Mobile Workforce Management?

There are apps for that.

By Bill Roberts Mar 1, 2011
LIKE SAVE PRINT
Reuse Permissions

At Del Frisco's Steakhouse in Manhattan, creating the schedule for 175 servers used to be a headache. The manager would spend several hours on it—and then more time after the schedule was posted and shift-swapping began. Written requests went to the manager, who juggled changes while tracking servers' hours to avoid surpassing overtime allotments.

Now Del Frisco's manager creates the schedule on a computer or an Apple iPhone and posts it to a website. The site automatically routes the schedule to all employees' cell phones. The application is integrated with a point-of-sale system that tracks each server's hours. When a server needs to make a schedule change, the individual sends a text message that is routed only to employees who have not hit an overtime limit. The first employee to respond gets the shift, thereby eliminating favoritism or appearances thereof.

Hence, the mobile platform is changing the workplace. While personal digital assistants have been used for e-mail for years, now—thanks to mobile applications—web-enabled cell phones, smart phones optimized for advanced computing, and tablet computers such as Apple's iPad are being used to check inventories and perform analytics against the corporate database. Mobile applications are also being adopted for recruitment and other HR functions such as scheduling, employee and manager self-service—including performance reviews—and e-learning. Software developers are creating mobile HR applications, and human capital management platform vendors are enabling existing applications for use on mobile devices—though not as quickly as some business leaders would like.

Mobile devices are becoming strategic corporate assets, says J. Gerry Purdy, principal analyst at MobileTrax LLC, an Atlanta-based consulting firm. "You keep the business process moving as a result of having good mobile systems," he adds. "An organization's entire mobile strategy affects all aspects of the company, and HR needs to be in the mobility thought leadership."

On the Move

Purdy offers two reasons HR managers should be involved in making decisions about mobile applications: The devices directly impact workers, and HR professionals need to learn how the company is using mobile technology so recruiters can sway job candidates who want to join tech-savvy organizations.

In a survey of 230 organizations conducted last year by the Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, an information technology advisory service, 53 percent of the respondents said they use mobile software for workforce management functions, 39 percent use it to deliver informal learning and development, and 38 percent use it for talent acquisition and recruiting.

Asked to list reasons for going mobile, 44 percent of the respondents cited the "needs and expectations of multiple generations in the workplace," 40 percent said economic conditions demand greater efficiency, and 40 percent said geographically dispersed workforces.

Respondents reported improved employee engagement and performance as a result of going mobile. Sixty-five percent of employees at companies using mobility tools for human capital management rated themselves as "highly engaged," compared with 57 percent at organizations without. Forty-five percent of employees at companies using mobility tools for human capital management received a rating of "exceeds expectations" on their most recent performance review, against 37 percent at companies without.

In the summary of her report Mobile HCM: Workforce and Talent Management on the Move, Mollie Lombardi, the analyst who conducted the research, writes "Organizations need to understand how to utilize these technologies in the most effective way to increase efficiency and address the needs of an increasingly dispersed and diverse workforce population."

Anna Carsen, vice president of product management at Automatic Data Processing Inc. (ADP), based in Roseland, N.J., surveyed about 1,000 companies last year. "More than 50 percent saw value in mobile HR services, and 40 percent said a clear mobile solution strategy would be critical in deciding on future HR applications," she says.

Staying out of Court

HR leaders who have issued mobile devices to employees know there are many appropriate-use issues and expectations. "When you know people have a mobile device, you expect them to respond immediately," says Rich Berger, SPHR, senior director of global human resource information systems at Citrix Systems Inc. "But then, is it held against you in performance review if you don't look at your mobile fast enough when you're not working?"

Corporate policies should cover:

  • Types of devices available to users.
  • How and when employees can use them.
  • What corporate resources they are able to access.
  • Security measures.
  • Expectations for when and how mobile devices will be used need to be clearly spelled out.

The issue has spawned court cases. The use of a BlackBerry to conduct "off the clock" business is at the heart of a class-action suit filed in federal district court last year by a police sergeant against the city of Chicago. The plaintiff in Jeffrey Allen v. City of Chicago seeks back wages and damages, and claims that the employer willfully violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by intentionally refusing to pay all compensation due. "Plaintiff and similarly situated employees were issued [smart phones], such as BlackBerry devices, that they are required to use outside their normal working hours without receiving any compensation for such hours," the complaint says.

"Employees are using these devices outside regular work and creating an overtime liability for the employer," says Sean J. Rogers of Sean J. Rogers & Associates LLC, a labor arbitration and mediation firm in Leonardtown, Md. Most employers are not aware of what is going on, he says. "Some, though, are just letting it happen."

Coming to the Small Screen

Nonetheless, not many HR departments use mobile applications yet, says James Holincheck, managing vice president at Gartner Inc., an information technology consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn. He has encountered HR executives who are shocked to learn that 93 percent of people in the United States have mobile phones. "It also shocks them to learn that most production workers have them," he says. "I show them data about how people coming into the workforce typically communicate. Messaging on a mobile phone and through social networks—these are the ways they interact. They will expect similar modes of interaction at work. HR organizations haven't awakened to this fact."

Rich Berger, SPHR, senior director of global human resource information systems at Citrix Systems Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a developer of virtual computing infrastructure solutions, says vendors are focused "on expanding features and functions in the big program, and not focused on what people need in the mobile form." Berger is also vice chairman of the board of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management.

