· 7 min read · Features

Employee self-service: Encouraging take-up - Do it yourself HR

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A e-HR system that allows employees to log on to update their personal details and access training information should be a winner. So why has take-up been so low?

Employee self-service (ESS) was supposed to be the answer to HR directors' woes. The concept - which allows employees (not HR staff) to log into an e-HR system and update their details and competencies, or access training or information - has been available for well over a decade. But despite the benefits ESS offers for employers and employees alike, take-up has been neither as swift nor as comprehensive as was initially predicted by some observers.

According to HR software supplier Computers in Personnel (CIP), around 50% of major organisations have still to introduce ESS in any form. There are a number of barriers - some real, others more a matter of perception - that are holding it back. Among these are technophobia among older managers, equality of access concerns, implementation costs and data security worries.

However, in the middle of the economic downturn, the cost-saving potential of ESS makes it increasingly attractive. "While total penetration is lower than many people envisaged, it's definitely the case that adoption levels are growing," says CIP managing director Chris Berry. "In the current economic climate, ESS becomes easier to understand and more appealing because of the need to save money. There are obvious costs savings to be made when HR professionals aren't having to spend their time re-keying data."

Great in theory, but is this really the full picture? According to some organisations that have introduced ESS, there are both pros and cons. While law firm Eversheds says it has noticed a 'significant' reduction in administration and greater self-ownership from employees of personal data, less appealing is the fact the system still requires administration in areas such as resetting passwords and managing failed workflows. It also finds ESS is not being used to its full capacity because of a lack of confidence in using it.

"Implementing ESS is a complex process and it requires dedicated resources and a willingness from the organisation to use new processes and technologies," says Eversheds' senior HR business manager, Sara Lewis. "Like all systems implementations, it requires support from senior management and, especially in the case of self-service, commitment from line managers to change the way they work in relation to staff management."

At the University of Bath, which brought in payroll ESS one year ago, deputy director of HR Robert Eales says 95% of staff responses have been positive. Introduction did, however, highlight some issues about data security around password protection. There was also some trade union concern relating to a small group of staff that did not have daily access to computers."It has quietly slotted in but we haven't used it to its full potential yet," he concedes. "We want to look at bringing in manager self-service (MSS) once people are attuned to the system but that needs to be communicated well."

If ESS has been off to a slow start, it is precisely this MSS (see box, left) that appears set to grow strongly over the next couple of years. According to commentators, it is poised to take off as those organisations already using ESS look to take things to the next level. And the tendency to integrate all company systems has significant advantages for managers both in HR and in individual business units.

"By encouraging manager take-up of self-service, a proportion of the day-to-day HR administration is re-deployed, allowing HR managers to focus on more strategic tasks," says Ceridian's chief information officer, David Woodward. "For line managers, self-serve functionality offers greater ownership of succession planning and headcount budgeting in their teams. It can also be used to set and manage team objectives and communicate business goals."

NorthgateArinso's director of product strategy, Chris Britton, also argues MSS offers managers useful capabilities such as checklists for new starters - for instance, reminders on briefing newcomers on health and safety or taking part in induction courses. He concedes that office-based organisations are more likely to have the basic infrastructure in place.

However, some organisations have introduced touchscreens in communal areas and another likely trend is remote access through PDAs. Perhaps surprisingly, the police are at the cutting edge here. About two-thirds of the UK's 43 police forces have implemented ESS, working with Cedar HR Software. Last year the Home Office announced it was investing £50 million in supplying 27 police forces with a total of 10,000 PDAs in a move to keep frontline officers patrolling the streets for longer. Cedar has recently completed proof of concept testing in which officers were able to book leave request through their PDAs.

Lincolnshire Police introduced ESS in 2006, adding MSS last year. It didn't provide formal training - just informal briefings with instructions available on mouse mats, for example. The force intends to develop self-service to remove a lot of its paperwork and bureaucracy. Elements like training requests, sickness or accident reporting are all done electronically through self-service. This not only saves time and money, but is more environmentally-friendly.

Lincolnshire Police's head of HR strategy, Liz Hurford, says the adoption of MSS has received positive feedback from managers. "They now have direct access to information about their staff - whether it's sickness or training data or access to their duties for policing. This means they don't need to contact HR and can access information at any time, night or day. This is particularly useful for police officers who work 24/7. They feel more confident making decisions knowing they have up-to-date information."

Security concerns still hold some employers back from introducing ESS, but Qikker Solutions business development director Dave Inman argues ESS is actually more secure because it avoids the need to create huge download files. In his view, ESS has been a success but "the evidence seems to suggest that incentives for staff to use the system are not as strong as you would ideally want".

