Liberating HR with self-service systems

Many in HR are realising the liberating effects of allowing staff to access systems, freeing up time for more strategic pursuits, says Kirstie Redford

Case study: RDF Media

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HR departments are constantly being told to be more strategic. At the same time, they are expected to deal with the basic administration that traditionally falls into HR’s remit. One solution to this dilemma is self-service systems, where line managers and employees take on responsibility for a range of administrative tasks. This can include anything from ensuring staff records are up to date, to viewing payslips, activating flexible benefits, recording leave or preparing for appraisals.

Systems are usually geared towards specific areas of HR such as payroll, benefits and performance management, with many providers offering niche software. However, Jen Paice, business consultant for Snowdrop Systems, says all systems share some core benefits. “Self-service is most commonly associated with removing the administrative burden, by allowing employees and line managers to take ownership of HR information. Devolving responsibility in this way can have a great impact upon the time that HR would usually spend chasing and collating information, freeing up time for data analysis in key areas such as absence statistics, succession planning and performance reviews.”

Other benefits include cost-cutting and improved productivity. Steve Foster, HR business strategy manager at Northgate HR, says: “Systems can save around 30%-50% on HR process costs. They can also increase productivity. Self-service is about making employers work smarter and making managers more accessible.”

Barry Hoffman, head of HR at Gedas UK, which is part of the Volkswagen Group, recently implemented a self-service system that incorporates flexible benefits, reward statements, holiday booking and sickness reports. “The system is allowing us to focus on more strategic issues. By taking away the administrative burden, HR can provide a real overview of what’s happening in the workforce and how specific actions are benefiting the company. Systems also allow you to show, for example, the impact of investment in training,” he says.

And because data is validated by those who own it, the quality often improves. Mike Theaker, European partner at Mercer HR Consulting, explains: “If something impacts on an employee, they will want to update their data.” Giving staff control can provide a sense of empowerment. “Such transparency of information is a particularly effective way of tackling the secrecy barrier that often exists between HR and the rest of the organisation,” says Paice.

Benefits packages, for example, become much more visible, which can aid retention. Bettina Pickering, managing consultant at PA Consulting, says: “Motivationally, it can lock staff into the company. No one remembers their benefits. But if you can look at how your pension fund grows and download childcare vouchers online, you are more likely to know about and use them.”

Self-service†flexible benefits schemes, meanwhile, can help to attract staff to an organisation.

Alternatively, self-service systems can help to control payroll dates. “Having a self-service system for payroll can also reduce errors in time and attendance data capture,” says Theaker. Online payslips can also help staff to access backdated information without having to ask HR.

Pay reviews are another area where systems can add value. “Pay review authorisation has to go around departments and travel back and forth if it doesn’t fit budgets. If you can do this online, it creates an audit trail, making it quicker to get authorisation. You can then often email a letter directly to the employee. This cuts out lots of signatures and admin cycles,” says Pickering.

Performance management can also be carried out via self-service systems. Employees can set their own objectives online, view those set by managers and receive email alerts to remind them of deadlines.

While this is no replacement for a face-to-face appraisal, it can prompt line managers to take action. “People regard the performance process as a hard slog. Presenting information online motivates staff and managers to make that investment,” says Northgate’s Foster.

Reports pulled from such systems, meanwhile, can be analysed to glean performance levels and trends in different parts of an organisation. “You can spot if there is an unusual number of high or low performers in a specific department,” says Pickering. This can then enable performance management to be linked to training. “Employees can see what courses they’d like to go on without having to ask for information,” she explains.

Gedas’ Hoffman says that planning leave has vastly improved since going down this route. With 300 staff at different sites and some field-based workers, arranging leave by paper and email was very haphazard. “We worked out it was taking us at least half a day each month to manage holidays. Now there is no admin overhead and we don’t lose track of anyone’s leave, which did used to happen if paper was lost or line managers changed. We can also see peaks and troughs in leave taken in different departments. This shows us where we’re likely to suffer if people are away so we can plan to avoid it.”

But implementing a system needs careful planning. “Paper-based, outdated material is often just shovelled onto the intranet without consideration of its objectives. HR sites are often dull and unfriendly and are therefore not used. With self-service systems, you have to have a clear view of what you want, how to structure [data] and present it with ease of use,” says Mercer’s Theaker.

It can also be a lengthy process. Watson estimates that implementing a self-service system with full flexible benefits will take around four to six months. Another consideration is cost. Licences for new systems are often charged per employee, so depending on the size of a workforce it could be expensive. And if firms have outdated software it could add an extra expense, because they may have to build new interfaces. “Justifying costs is often only achievable if the HR department can be downsized. Before you make any decisions, work out how much you want to spend as costs often spiral when you start integrating systems,” says Pickering.

Overall however, self-service looks here to stay, leaving HR teams free to work on higher-level strategy and, ultimately, add more value to an organisation.

Key benefits of self-service systems:

  • Free HR teams to work on more strategic tasks.
  • Empower line managers and employees.
  • Improve the quality of employee data.
  • Reduce the cost of HR processes.
  • Make staff benefits more visible and encourage take-up.
  • Help HR identify trends in absence and performance data.

But beware of:

Costs: systems can be expensive to implement.
Time: systems can take months to implement.
Technology: systems may need to be compatible with legacy IT.

Case study: RDF Media

Television production company RDF Media has 120 permanent staff, with an additional 200-300 on fixed-term contracts.

The firm needed a system that could generate tailored employment contracts on demand and let employees update their own data in a secure environment, while on location.

In April 2004, RDF Media selected Snowdrop Systems to replace its employee records database and install software that encouraged employees to update their own records. The new system eliminated the need for traditional paper-based processes, enabling employees to access and update personal data such as sickness absence and holiday requests.

Julie Hirsch, director of HR, says: “It has released the HR team from some of the more time-consuming and tedious tasks. Our people find it easy to use and feel it is a good way to keep their personal data in order, despite their hectic filming schedules.”