How HR robotics can be good for people

The automation of human resources processes, some of which uses robotic process automation, can benefit humans, as a clutch of Nordic and UK organisations show

Organisations can use software-based robotic process automation (RPA) to make staffing cuts, but this is not the style favoured by Norwegian hairdressing chain Cutters.

The company, which started with one salon in Bergen in December 2015, had 92 in five countries by the end of 2019. It offers 15-minute haircuts at a fixed price of NOK299 (about £25) in Norway, about half the usual price. This means taking a buzz-cut to overheads, with just 25 of the company’s nearly 500 staff not working as hairdressers.

Cutters initially got the manager of each salon to work out shift patterns. “It was OK for the first 30 salons,” says chief digital officer Bård Strøm, but the company reckoned it could do better centrally. “We saw that we could use RPA to add capacity,” said Strøm.

It already used its own data to predict the optimum number of staff for each branch over time, but then used manually operated spreadsheets to generate schedules. Introducing RPA software from UiPath in March 2019 enabled the predictions to drive the schedules.

“When we got this rolling, we saw an immediate impact,” says Strøm. “There was a time saving, but that was the least important thing. The main thing was that the accuracy we managed to push out produced better results in terms of number of haircuts, haircuts per work hour, lower waiting times – because we were working at the times customers were there – and improved employee satisfaction.”

Cutters’ hairdressers are paid a salary but also bonuses based on customer numbers, so they have an interest in being kept busy.

Strøm says software suppliers need to ensure they do not discriminate against robot “employees” such as Edward, the name the company chose for its RPA work after the film Edward Scissorhands. “We need vendors to understand that ‘robot’ is a role, almost like a person doing a task,” he says, adding that he has been discussing this with a supplier recently. “I don’t think they had ever been challenged over having a robot in their system.”

Cutters is expanding its use of RPA to other areas, but is not alone in having started its automation efforts in human resources (HR). Taking on new staff efficiently is also vital for rapidly growing companies such as Los Angeles-based Feedonomics, which provides services to online retailers and which tripled its workforce to 150 during 2019.

The company previously sent a set of four or five documents to new starters as locked PDFs to sign, says co-founder Brian Roizen. “They may not even have a printer at home, so they have to go a library, print it out then upload a PDF,” he says. “It’s all this hullaballoo and work they have to do that no one enjoys. And that’s the first experience you’ve created with your company.”

Adopting software from US supplier Zenefits has automated these processes, including reminders to complete them, saving about two hours of management time for each new employee. It has also allowed Feedonomics to take a more strategic view of its people. “For the first time, we employed a people-empowerment person – our spin on HR functions,” says Roizen, rather than it being split between three managers with other responsibilities.

The Zenefits system can generate reports on pay, staff diversity and retention, as well as reminding managers about performance reviews, birthdays and work anniversaries. “We have a lot of remote employees, so keeping them connected is important,” says Roizen, pointing out that this is a common issue with a fast-growing company.

“When we were only 10 people, it was very easy to identify talent,” he says. “You probably did the interview, and you see them every day. But when you scale to 150 people, the amount of time as founders we get with each individual employee is, by its nature, reduced. By having things like performance management and reviews being done very systematically, it complements our culture incredibly well.”

Getting results from hiring

As well as helping startups, HR automation makes sense for companies that have to recruit thousands of people each year. Florida-based The Results Companies runs 30 contact centres in four countries employing nearly 30,000 people, interviewing some 50,000 every year and hiring about a quarter of them.

The ability to offer a job quickly makes it more likely it will be accepted, says chief experience officer Lori Brown. “It is key that when we find the right person, we submit the offer and get them going within our systems, because we don’t want to lose them,” she says.

The Results Companies hires staff to work for specific clients and they often have direct access to those clients’ systems, so it is important that it shuts access promptly when employees leave. So when the firm started using RPA software from US supplier Nice, it did so by automating processes involved in joining and leaving the company, which previously had been carried out manually by a team of about 12 staff.

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The software now allows the company to get someone ready to start work in about 24 hours, and also means the same data is entered into different systems, helping to protect against fraud. “If you have a manual process to enter data into multiple systems, there is always the risk of fat-fingering,” says chief technology officer Bill Gardner, who adds that HR is “an obvious candidate” for automation.

