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Making Online Self-Service Work

January 14, 2001
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Benefit Design and Communication, Service, Featured Article
Benefits administration is movingonline, but can employees make the most of it? The advantages are great: asmorgasbord of information from 401(k) plans to medical and dental coverage andpreferred insurance carriers, with interactive forms for open enrollment. Theonly unresolved issue is whether those who are less than computer-savvy will beable to use and benefit from these new systems.

    A host of companiesare testing the waters, implementing online benefits in sectors of the economynot normally considered high-tech. The automobile industry, for example, took amajor step in putting its benefits online on November 2. That was the dayGeneral Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and the International Union UAW announced aplan to provide human resource functions to U.S. workers through employeeportals.

    The arrangementconnects 200,000 employees at GM and 100,000 at DaimlerChrysler with HRtechnology developed by Workscape, a provider of HR self-service applicationsbased in Reston, Virginia. To give workers access to the portals, the companiesalso announced they would offer Internet service through America Online,available in conventional PC form via modem or through television sets runningAOLTV.

    From home or office,from computer or television (delivered through a set-top box or throughinteractive service from Hughes DirecTV), employees will be able to accessupdates on health and retirement benefit plans, continuing education, careerplanning, and a host of other tools. That’s a big jump for the uninitiated,but when asked whether it would be difficult for employees to move into theonline world, GM president and CEO Rick Wagoner was quick to respond,“They’re already on the Internet.”

    Wagoner wasconfirming what GM had found out through an internal survey: 75 percent of thecompany’s employees already use PCs, with the majority active on the Internet.And according to Rick Vanzura, GM’s chief strategy officer in its informationsystems and services group, an earlier employee portal called Socrates, whichoffers HR information along with phone books and company directories, currentlyreceives monthly visits in the millions. Between PCs and AOLTV, GM can reachvirtually its entire workforce.

    Vanzura believesthat the value of accessing information online will be a lure that will win overeven the least technically minded. “One reason the Net has had such a highadoption curve is that it can be presented through an easy-to-use front end,”he said. “Marry that with the drawing power of an employee portal, of havingenrollment, 401(k), and other HR information in a central repository, and wedoubt we’ll have any serious problems in employee adoption of thetechnology.” 

    Is General Motors’move a sign that online benefits have won the day? Perhaps, but there is everyindication that helping the technophobic adapt may take longer in someworkplaces than others. What of companies that, unlike GM, have no pre-existingportal that has already brought users up to speed? And how big a struggle willit be for self-professed “resisters,” those who not only dislike technologybut also refuse to use it whenever possible?

    They’re out thereby the millions, according to Michelle Weil, a consultant on the psychology oftechnology and co-author (with Larry Rosen) of TechnoStress: Coping withTechnology @Work @Home @Play (John Wiley & Sons, 1997) . Weil’s studiespersuade her that between 30 and 40 percent of the population fall into the“resister” category, as opposed to a mere 10 to 15 percent who are “eageradopters.” And despite all the technology going into the workplace and home,here’s a surprise: Weil’s most recent work shows the categories ofmanager/executive and clerical/support staff becoming more, not less, hesitantabout technology.

    “Though more andmore people are choosing to use certain forms of technology, technostress acrossthe board is on the increase,” Weil said. “Even as we choose to use certainforms of it, technology itself continues to proliferate. And whether people areintimidated by technology or love technology - or are somewhere in the middle -they feel more stress because of boundary invasion and the multi-tasking madnessthat is happening.”

    Weil cites her owncell phone as an example. She bought it as a matter of personal security. Butshe’s careful to keep access to her number restricted. Society, in her view,hasn’t yet figured out when and how to use its digital tools. “Too manypeople have access to us and not necessarily under our terms. We lack guidelinestelling us how to use our technology.” 

    That makes the jobfor business clear: teach new systems in such a way as to calm the fears ofemployees who may feel overwhelmed. One of Weil’s suggestions is to implementone technology at a time. She also advocates providing time - salaried time -for employees to practice with the equipment and play with new features. 

    Bringing workersinto the implementation process is also an option, as the Texas Youth Commissionlearned when it began planning for online benefits. The TYC is the state’sjuvenile corrections agency, in charge of young offenders serving time for avariety of crimes. Headquartered in Austin, the commission oversees 5,000employees in 14 institutions and 47 offices around the state. It now runs anonline benefits package from Best Software of Reston, Virginia, and is rollingout a kiosk-based gateway that can be accessed throughout the system.

    As a consultantactively involved in its implementation, Marc Shapiro knows that onlinetechnology can be intimidating. But TYC has big plans. “We don’t want toreach just our HR managers,” said Shapiro, “but our juvenile correctionsofficers as well. We want to bring the benefits to our cooks and our janitors,to everyone.”

    Doing so is amulti-step process, one that begins with communications. Shapiro is a proponentof change management, a key part of which is educating employees in theadvantages of the new system. In TYC’s case, this was a year-and-a-halfprocess with numerous committee meetings. It also included productdemonstrations and careful listening to employee questions. TYC provided grouptraining and even produced a video explaining the system. 

