HR Magazine - September 2000: HR Systems Reaching PC-Free Employees

By Sandra Guy Sep 1, 2000
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HR Magazine,   July 2000Vol. 45, No. 9

Delivering HR information online works well—unless your workforce lacks PC access.

How do you reach employees who aren't wired to the web?

Many employees today can log onto desktop PCs to enroll for health benefits, change personal details in HR files or read employee handbooks. But what does HR do if the workforce doesn’t have PCs—or even desks on which to place PCs?

For employees who work in manufacturing plants, in retail stores or on the road—perhaps hanging from telephone poles or reading meters—online delivery of HR information is still possible.

Employers can equip employees with home PCs, as Ford Motor Co. and Delta Air Lines are doing. Or employers can give their on-the-road employees laptops with Internet access. But employers that either don’t want or can’t afford to hand out computers can still turn to a few comparatively old-fashioned technology solutions: computer kiosks, telephone voice response systems or shared PCs.

Kiosks: Cheap and Effective

Mention kiosks and most people picture touch-screen terminals encased in fancy shells, dispensing information in shopping malls or in the lobbies of government buildings. Useful, yes, but clunky compared to going online.

Kiosk use among employers is declining, a victim of the web and interactive voice response systems. In 1996, according to consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Washington, D.C., 22 percent of employers surveyed said they used kiosks to communicate with employees, but by 1998, only 12 percent used kiosks. At the same time, employers that do use kiosks to reach employees swear by this simple technology—essentially a single, commonly available PC set in a box to increase privacy—as a way to reach employees where they work.

At 3Com, a manufacturer of modems, video cameras and telephone systems in Mount Prospect, Ill., 700 production and support employees access HR information on two kiosks, one in the cafeteria and the other on the production floor, says Marie Taylor, human resources director for 3Com’s Chicago operations. In the cafeteria, employees can access the company intranet to see company news, stock information and benefits information. On the production floor, the second kiosk allows them to review internal job postings and access applications.

Taylor says kiosks have proven successful because employees who aren’t regular PC users find the touch screens less intimidating to operate than a keyboard and mouse.

MicroTouch Systems in Methuen, Mass., plans to install three kiosks in its cafeterias this fall at a cost of $500 each, says Annemarie Bell, HR director. Employees will be able to view their salary, benefits and training records and change their addresses and phone numbers. The low cost of the kiosks allows MicroTouch, a manufacturer of touch screens such as those on computerized cash registers at fast-food restaurants, to have three kiosks for the same amount it would pay for one desktop PC, Bell says.

One concern employees might raise about kiosks is the lack of privacy for the employee using the terminal. With kiosks sitting in cafeterias or on factory floors, can other employees glance over the user’s shoulder and see her pay data or benefits profile?

Privacy shouldn’t worry employees or HR, says 3Com’s Taylor; 3Com requires employees to use a password to access their personal data. Many kiosks are designed so that the terminal’s case physically shields the screen on the sides. And some kiosk screens are configured to allow only a person positioned directly in front of the screen to view its contents. Anyone trying to glimpse the screen at an angle sees nothing.

Recruiting with Kiosks

Home Depot, the Atlanta-based chain of home improvement stores, isn’t using kiosks to distribute or gather HR information yet. That’s down the road. For now, Home Depot is focusing kiosk use on other tasks important to HR: employee career development and internal recruiting.

The retailer, which plans to nearly double its number of stores—from 980 now to 1,900 by 2003—places a kiosk in each store’s break room to allow current employees to check their qualifications against those required for other jobs at Home Depot.

Employees use personal ID numbers to access the system. They can take online job tests with immediate feedback, says Alan Frost, director of management development and the creator of the kiosk system. An online guide helps employees work up self-development plans. Once an employee passes the online test for a desired job, the system automatically places the employee in an applicant pool, which managers access via their PCs. á

With the old, paper-based system for job applications, if an employee wanted a job and an opening was available at a store five miles away, the opportunity could well have been lost by the time the application forms were shipped to the store with the job opening, Frost notes.

Home Depot also wants to tie the kiosks to its HR system so employees can access details about training, performance review ratings and other information needed to climb the career ladder. Home Depot’s goal is to continue adding functionality so that employees use kiosks for 90 percent of their day-to-day HR needs, adds Chris Barnaby, benefits systems manager.

The stores also use kiosks on their sales floors to recruit new employees from among their customers. These kiosks offer mock job interviews, and all new applicants must use the in-store kiosks to apply for jobs, Barnaby says.

Each kiosk costs $3,500. By eliminating paper from the hiring process, the kiosks save Home Depot $1 million each year, Frost says.

