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Does self-service really save time?

Despite the boon to employee autonomy, HR must be careful not to streamline itself out of existence

You know HR self-service has truly gone mainstream when it’s the staff themselves devising the next iteration. This is what exactly happened at management consultancy firm North Highland, where manager Paul Hutchinson suggested a new self-service feedback tool.

“We had an internal innovation competition, and the problem I immediately wanted to tackle was our 360-degree feedback and quarterly appraisals,” he explains. “For just one review process I was dealing with 48 sheets of paper – I laid them out – and I was also still using Excel spreadsheets. The process bred mediocrity; I wanted feedback to be more habitual and captured better.”

The solution he came up with was CULR (pronounced ‘colour’), a smartphone app where employees give feedback out of four stars on other team members. Usage has been spectacular – in a business of 300 people 100 use it every day. “HR can start aggregating ratings, contrast these to other projects, gauge staff experience and we’re about to add functionality where HR is alerted if too many low ratings are reported,” he says. “It’s using Twitter functionality and putting it to good use.”

Although at other companies self-service is more likely to be HR- and software provider- lead, this instance provides a snapshot of the current self-serve climate. The logic is that by taking HR away from humdrum processes – benefits, recruitment, onboarding, creating employee-accessed knowledge banks, pensions modelling and performance reviews (and even less humdrum areas such as talent management and succession) – as much as 30% to 50% of time is saved (according to provider Northgate HR). Suddenly HR is free to do the ‘big stuff’ it always wanted.

Well that’s the theory. What about the reality? Is it all starting to go a bit too far, and what of the poor workers who may now feel they’re doing HR’s job for them? Is it time to rewind?

“If you’re going to devolve things you need to know why,” warns Gary Miles, Roffey Park’s director of associate relations. “HR can justify it if managers can see it’s adding value. But if line managers don’t see HR changing that’s where problems arise.” He adds: “HR is becoming more strategic, but whether self-service is actually helping relations with the line is debatable. And I worry that if too much is removed HR risks divorcing itself from the ‘personal’ nature of the role.”

HR consultant Zoe Spicer, formerly HRD at Adobe, sees things similarly. “You’ve got to remember self-service is a cultural change for employees too,” she says. “And like all things it can go too far. At its simplest it’s about doing dull HR differently. But HRDs must figure out what’s going to work for whom, not just passing everything down and saying ‘over to you’. There can be a risk HR isn’t communicating that it’s developing the HR service, not doing less.”

According to Miles, the over-expansion of self-service “calls into question where HR is going as a function”. “Take recruitment,” he says. “HR professionals add psychology, personality. It’s not a transactional process you can lose. Get rid of everything and you wonder what HR’s even there for. Unless it’s developing a strategic OD role at the same time, people could start to wonder why we need the HR function in the first place. It could be doing itself out of a job.”

There is an odd irony to this debate. HR is often lamented as being too cuddly, or failing to rid itself of process. But as soon as it addresses this, it faces accusations it’s losing its touchy-feely side. “HR probably can’t win,” concedes Mike Greatwood, ex-HRD at Computacentre, now CEO of DMP Consultancy. “Without technology process used to be a complete consumer of HR leaders’ time. But I think the challenge is inputting it while maintaining HR’s reputation. It must be about the value it adds to the business. The quid-pro-quo is that HR has to pledge spending more time on things that can’t be systemised, like severance pay, malpractice, disciplinaries, and strategy. The challenge for HR is behavioural.”

But here’s the rub: sometimes self-service doesn’t actually reduce HR’s admin time at all. “One of the problems I encounter is that HR thinks self-service takes away an HR role – but actually it often adds to their tasks,” says Ed Smithson, head of flex and share plans at Xerox HR Services. “Anything that involves employee interaction requires extra work. Staff are becoming more and more time poor. What HR doesn’t realise is that it has to spend time promoting the service, writing communications, and chasing up workers to ensure they are using it. It can be that technology creates a different form of time inefficiency. That’s why it’s essential line managers are also engaged.”

However, different activities are designed to yield different results. And the consensus from HRDs HR magazine spoke to is that when it comes to helping either the HR function, line managers, the organisation, or staff, self-service does deliver – even if not to all these stakeholders all of the time.

“Does [self-service HR] necessarily save HR time?” muses Daisy Mason, HR business partner at engineering consultancy BMT Group. “No, but that’s probably not the main aim. We use an app – Pensions Wizard – to provide our staff with pensions advice. We have 50 pension funds employees can potentially invest in, and the system will give forecasts based on what they input as their attitude to risk.” She says: “The idea is for staff to become more knowledgeable about risk. We still get requests for advice, but that’s OK because it means they are using it.”

But for Gary McFarlane, head of operational HR at the University of Bradford, the best of both worlds – HR efficiency and line manager employee engagement – is possible. “Until this time last year we felt we were working at a junior level,” he explains of a previous portal system for dealing with basic HR requests – policies, contracts and answers to questions for example. “We needed to make a jump forward,” he says. “We’ve partnered with a provider called ServiceNow to pull together commonly asked questions from our 1,800 permanent and 500 temporary staff, answered in a smarter way.” The result has been a mass centralisation of all HR documents, the creation of a Q&A database, and even the ability for employees to leave feedback on whether their questions have been answered.

McFarlane says: “HR gets an average of 1,500 to 2,000 queries every month, and since the self-service portal has arrived around 50% are now answered direct, without needing to escalate a call to us.” HR headcount has been reduced from eight to five and a half permanent team members thanks to efficiencies alone, but HR presence has been boosted elsewhere.

“It’s enabled us to resource one more person at the higher end, by getting an extra strategic HR business partner,” says McFarlane, adding: “Line managers much prefer self-service – they deal with shift change requests, changes to their hours, and other admin on our parallel system, but they’d much rather it happen this way. It’s immediate, and they can plan, give instant decisions, and resource their teams accordingly, rather than waiting days for HR to approve it. We’ve been extremely keen to say to managers that if you do your part both your people and you can enjoy the wider cultural change central HR is doing in the meantime.”

The key seems to be clear communication about why self-service is being rolled out, and HR being transparent on its purpose in the first place. Self-service won’t always save HR or line managers time. But as long as the benefits are communicated – whether these be better quality processes or HR being freed up to do more – staff should hopefully remain open to, and appreciative of, a spot of DIY.