    Significantly, theorganization surveyed its workforce and identified people who could be a forcefor change among employees. “Early adopters” who mastered the onlineenvironment became mentors for those having difficulty. People who raisedquestions about the technology changes were made part of the process, theirsuggestions included in the final design. “People like this don’t have to beexecutives,” said Shapiro. “You can draw them out of your rank and file. Forus, their help has been priceless.”

    Human nature canalso be a potent ally, particularly in benefits, which involves decisions thataffect the entire family. When Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firmspecializing in employee benefits and HR technologies, built an open enrollmentpackage for a client in the Minnesota health system, roughly 5 percent of theclient’s workforce - mostly its IT staff - was targeted. But when the systemwas rolled out, fully 40 percent of all workers began to enroll online. Gettingspouses involved in benefits turned out to be a spur to using the system fromhome. And when parents are uneasy with computers, their children help themthrough the process.

    As for manufacturersand other more traditional companies, Watson Wyatt’s Valerie Wedin thinks theyshould do what TYC did and examine kiosk technology, which can reach workers ona factory floor or in a break room even when they have no PCs of their own.“Many of our clients in this category are moving to kiosks because theemployees are familiar with them. This is the ATM age,” said Wedin, who isglobal director of communication practice for Watson Wyatt. “There are ways tocombine touch-screens with a keyboard, and audio and video can broaden theexperience.”

    Dealing with workertechnophobia is one thing, but how do you handle executives who are intimidatedby computers? Wedin recommends making sure the people around the executiveoffice have the appropriate technology so they can supply the boss with theright information in a timely way. “A leopard can’t change its spots,” sheadded, “but if the executive perceives value in using technology, he will bemuch more likely to take advantage of it.”

    Whether lineemployees or top brass, novice online users must also be able to find help whenthey need it. The key, according to TechnoStress author Michelle Weil, is tooffer immediate help without technical jargon, and to emphasize to workers thatthe help desk is not just a crutch but a tool they are expected to use. “Theattitude should be, of course you will have a help desk available, and it’sperfectly normal to use it,” she said. 

    Providing supportwith a human touch is something Foothill-De Anza Community College District haslearned much about in recent months. The district, about four miles south ofStanford University in Palo Alto, has been adopting an open-enrollment andonline benefits program from Costa Mesa, California-based UltraLink. It’s alarge district with two campuses - Foothill College and De Anza College - thatprovide facilities for some 50,000 students. The district has 3,000 part-timeemployees, 1,200 active full-time workers, and about 600 retirees. So far, therollout of the UltraLink system has extended just to active employees, butcurrent plans call for part-timers and retirees to be added to the picture nextyear.

    “You can’t putin high-tech without high-touch,” said Christine Vo, an employee benefitsspecialist for the district. “You have to put yourself in the employees’shoes and be willing to work with them side by side.”

    The Foothill-De Anzadistrict started its implementation with letters, memos, and electronic mail toemployees, a full-court communications press aimed at informing workers aboutthe new system, providing PIN numbers for access, and offering the services ofbenefits counselors for those who chose to consult them. Individual departmentswere given live demonstrations, and the district provided background informationand brochures.

    Vo championseducation as a way of fighting technophobia, and notes that it’s a continuingneed. “The response has been good, but we still get questions about why we setthings up the way we did. We have to keep explaining the benefits of technology,because people in the public sector are sometimes reluctant to get involved withchange. We make the case that we depend on efficiency to get the job done, andonline benefits give us that.”

    Most providers ofelectronic benefits agree that deploying a new system involves marketing it toemployees, who must be sold on the advantages of learning the technology. AtInfinium, a Hyannis, Massachusetts-based provider of human resources,accounting, and supply management applications, strategic HR marketing managerNancy Pacella notes that the client base is broadening to include moretraditional businesses. Those early adopter high-tech companies are giving wayto workforces that might need a little more convincing to get the systemrunning.

    “It’s crucial toarticulate the advantages,” said Pacella. “We all use ATM machines and knowwhat they can do for us. We enjoy the convenience of using the Web. Now we mustget across to our employees that this application helps them in doing theirjobs. And remember that HR is customer service, where your employees are yourcustomers.”

    Keeping thosecustomers happy had better be a priority. In a recent survey, Watson Wyatt foundthat interactive voice response systems (IVR), once the dominant way to deliverHR-related services, have been eclipsed by Web technology. And while the companyintranet is the primary delivery mechanism at surveyed companies, the Internetis just behind it, with Web use accelerating especially in companies with fewerthan 1,000 employees.

    The survey showedthat companies believe that the Web will not only improve service to employeesbut also promote a common corporate culture and increase productivity. These areworthwhile goals, but they depend on employees’ adapting successfully tochallenging new technologies, and on implementing them in a way that’s bothnon-threatening and educational. TYC’s Marc Shapiro sums it up: “You have tospend as much time preparing people for the change as you do changing.” Thatcan make technology adoption a lengthy process, but it’s the best way to makesure it takes hold.

Workforce, January 2001, Vol80, No 1, pp. 54-63  SubscribeNow!

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