-Mobile, which enables staff to ask HR questions (such as: ‘Can I bring my dog to work?’). They also praised the accuracy and quality of the data in the HR systems.

One area where HR fell down was in the training and communication about the system – staff felt HR should be more visible and accessible. Some staff also resented the fact that they had to adapt to the system, rather than the other way around.

In response to its research, T-Mobile’s HR team has since introduced a number of improvements and additional services, including an objective management system that allows managers to record employee objectives, give them scores and input feedback.

“This has helped us make it clear what everyone is accountable for. Everyone in the business has had to input their objectives. We then look at how they fit in with the organisation’s ‘big six’ goals,” explains Sue Babb, T-Mobile’s HR systems manager. In terms of communications, HR business partners are all trained up on the system, so can coach managers when need be, she adds.

The fact that the system aligns so closely with the organisation’s overall goals has raised HR’s profile at T-Mobile, believes Babb. “It has brought HR closer to the business as there’s more focus on the front line,” she says.

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