Workers Without Easy PC Access Can Tap Into ESS and Corporate Intranets
The recent trend in HR has been employee self-service (ESS), which vendors and consultants tout as a way to relieve the department of its administrative burdens so HR professionals can take on a more substantive role in the organization.
Many companies, for example, post news and policies on a corporate intranet or web portal. Adding an ESS module to an HR information system (HRIS) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) package goes a step further, enabling employees to monitor vacation time accruals and 401(k) status, as well as letting them key in changes to personal records, such as emergency contact information.
“It’s not cost-effective to pay people to handle simple, repetitive questions,” says Mukul Krisna, an analyst for consulting firm Frost and Sullivan in San Antonio. “Having online services also helps companies to save money on printing and distribution.”
Such an approach is fine for workers who have a PC on their desks, but what about those on the factory shop floor, in retail establishments or out in the field? To bring 24-hour ESS to these employees, some companies are setting up interactive kiosks.
Kiosks can increase efficiency by giving employees who usually don’t work on a computer self-service access to HR data. Just as important, kiosks bring services out to wherever people are working.
Twenty years ago, banks learned that they couldn’t expect customers to come in during “bankers’ hours.” They placed ATMs everywhere to add convenience, cut costs and save time. Similarly, positioning HR kiosks on the shop floor and in lunchrooms lets people who might never visit HR, due perhaps to shift work or location, feel part of the team.
“Our employees keep telling us how much they love the kiosks,” says Mary Tipton, employee relations manager for Time Warner Cable Inc. in Houston. “Although we are geographically spread out and split into different departments, it gives employees the feeling that they are working in more of a close-knit, smaller company environment.”
Tipton deals with 1,650 employees in 27 locations in the Houston area, some a hundred miles from HR. The company purchased six kiosks to bring an HR presence to installers and service center personnel. Each kiosk contains a notebook computer, mouse, keyboard and printer. Initially, the idea was to make only HR forms and information available, but other departments wanted to piggyback onto the system as soon as the kiosks appeared.
“Thirty days later, everybody had a page on the intranet,” Tipton says. “Employees can see what public affairs or customer service is up to, how far along the technical operations department is on a digital upgrade or who just had a baby.”
The kiosks’ primary purpose, however, is to serve HR needs. In addition to corporate information found on the intranet, employees can obtain discounts on travel and publications, and check on stock option grants.
Next year, the company plans to expand the system. Another 30 kiosks will arrive, at least one for every office, offering additional services. Time Warner Cable is upgrading its PeopleSoft suite from version 7.5 to version 8.3 in 2003, which will enable employees to choose a health care provider and participate in open enrollment online. While the current system lets staff download and print forms to mail in, the new system will enable direct submission of forms online.
But even without these upgrades, the kiosk pilot is creating a big impact, Tipton says. “I don’t have numbers, but we are receiving noticeably fewer phone calls. Front-line employees are becoming far more savvy on HR issues.”
Tipton expects that to change HR’s function. “The reduction in phone calls for information has not really been enough yet for any of us to realize any extra time, but as we move more toward employee self-service, we hope to be in more of an overseer/auditor role with the information being keyed in by our employees,” she says.
Kiosks vs. PCs
Some companies, instead of buying kiosks to provide extended HR services, are simply installing PCs in common areas, such as lunchrooms.
“I believe the term ‘kiosk’ is becoming more generic every day,” says David Moore, HRIS manager at Alticor, Amway’s parent company, based in Ada, Mich. “The term has come to refer to everything from the rigid touch screen console-style systems to simple PCs as kiosks, making the term more synonymous with the use, rather than the type of system.”
Alticor locates low-end PCs that are approaching the end of their useful life in manufacturing buildings. The PCs boot straight into Internet Explorer, and employees can access the HR knowledge base and an employee handbook, as well as a personal profile that includes job history, vacation and sick day balances, and emergency contact information. They can also read corporate communications, and post questions to management and read the responses.
While PCs are less expensive than the $2,000 to $6,000 cost of installing a dedicated HR kiosk, actual kiosks do have several advantages. Kiosks can be as versatile as a PC, since many of them contain a PC connected to the company’s network or intranet. But kiosks are designed to withstand the wear and tear of shop floor life, unlike most PCs, which are meant for climate-controlled offices.
Kiosks can be freestanding, installed on a tabletop or mounted on a wall. They are usually mounted on casters for ease of mobility, says Gary M. Seline, president of Horizon USA of Houston, which designs and manufactures kiosks.
Compact countertop models are useful when space is tight, but multimedia designs, which incorporate screens on two, three or four sides, can dominate space and attract employees’ attention from all sides, Seline says.
Kiosk components are typically mounted within a stainless steel or aluminum box that is designed to withstand dirt, dust and debris. Some models use a touch screen, rather than keyboard and mouse, which makes them immune to petty theft.
