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6 months of using an HR system, what worked well, what could be improved?

For those of you following this blog, it's now 6 months since we rolled out BambooHR at 2 of the companies that I work with. I'll summarise what we've found.


The 2 companies are very different, but with many similar requirements for HR system:

  • one has around 15 staff, an IT support company near Cambridge in the UK (15 when we signed up with BamboHR, now 17 staff)

  • one is a tourist attraction, which has 30-40 "core staff" who work throughout the year, and an additional flexible staff which flexes between 3 staff in winter, and 170 staff in summer.

I will summarise some of the things we've found - some of which are BambooHR specific - some things that have worked really well, and a few things that could be improved to make it even better. There are also a few "human" things, which would apply whichever HR system you we'd have chosen.


What have we found?

Rollout was generally easy, and staff and management found BambooHR easy to use.


Holiday tracking and approval

Requesting and approving holidays works really well. Staff find it a big improvement - they have visibility of their holiday allowance and what they've used, and it's easy to request holiday. And for managers it's great to be able to see who is on holiday when approving holiday, and to see holiday balances.

  • a slight improvement is that in BambooHR the manager can either approve a holiday, or reject a holiday request. When rejecting a holiday request, the manager can ask a question, which the employee can reply to, to re-request the holiday. But it would be nice if manager could put the holiday request into a "tentative" status, whilst waiting for the answer. Often of course, the answer is either yes, or in a small company the manager has a quick discussion with the employee, and then either approves or rejects the request. But a tentative status would be nice to have the option to keep that whole feedback loop within the HR system.


  • I believe strongly in delegating decisions to the right people in the business to help build strong teams. However I also believe that giving staff prompt answers on their holiday requests is one of the simplest, but also most powerful things a company can do to support it's staff. This can be a challenge to get the balance right, especially with new managers - you want to enable them to make decisions themselves, but you don't want to abdicate responsibility. And the manager doesn't want to make mistakes. In setting up holiday approvals, BambooHR has a number of great options for how holidays will be approved. One example is that approval can require "manager, and manager's manager". This means that if you've got a team of 6 in the service team, and one asks for holiday, it's great for that team leader to be able to make the initial decision to approve, reject, or question before approving. This option allows exactly that, with the safety net that after the direct manager has approved the holiday, it then needs to be approved by their manager, before the holiday is confirmed and fully approved. This is good, but has one drawback that we've found - if the team leader doesn't respond promptly - maybe they're waiting because they think another team member is about to to put a holiday request in too, or they are not sure whether to approve the holiday or not, they may leave the request for a few days or more. They may think "it's only a couple of days", but for the staff member that requested the holiday, this may feel like a long time, or may mean they miss out on a deal or low priced holiday. With this setting approval setting, the manager's manager will not be aware of the pending request. One improvement that we think BambooHR would benefit from, is that we would like the option that if the first manager has not responded within a certain time frame, then the manager's manager would be notified. This would give an alert if a manager accidentally overlooked a holiday request. Another option would be that both managers could be notified when the initial request is placed, and then approved in either order.

So the current holiday settings are generally very good, but they could be improved slightly.


Other time off

Recording "other" non-holiday types of time off into a central system is really good - however there are 3 interesting "human" elements have emerged and are worth being aware of, to ensure you address them as you adopt an HR system.


Firstly, although staff adopted the holiday requests very easily without much encouragement, when staff are ill, they are more likely to either phone up their manager, phone the team, or e-mail their manager.

  • In fact it's often company policy that they want staff to phone in so that they can have a conversation about how bad it is, and whether there's anything the company can either do to help, or if there is any urgent work needed.

  • So although the staff member could put the illness "request" into the HR system (BambooHR in this case), it's not necessarily natural for the employee to do so, and the company may not want them to.

So you do have to decide whether you want to change the policy/process for notifying if they are ill.


Secondly, If you decide to stick with the traditional method of staff phoning in when they are ill, we found you then need to remember that managers aren't necessarily used to recording illness events.

  • So when one of their staff phone in or e-mails in saying "I'm not well today", in a small, close-knit company, the manager may well be used to saying or replying "OK, hope you feel better tomorrow", or "keep in touch and let us know how you're feeling better tomorrow".

  • The manager might e-mail out to their team that their colleague is off today. But they won't always automatically think of adding this record to the HR system.

So until this becomes a regular habit for managers, you do need to keep an eye on any illnesses and other emergency time off, and just check in with the manager to make sure they have remembered to record it into the HR system. The manager may also need to be reminded to add extra days if the person is off for several days, to keep the record complete.