Let Your Fingers Do the Talking

Kiosks work well to provide information to employees, but when HR needs information from the employee, such as benefits enrollment details or stock plan choices, employers often choose interactive voice response (IVR) systems. These allow employees to punch numeric choices on a telephone keypad in response to recorded questions. Employees have to be at the workplace to use kiosks, but they usually can use IVR from any telephone, at any time.

Home Depot uses IVR to let employees sign up for benefits, enroll in stock purchase plans and choose direct deposit options. Employees also can register for job openings using IVR.

The chain’s IVR system cost $144,000, but Home Depot estimates that the system saves $125,000 a year because the company is not paying for paper forms, printing and data-entry services.

Voice response systems give employees control, easy access and immediate feedback that their requests have been entered into the system, Barnaby says. But she notes a drawback to using IVR for anything other than basic data input. Any telephone-based system lacks visual elements, and that’s a shortcoming because most people retain information better if they see it, she says.

“If we were to see the volume of use of the kiosk at 90 percent, I don’t know that it would make sense to keep IVR,” Barnaby says.

The IVR industry appears to be faring much better than kiosks—at first glance. Watson Wyatt’s survey shows that IVR use jumped from 53 percent of surveyed employers in 1996 to 71 percent in 1998.

But despite that short-term boom, IVR use also is likely to decline. Watson Wyatt expects that this year, only 46 percent of employers will report using IVR for employee communications, says George Penn, knowledge manager with the consulting firm’s HR Technologies Practice. The reason for the decline? The increasing use of the Internet and intranets for HR communications.

Dedicated PCs

A third option to communicate with employees who don’t have PC access at work is available: Give them that access in a controlled setting by providing PCs for common use in break rooms, cafeterias or training rooms.

The HR department for Southern California Edison, a Rosemead, Calif.-based utility, is installing banks of PCs in service centers where its work crews start their days. á

With 6,000 field employees, such as meter readers and power line workers servicing a 50,000-square-mile territory, the utility can’t reach employees in the field with HR information.

Employees have online access to their personal pay profiles, including direct deposit elections, tax withholding and copies of their past eight paychecks. The day before each payday, employees can view electronic copies of the next day’s paychecks. They also can check time-off balances, sick leave accrual and vacation days. And they can update their telephone numbers, home addresses and emergency contacts.

A benefit of the access to pay information is that employees can notify HR immediately about mistakes in their records, which can affect employees’ tax status, says Christine DeNatale, manager of customer services for Southern California Edison’s HR Service Center.

The utility is making other information available, including employees’ work profiles, work histories, service dates and education records. The utility also is adding its tuition reimbursement program and performance management program to the system. Employees and managers will be able to create goals and fill out mid-year evaluations and year-end ratings on the workstations.

Because field workers spend much of their time in their vehicles, a long-term goal is to outfit the vehicles with Internet access to HR information, DeNatale says. “I believe both computers and IVR have their place,” she adds. “IVR is better for shorter transactions that don’t require drilling down into many layers and spelling out names. When you start planning salary changes and job performance, you need a [computer] desktop.”

Dell Computer Corp., the Round Rock, Texas, computer company known for building made-to-order PCs, says it is moving toward paperless HR, thanks to banks of PCs for common use.

“A couple of years ago, we weren’t as sensitive to the fact that, with computer use expanding so rapidly, some of our employees had no access,” says Patrick Lochrie, Dell’s HR director.

Dell now maintains a computer lab in each of its four primary manufacturing centers. Employees can check e-mail, surf the web, fill out performance plans and reviews, change personal information, and access paychecks, benefit information, stock information and withholding statements. Lochrie says that the only HR functions still on paper are supervisors’ talking points, which are posted on bulletin boards, and a newsletter mailed to families.

Dell uses kiosks for employee surveys and IVR for some other functions, but Lochrie foresees that Dell will phase out kiosks and IVR in favor of PCs for common use.

Dell won’t be alone in focusing increasingly on PCs for HR use. Watson Wyatt’s Penn noted that while only 27 percent of the companies surveyed used the web to deliver HR benefits information in 1996, that figure increased to 50 percent in 1998 and is expected to jump to 80 percent this year.

Keeping the Personal Touch

Although 3Com’s Taylor says she would love to put all HR information online because of the increased efficiency and manual labor savings it would provide, she likes maintaining person-to-person contact.

“Employees can share hard-copy forms with their families, and, when they turn those forms in to the benefits administrator, that’s a connection opportunity,” she says.

MicroTouch’s Bell adds that, at the same time her firm is installing kiosks, it also is increasing face-to-face contact with employees. The personal touch is necessary because the company is experiencing high turnover and because nearly a third of MicroTouch’s 325 full-time assembly workers speak English as a second language.

Sandra Guy is a business writer based in Chicago.

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