The company has since extended its use of automation to other areas, such as automatically entering account numbers into multiple client systems and generating emails to clients’ internal teams to remind them to provide information for customers.

But it has also found another HR application – “adherence”, or timekeeping. Contact centre staff need to work precise hours, even in terms of when they take breaks, to ensure contracted levels of coverage. An automated process now automatically reports when an employee is “out of adherence”, something that Brown says has resulted in some improved performances on this measure.

Brown says the best processes to automate are repetitive, non-complex ones that have consistent sources of input. “If you find a unique process where it’s only one person doing one single thing in one single place, it’s not necessarily a great candidate,” she says. “But where you find an organisation like HR, which has candidates around the world doing similar processes, having to take the same information and placing it in multiple targets and having to do it with accuracy – that’s definitely an obvious place where we can make a big difference.”

Services to people with autism

Organisations with a lot of specialist staff may also have good reasons to automate HR. Autism Plus, a charity that provides care and employment support services to people with autism in Yorkshire and Humberside, spends about £900,000 a year on agency workers in addition to employing 450 people. “Our focus as a care organisation has been on meeting demand and growing,” says chief executive Philip Bartey. “We’ve largely grown based on paper-based systems, along with office software such as Microsoft SharePoint.”

Having initially looked at improving management information, AutismPlus is in the process of a general overhaul of its back office using new IT, including the introduction of Salesforce’s customer relationship management software. On HR, it is working with Belfast-based Kainos to implement software from Californian provider Workday, with its choice based partly on its compatibility with Salesforce.

Bartey says the new software should provide better management information, improved recruitment processes and greater abilities to attract and retain staff.

Specific improvement should involve asking staff why they took time off sick and whether it was related to work, says Bartey. “There’s a whole plethora of stuff we’re not catching because of this paper chase,” he adds.

It should also save time for staff, most of whom deliver care in people’s homes, as they will be able to provide and request information online, he says. “We have people now spending all day filling in paperwork when they should be caring for individuals.”

The organisation also plans to automate the production of rotas, using software from Humanity, a San Francisco-domiciled, cloud-based shift scheduling provider.

Bartey says AutismPlus negotiated a significant discount from Workday, which he sees as a long-term partner. This matters, because central government decisions on funding have made money very tight for UK social care providers for more than a decade, discouraging many organisations from modernising their administration. “Most need to digitalise, they recognise that, but they can’t find the funding for it,” he says. “You’re not making the margins you need to make as an organisation to invest in your future.”

Södertälje in Sweden

Government organisations may not have to consider profits and margins, but Sweden’s Södertälje municipality has also started using automation in HR. The local authority, which serves an area west of Stockholm, made its first use of RPA software from Finland-based provider Digital Workforce with two payroll processes for staff paid by the hour, absence reporting and ending employment.

This has saved almost all of the equivalent of one person’s time. “It’s a huge, huge difference and we’ve only just started out,” says Maria Dahl Torgerson, Södertälje’s communications and digitisation manager.

The municipality is using RPA more broadly, and is experimenting with software picking a time for staff to visit elderly people who are applying for funding for taxis to attend medical appointments, for example. Its software robot – named Ragnhild after a saint and queen of Sweden who is believed to have founded Södertälje’s medieval church – picks free times from staff calendars and prints appointment letters, although these are checked by humans before sending.

Torgerson says some processes resist automation. In some cases, including in payroll, the organisation uses old IT systems where it would be too expensive to set up automation, in which case the authority will wait for these to be replaced. In others, such as a process for providing short-term unemployment welfare payments, automation is possible, but with just 10% of applications made online, it is not yet worth the cost of setting it up. There will be a business case when this rises to 25%,.

As well as starting to use RPA in its administration of people, Torgerson sees RPA as vital in solving a massive people problem. Many richer countries have ageing populations and this means that organisations with social responsibilities will have to serve more retired people with fewer working-age ones.

“I think this is the way forward to do something about the ageing population,” she says. “Due to the demographic future, we have no other choice. Instead of software robots like Ragnhild taking over our jobs, they may help to ensure we receive the support we need after we retire.”

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