This is a pity, Inman continues, as most ESS systems today are very intuitive and are easily picked up by the vast majority of workers who are comfortable inputting data because they do so quite happily in their private lives when using services such as online banking.

Whitbread Hotels and Restaurants has had both ESS and MSS in place for a number of years. "In terms of challenges, senior management buy-in is vital to ensure the business as a whole adopts the new process effectively,says head of HR services Susan Gomes. "Also, a major learning has been that the user-facing functionality should be simple, quick and easy to use for maximum benefit." In terms of successes, the implementation supported a complete review of HR shared-service provision.

ESS is being linked to company announcements and RSS news feeds as an additional way to keep employees informed and engaged. As this is content that is changing on a regular basis it also helps to drive use. Integrating all company systems in the one environment also drives the adoption behaviour, says Ceridian's Woodward, making a wide range of information easily accessible.

While it is true that ESS has been slower to take off than originally expected, the improving user quality and capabilities of systems is increasing their desirability to employers, especially as they can play a part in cutting costs at this challenging time.

MANAGER SELF-SERVICE TRENDS

According to research from professional services firm Towers Perrin, ESS will continue to grow but it is the manager self-service (MSS) dimension that is likely to have the greatest impact on the HR function. Towers Perrin found the prevalence of MSS doubled between 2006 and 2007, with a further wave of research in 2008 painting a clearer picture of how MSS is being implemented and received.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of HR service-centre staff/administrators (62%) reported that MSS reduced their workload, with a further 22% neutral and a mere 16% claiming it led to more work. Perhaps more eye-catching is the fact 69% of generalist managers also felt MSS was reducing their workload. "That's encouraging because otherwise HR might be seen to be dumping more work on managers," says Towers Perrin principal Hugh Shanks.

The research also looked at the change management activities provided by organisations when introducing MSS. Electronic communications/guides came out on top (87%) followed by written communication guides (83%), online training tutorials (71%), and classroom training (46%). A quarter went so far as to describe their level of change communication during roll-out as 'substantial', with only 16% putting their supporting communications at below moderate.

Common MSS applications among the surveyed employers were salary changes, transfers and promotions, changes in work status, terminations and changes in leave status.

Shanks adds that in order for MSS to have the greatest possible positive impact the system needs to be user-friendly and its roll-out should receive significant communications support. "Even more important," he adds, "is the way senior leaders get behind this. If the boss is a role model there's a much higher chance of success."

ROTHERHAM METROPOLITAN BOROUGH COUNCIL

In 2003, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council formed a partnership with BT, called RBT (Connect), through which it has introduced one of the most advanced e-HR self-service systems of any local authority in the UK. Around a year after the launch of RBT, Rotherham added payroll ESS that allowed employees to change details such as their address, bank account information, contact numbers and next of kin.

Following this, self-service was extended to encompass sickness/absence data, with managers able to input information at source and reap the benefits. "They can see the patterns and trends on their desktop so they don't have to spend time sending off for reports," says the council's assistant chief executive, human resources, Phil Howe.

Collating and accessing information in this way gave the council a far clearer picture of the reasons behind absences. It looked at the posts with high levels of absence for anxiety/stress and musculoskeletal injury, considered job design and how else to respond. As a result, when anyone enters absence due to musculoskeletal injury, the system directly refers the absent party for physiotherapy with council injury management partner RehabWorks. In December 2008, the council announced that access to early evidence-based physiotherapy has reduced absence levels by as much as 31%, saving more than £350,000 annually.

Overall, across the borough absence has fallen from an average of 13.9 days in 2002/03 to 9.2 days. Automated reminder letters at set points during an employee's sickness absence have played a major part in this success.

Additionally, the e-HR system offers online forms for leavers, new starters and expenses. Reminder screens help the council meet its objectives - for example, highlighting preferred forms of transport. Take up for the new starters 'wizard' (a tutorial) is 99%. The wizards went live in January 2007 and old paper forms were withdrawn in April 2007, with paper only being accepted in the rare situations where managers cannot access the intranet. The new process has enabled the service-level agreement for the issue of contracts to be reduced from 15 to five days. Moreover, nearly 400 employees have taken up the option to switch to electronic payslips, further cutting paper costs.

Longer term, the council is considering making the system accessible to employees from home. The team is also working on self-service screens that will capture all employee contract changes, such as grades and hours. "The challenge continues to be to make the process as slick and intuitive as we can," says Howe.