Self-Service Technology Brings Benefits and Concerns

By Dave Zielinski February 5, 2019
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​Tired of answering the same questions over and over from employees and job candidates? Help is on the way.

HR leaders are adopting employee self-service (ESS) and manager self-service (MSS) tools to improve service, reduce labor costs and shift the responsibility for handling routine transactions from HR to employees, managers and job candidates.

The 2018-2019 Sierra Cedar HR Systems Survey found that 78 percent of respondents currently use ESS applications in their organizations, a number projected to rise to 87 percent within a year. Some 68 percent of respondents also use MSS tools, with that percentage projected to grow to nearly 80 percent in a year. The survey respondents were HR, information technology and operations leaders from 1,636 small, medium and large organizations around the world.

Yet as more organizations turn to self-service technologies like digital assistants and chatbots driven by artificial intelligence (AI), questions arise about whether humans should still play a role in these automated service transactions, pitfalls that accompany the benefits of self-service approaches and what the accelerating move to do-it-yourself service portends for the HR function.

"The days of employees calling or e-mailing the HR service center for answers to routine questions are almost over," said Jeanne Meister, the founding partner of Future Workplace, an HR advisory and research firm in New York City. "Those transactions are increasingly being handled by AI-driven chatbots and other self-service apps. But one of the big questions is what happens to the HR staff whose job it has been to handle those tasks? Much of that will depend on the investment companies decide to make in upskilling the HR role." 

Examples of that investment might be helping recruiting assistants and coordinators develop new skills and business acumen so they can partner with line managers, or enabling third parties to build data science and digital literacy skills for analytics-related work.

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The Case for Self-Service

Self-service tools applied in the right scenarios are paying dividends for HR functions, industry vendors and employees who use the applications. Ultimate Software is one vendor that has expanded the self-service tools in its cloud human capital management suite in response to growing demand. The Weston, Fla.-based company has applications that allow employees to request time off, adjust schedules or swap shifts with co-workers, check pay information, complete open enrollment, and create personal profiles listing skills, certifications and licenses, said Pat Pickren, Ultimate Software's senior director of research and strategy.

Other industry vendors now offer sophisticated self-service tools that allow employees to make their own changes to 401(k) contributions, review their performance evaluations and sign up for online training.

The benefits for employees are improved speed and access. Workers can access HR information around the clock and receive faster approval for time-off requests. They no longer need to submit forms or e-mail requests to HR to find out, for example, how much vacation time they have or to access their pay data.

"On average, HR teams in our client companies receive more than 1,000 pay-related inquiries a year from employees," Pickren said. "That time can now be better used by HR to focus on more strategic aspects of the business."

For managers, systems like Ultimate Software's allow authorized managers to analyze workforce statistics on demand, review employee schedules or time-off requests, collaborate with peers on performance reviews and help make hiring decisions. New AI-driven virtual assistants from some vendors can guide new managers through processes to open and close job requisitions or order head-count reports.

"From the office, hotel or home, managers can view and update staff information, manage department activities, post job openings or leverage recruiting tools," Pickren said. "We want them to spend more time making effective decisions and less time on HR administration."

Executives at Paycom, a full-service provider of cloud-based HR platforms that has pioneered the use of self-service technologies, believe that giving employees a direct relationship with an HR database is a win-win solution for organizations.

"It brings new convenience and efficiencies to both employees and employers," said Jeff York, chief sales officer for the Oklahoma City-based firm. "Our research also shows that once employees grow accustomed to making entries or changes themselves, they get more and more usage out of the system."

Paycom used data from a new study by Ernst & Young to calculate cost savings from the use of ESS and MSS in its client companies versus having HR staff conduct those transactions. Across all 41 individual tasks studied, the average cost per data entry was found to be $4.39, with the highest costs for benefits enrollment and the lowest costs for time management and onboarding. The study found that labor costs constitute nearly all total costs related to these HR tasks. "This suggests an ability to reduce or eliminate the time associated with performing these tasks could result in significant cost savings," the study's authors wrote.

"For example, if we see 11,000 individual data entries made by employees but 72,000 entries or changes made by HR staff or the employer, then there is significant return on investment available for the employer," York said. "There is the potential of significant savings in that organization from having employees enter more of the data or make changes themselves."

Need for 'Human in the Loop'

There can be pitfalls to using self-service technologies. The chance of errors grows when companies don't provide employees with adequate training in using the tools, and security risks can arise when broader access is granted to sensitive HR data. At times, chatbots or virtual assistants won't be able to fully answer employees' or candidates' inquiries.

Meister said the best vendors acknowledge the importance of including a human "fail-safe" by designing that role into their AI-driven self-service tools. The process is known as "human in the loop," and Meister said HR leaders should make it an evaluation criterion.

"It's designed for situations where an employee or job candidate is interacting with a chatbot or AI application and become frustrated because their questions aren't being answered," Meister said. "In those cases, the system automatically alerts a human to intervene, often through a text. What you don't want is an AI solution taking over routine tasks and then seeing your internal customer satisfaction ratings or net promoter scores go down."

Mark Brandau, senior vice president of solution management for SAP SuccessFactors, said HR should be rigorous in evaluating the impact of its various service delivery channels, be they chatbots, portals, case management processes, e-mail or phone calls. 

"HR hasn't always taken the time to measure the effectiveness of those different channels," Brandau said. "But it's important to know which channels employees prefer, as well as which are delivering the best service in the most cost-effective way."

Pickren said Ultimate Software's self-service applications are designed to augment and not replace higher-touch human help for employees. "It's never meant to replace human interaction altogether, but rather to help employees take care of their more-routine tasks and requests," he said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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