Thirdly, Managers in SMEs, including directors, aren't necessarily used to thinking about the different types of time off that people may ask for.

  • The company's HR consultant probably put together the staff handbook with a wide range of different types of time off policy - illness/sickness, various statutory types of parental leave such as maternity, paternity and adoption leave.

  • There may or may not be defined policies for planned medical leave, bereavement leave, jury service, or unpaid time off for other reasons. Some of which may be paid, some unpaid, and some at some intermediate pay rate.

  • It's very useful to record how much of each type of time off has been taken in the business, and who has taken which type of leave - and it is very easy to record those different types of leave with BambooHR (and most other HR systems).

  • However it is not always natural for staff or managers in SMEs to think "I need to request planned medical leave". If a staff member has a hospital appointment where they are told "you are going to need an operation, would you like to go on the waiting list", the natural reaction is of course worry about their condition, and to speak to their manager and ask "will I be able to have time off, but I don't know when yet, will I be paid?".

  • Similarly if they get a letter telling them they've been called up for Jury service, there is also a panic of "what does this mean, will the company let me, will I be paid?" Often, the manager hasn't come across the situation before either, so their first thought is "I don't know, what do I do?" The fact that the HR system can record each of these different types of leave is great, as it helps the manager clarify what type of leave needs to be recorded, and to record that time off.


So at least one of the directors/HR consultant/HR system will ideally help the staff/managers:

  • ideally the staff member and manager can easily be guided to the company policy, if there is one. Or if there isn't one (because this situation hasn't occurred before), then they should be directed to a director or their HR specialist who can help agree a suitable way of handling that situation. BambooHR does not do this, so management does need active awareness to help staff and managers respond. This is where a great HR consultant is a great help to a company.

  • secondly, the manager needs to remember to record the time off request. BambooHR doesn't come pre-set up with all the types of leave. This is understandably because different companies have different policies, or may want to group leave in different ways. The first thing we did was to create all the categories of leave we thought relevant. It would be nice if there were more pre-set up categories as a starting point - but they are very easy to set up, very configurable, there are suitable icons for pretty much every type of leave that you could think of.

  • thirdly, a feature that BambooHR doesn't have, but it would be good improvement, is that when you put a time off record in , it would be good to be able to set the start and end date to be "I don't know". This would allow managers or staff to record, for example "I'd like planned medical leave for a knee operation, but I'm not sure yet when it will be". This would allow the recording of the initial notification, without having to wait until a date is confirmed. There could then be prompts indicating that this is a tentative time off, but not confirmed yet, and prompt periodically for the date to be confirmed. It would also be an ideal time to direct the user to the relevant policy, if one exists.

Training records

During the year, various of the staff have completed training - some internal training sessions, and some formal external training courses.


BambooHR is very good at recording that these courses have been completed - it's a nice simple system, but records the course, when it was completed, whether the course/certificate has an expiry data and will need repeating. And optionally we can record things such as cost of the course, pass mark etc. So recording what has happened is excellent, and if a certificate expires, BambooHR will also prompt for when the course/certification needs to be renewed.


However, for our staff, we came up with a training plan for each person. Out of the box, there was no way of recording the upcoming training courses and dates that were planned. I have to say, that BambooHR's support was superb, when we asked about it, they created a "custom object" for upcoming training, which worked reasonably well.


However we had 2 minor issues with this:

  • firstly, it surprised me, because BambooHR's ethose is very much about creating a great future for staff. Training plans, for me, is one of the key ways of making sure that we can see in advance that all staff have a personal development plan, whether formal, or ad-hoc

  • however more significantly, because the upcoming training was a different "custom object", once the training was completed, it wasn't as simple as clicking "done", and that record then becoming part of the training record. Once the training had been completed, we had to create a new training record, and delete the "upcoming training" record. This was a) a bit cumbersome. and b) not as nice as the "expiring training records" where it showed the upcoming training needed, and was a simple "tick to mark it as completed"

So I've put in a request for BambooH to modify their core Training record to allow future training to be put in, so that the upcoming agenda can be seen, and then easily ticked off. As yet, they haven't given us a date for that.


Recruitment/Applicant tracking

The ATS in BambooHR has proved exceptionally good. In the 15 person company, (well, 14 people when we started using BambooHR, we're up to 17 people now), we've recruited 3 people using the ATS. It has proved easy for people to apply. Some found our advert urely as a result of BambooHR pushing the advert out to Indeed.com.