Holincheck says most vendors offer support for some mobile applications, such as the ability to look things up and simple workflows. "Mobile has forced vendors to think about simplifying," he says. "What no one has had to do until mobile forced them is to decide what they can do without and build an interface from the ground up," he explains. "On tablets, you have a bit more latitude."

Standard websites are friendly to notebook computers and even to the smaller iPad and other tablet computers, but they are not friendly to smart phone screens. Unless developers design web applications for smaller screens, or create native applications that download to the smart phone and run on its operating system, the sites won't attract many users.

With more than a half dozen mobile operating systems, developing applications phone by phone will be time-consuming—but it's worth it to some. "We've decided to build native applications for iPhone, BlackBerry and Android phones as well as a number of nonsmart phones," says Bill Bartow, vice president of product management at Kronos Inc., a Chelmsford, Mass.-based developer of workforce management products. "For everything else, there will be a Java-based capability." These solutions will allow the company to reach about 90 percent of the phones, he predicts.

Pain Before Gain

Lombardi advises starting with a pain point that will benefit most from mobile technology, getting buy-in from executives and information technologists, and involving those individuals in defining requirements and selecting vendors.

Few tasks are more painful than the gnarly process of creating schedules for shift workers. "At the New York Del Frisco's, they'd spend hours writing a schedule," says John Tanski, IT field support manager for Lone Star Business Solutions, a division of Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, based in Plano, Texas. Lone Star owns Del Frisco's. "Now, it's an hour a week."

Tanski led the implementation of software from WhenToManage Restaurant Solutions, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich. The developer offers web-based HR applications deliverable to computers and mobile devices. Lone Star uses the software at 166 restaurants with 15,000 employees in 30 states.

In a customer survey, Walker Thompson, vice president of sales and marketing for WhenToManage, found that more than 60 percent of managers save more than an hour each week on scheduling, more than 45 percent of customers save $100 to $500 on labor costs each month, and 95 percent of employee users say the software improves communication and they would recommend it to past, current and future employers.

In most cases, Lone Star issues each manager an iPhone because the schedule-creation application is designed for it. Lone Star does not issue mobile devices to rank-and-file employees; the very few employees without personal cell phones can see their schedules on computers.

None of the companies featured in this article issue phones to every employee. In general, managers are wrestling with the issue of phone ownership. Should the company give them to all workers? If so, does it use a standardized brand and model? What are the appropriate-use policies? Even a tech-savvy company such as Citrix does not have a consistent policy yet, Berger says.

PC in Your Pocket

Mobile scheduling is indeed gaining traction. Kronos offers Workforce Mobile Scheduler, a text-based application to help managers fill open shifts. Instead of phone calls, workers get text messages and respond if they want the shifts. "We're just now seeing a strong growing pipeline for it," Bartow says.

With 1,400 beds and 6,000 employees, Atlanta-based Grady Health System had a staff of six whose full-time jobs were to make phone calls to keep shifts filled. Mobile Scheduler allows those employees to spend part of their time on scheduling and part of their time on other tasks. "Now, it can take minutes rather than hours" to schedule shifts, says Donald Thomas, the company's assistant controller.

Mobile applications are also making inroads in e-learning. Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Md., uses a mobile version of Books24x7, which enables access to the full Books24x7 platform. The platform has been available on a computer for years and now has been repurposed for an iPhone application users can download. It offers business and technical reference content from SkillSoft PLC in Nashua, N.H.

Michelle Jansen, a Lockheed Martin training and development manager based in Denver, is an avid user, especially of the general business content. She uses her iPhone as an e-reader. "I primarily use it for the executive summaries, which is a condensed version of books on various leadership topics," she says.

Citrix's employees can access a learning management system from SumTotal Systems Inc. from their mobile devices through the company's product, Citrix Receiver, Berger says. Citrix also uses some mobile workflow applications from SAP, its human resource information systems vendor.

With 8,000 employees at seven casino and hotel properties, Seminole Gaming in Hollywood, Fla., is launching a suite of mobile applications as part of its employee communication strategy, says Jeanine Repa, senior vice president of brand marketing. Employees will access a secure website from their cell phones to receive information about general benefits, job postings, road closures and alternate route information. Separately, Seminole has an initiative to launch a cell-phone-accessible employee-intranet portal that will permit even more mobile-based applications. MacroView Labs Inc. in San Francisco is developing the applications.

"Your smart phone is basically your pocket PC," Repa says. "The more personal we can make it, the better. And it takes a village to complete these objectives." She works with information technology, human resources and marketing personnel.

Even small employers use mobile applications. Rob Litman, office manager for Montgomery Chiropractic in Narberth, Pa., uses an iPhone application from ADP that allows him to do payroll for five employees, linking to the vendor's payroll processing. "It takes about five minutes, and as soon as it is processed, the system sends me an e-mail saying it is done," he says. "I don't have to be in the office or in front of my computer. I can even do it on vacation."

The author is technology contributing editor for HR Magazine and is based in Silicon Valley in California.

Web Extras

LIKE SAVE PRINT
Reuse Permissions

SHRM WEBCASTS

Choose from dozens of free webcasts on the most timely HR topics.

Register Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You

SPONSOR OFFERS

Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect