Before beginning its digital transformation project in 2018, Bedford Borough Council relied on paper-based processes to deal with thousands of employee transactions.
“In recruitment, someone would have to download an application form, get the candidate to complete it, email it in and place it in a folder,” explains HR manager Sarah Fuller.
“It was the same with any other employee changes – a manager would download a new starter or leaver form from the intranet, fill it in and send it to an authorising officer. Things got lost and you’d have to chase people. We just hadn’t moved with the times.”
The level of transactions was increased and complicated by the fact that Bedford provides HR and payroll services to around 100 local schools, something that generates around £1 million in vital revenue for the council each year.
The council already had an HR system in place from Zellis but, as Fuller admits, “was using a system that was built like a Ferrari more like a Reliant Robin”.
It had been in discussions with a consulting company about building a new digital platform but felt it would be better to stay with its incumbent provider and customise it for its future needs. Since 2018, it has added numerous additional modules including mileage and expenses, a digital leaver process and new workflows for all transactions.
“We had financial pressures then as we do now, so the whole authority made the decision to digitise processes to deliver savings,” she adds.
“We had to put a business case together with recommendations as to how we would use the capital to fund the project and think about how we would backfill the operational side of HR and payroll.
“We decided to implement it in phases so we could involve different areas at different stages, rather than them feeling it was ‘being done to them’. It was important not to take a ‘big bang’ approach – something we’d learned from previous change processes.”
Departments were fully involved in the user acceptance and testing phase, for example, providing feedback in the early stages so changes could be made.
HR also worked closely with internal communications teams to publish user guides and posters, alongside drop-in sessions for training and addressing ‘snags’ with the software.
This was all happening while the people team was itself undergoing a service redesign, according to Fuller. Previously separate HR and payroll teams were merged into one and upskilled in the respective teams’ areas of expertise. Delicate change management was essential.
“Some employees needed to learn a different way of working, which was a challenge, but we supplied training,” she adds. Headcount was reduced thanks to teams being merged, but much of this was through natural attrition and roles not being replaced.
The whole digital transformation project needed to deliver around £420,000 in savings over five years and Fuller estimates that increasing levels of automation and digitisation of HR processes has delivered more than half of that.
There has been more respect for HR and what we do, and managers feel it is easier to interact with us.” – Sarah Fuller, Bedford Borough Council
As well as delivering savings, implementing the system more fully has helped Bedford win more business in terms of supplying payroll services to schools, with 10 more on its books since the transformation project. “Without implementing a [digital] schools portal, we would not have won this new business,” Fuller explains.
The success of the digitisation project has improved the credibility of HR in the council, she argues, with all 2,500 employees now engaging with digital services for their payslips and other aspects of the employee lifecycle.
“There has been more respect for HR and what we do, and managers feel it is easier to interact with us, so our reputation has improved as a result.”
“People get a great candidate experience right from the beginning, and that filters through to the offer stage,” says Fuller.
“When employees are onboarded they have access to the system before they start, including induction materials, a video from the CEO, the forms they need to complete. It means they feel part of the organisation before they even join.”
Existing employees have a better experience of HR because everything they need is in one place, and the approvals process is much quicker. “The best thing is that nothing gets lost because you’re not relying on forms and waiting for managers. There’s less chance of error because there’s no manual input,” she adds.
Despite being thrown into the challenges of the pandemic mid-way through the transformation process, Fuller feels the project has achieved its aims. “It really felt like we were making a change,” she concludes. “It takes time to change a culture but this is definitely shifting the way we work.”