Further, they provide employees with a greater sense of privacy when viewing personnel data, as kiosks are generally enclosed. For added privacy, some designs place the screen surface horizontally. For systems that use browsers to access the company intranet or HRIS, the back button is typically disabled so users can’t view the previous visitor’s data. They can also be equipped with hardware security features such as barcode readers for employee badges, fingerprint scanners and proximity sensors that erase data as soon as the employee steps away.
Another advantage that kiosks have is in their approachability. One of their primary purposes is to reach employees who don’t use a PC at work or who don’t know how to use one. To some, kiosks may seem more user-friendly, like ATMs or lottery ticket machines, than computers.
The biggest decision HR departments typically face is where to place a kiosk, Seline says. HR managers must identify highly trafficked locales in areas that are conducive to and convenient for usage.
Seline recommends that the units be accessible only to employees. One hospital, for example, installed its HR kiosk in its cafeteria, where employees easily spotted it and found it useful. However, the hospital cafeteria also was open to visitors, who gravitated to the kiosk expecting Internet access or other services.
Another key success factor is vendor selection, Seline points out. HR should purchase its kiosks from a one-stop company that can design and build the unit, as well as provide its computer and the appropriate software.
“In most business settings, even employee-activated devices are exposed to harsh environments and elements,” he says. “Consequently, they may require more frequent service calls and switch-outs than other terminals. For this reason, post-sales support is vital. Your kiosk company should be able to respond to service calls within 24 hours.”
In tandem with growing kiosk deployment, companies are finding numerous innovative ways to use them. “Kiosks engender a team approach or mentality and help the company keep in touch with employees,” says Karla Guarino, vice president for sales at Kiosk Information Systems in Broomfield, Colo.
One client, Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., installed 25 kiosks to enable 7,000 employees to access the company portal, MyBellHelicopter.com. It provides company news, policies and procedures, internal employment opportunities, benefits and wellness information, training applications, hazardous materials information, and government compliance standards.
One of the biggest advantages of using kiosks, for Bell, is reduction in payroll paperwork, Guarino reports. Instead of printing and hand delivering direct deposit pay stubs, employees log on to check payroll information and can print their own pay records.
Other companies and organizations are finding additional uses for employee kiosks:
- Recruitment. Retail establishments with customer information kiosks are adding a “Want to work for us?” button offering job information and applications. Government employment agencies have installed similar kiosks. For example, the British Department of Work and Pensions recently installed 9,000 self-service touch-screen kiosks at the department’s 1,007 job centers nationwide.
- E-mail. The University of Pittsburgh set up more than 100 kiosks in cafeterias, libraries and lobbies to provide remote e-mail access for faculty, staff and students.
- Employee training. General Nutrition Centers has informational kiosks for customers in its stores, on which employees can also access staff training modules.
- Open enrollment. Colorado Springs Utilities provides gas, electricity and water to more than 400,000 people. The field workers among its 1,700 employees can use shared PCs in common areas such as break rooms. During open enrollment, the company sets up additional computer stations. It has conducted two open enrollments completely online with more than 98 percent participation.
Kiosks solve many HR problems, can be relatively inexpensive and are simple to set up. For businesses already supplying information online, the self-contained units just need to be rolled into place, plugged into a power outlet and hooked into the network or the Internet.
When it comes to implementation, however, HR professionals who use kiosks offer two pieces of advice—keep it simple to use and don’t try to roll out all possible services at once.
“You have to make sure it is easy to use so you don’t tie up a lot of staff just to teach people how to use it,” warns Francie Mendelsohn, president of Summit Research Associates, a Rockville, Md., consulting firm specializing in kiosks. “If it is too complex, people will abandon it, and all your great intentions will go right down the drain.”
She advises testing any system on people who have absolutely no familiarity with the machine before rolling it out. This is particularly critical when the system is intended for employees who don’t normally operate computers.
“IT departments tend to think in a certain way, and the rest of the public don’t think that way,” Mendelsohn says. “It’s a big mistake to assume that anyone besides a 10-year-old will have the intellectual curiosity to keep trying to figure it out after they have a hit a stumbling block.”
Another common piece of advice in kiosk roll out is to begin with a single use and let employees get accustomed to it before you overwhelm them with all its features.
“You can’t give employees everything on Day 1; they’ll never be able to absorb it all,” says Marien Kaifesh, corporate HRIS manager for Parker Hannifin Corp. in Cleveland. “Take small steps to gain employee confidence; keep adding more and more transactions until even the ‘die-hards’ will have to adopt the technology.”
Once you move the kiosks into place, you can look forward to a lightening of the routine workload, as well as a demand for further services from employees and other departments, as Time Warner Cable’s Tipton learned.
“[Our] employees like self-service and would like to see it expanded,” Kaifesh says. “It has been a very exciting and worthwhile undertaking.”
Drew Robb is a California-based freelance writer who specializes in technology, engineering and business.