It was easy for us to configure what we wanted filled in on the application form, including configuring some custom questions to be asked. this really helped screen and filter candidates at an initial phase. It was easy for 2 or 3 people to collaborate in the recruitment - when a new request application came in, the expected line manager was able to review the CV, and add some comments and an initial recommendation of whether to offer a first interview or not.


This then allowed a more experienced manager to quickly review and agree, or discuss further. At the press of a button, an e-mail could then be sent to the applicant either inviting them to an interview, or politely rejecting them.


Reply emails from the applicant go into BambooHR are logged in the discussion thread, and forwarded on to the hiring manager. The hiring manager can easily reply from their Outlook or phone, and again the reply got logged into BambooHR against that applicant. So we have a full record of the conversations, even if multiple people are involved. This was is a massive improvement how it was over previously.


We could then easily add notes after each interview. And record the progress of the applicant through the interview stages that we had configured. At any point, rejecting the applicant was easy to do using configurable templates, although the default templates were pretty good to start from.


And once we had identified a candidate that we wanted to offer the job to, we were able to send the offer letter entirely from within BambooHR, and the candidate could electronically sign it.


I will admit that final step was only applied to our third recruit. Although it was relatively easy to set up, it did need a couple of hours to get the offer letter set up correctly, and pulling in the correct fields and values to put into the offer letter. However the main reason for not doing so on the first offer letters was, again, a "human" issue. The director who usually did the offer letters , and had been doing it for 20 years, was used to doing it the usual way. And she was reticent about trusting BambooHR (or any new system until proven) to actually send something as important as an offer letter. Also, she was used to getting a signed paper acceptance letter back, and was worried that if the candidate accepted electronically, it may not feel so "real" to the applicant and they might change their mind.


This is just a real human thing to be aware of, and an entirely valid concern. By the time we did our 3rd recruit, she was prepared to trust the system, and put the effort into getting the offer letter and digital signature setup. And that applicant did accept electronically, and has now joined the business.


Onboarding

As you've seen, we've recruited 3 people using BambooHR. On the last 2, we have used BambooHR's onboarding checklists. These are simple checklists that can be set up for new starters. Each task can be set for the time when it needs to be completed by either before start date, or from time after start date. e.g. to be completed before start date, to be completed by end of 1st day, by end of first week, or end of first month, etc.


Each task can be assigned either to the new recruit, to their manager, or to a specific role or person. These work really well. Really easy to use. And our managers have adopted them very well, e.g. by putting daily check-ons for the first week, and weekly checkins for the first month, and then monthly checkins for the first 6 months. They've found it easy to tick off when they've done each one, and to put some notes in as they tick them off.


Support

I have to say that BambooHR's support is excellent. Firstly, you very rarely need to call on it, because everything is so easy. And documentation is excellent and usually tells you how to do something if it's possible. However on a couple of occasions we have had to ask a question. In each case, this has been possible via Live Chat, and the person who responded has been very responsive, knowledgeable, and usually been able to solve the question we had. The only time the question wasn't 100% resolved was on the Future training example mentioned above, where they managed to put in place the best solution possible, but ran into a limitation with BambooHR itself.


However, the one challenge is that BambooHR are based in Utah, so their live chat only becomes operational at around 2pm - 3pm UK time. Surprisingly this hasn't been much of a problem, as we've never had any problem that couldn't wait until the afternoon. Which is really a credit to the software. However I would prefer it if they offered support for full UK hours. This lack of UK hours support could be a deal breaker for some companies.


Security - single sign on and 2 factor authentication

If you read my blog post from when we were selecting an HR system, you'll remember this was a key factor for us.


I'll mentioned the data centre first. At the time we signed up for BambooHR, there was a UK data centre, which was a key requirement. This was in period when the UK was negotiating it's Brexit relationship with the EU, and was threatening a no-deal exit. Therefore within a few months of signing up, BambooHR made an emergency decision to move their datacentre to Dublin in Ireland to be within the EU. This was slightly disappointing, that they moved the UK one, rather than creating an EU data centre. At this point, I'm confident that the EU will have at least as good data protection rules as the UK, and that the data centre being in Ireland is fine. I'm not sure if it indicates that BambooHR has more customers in Ireland than in the UK, more customers in the EU than the UK, or whether this was just a way of minimising risk for BambooHR in the case of a no-deal Brexit. To be fair, many other US companies made similar decisions at the same time. It hasn't negatively affected us, but was worth noting as it is a change from my original evaluation, and if I was doing the same evaluation again, it might have affected the decision making process, even if it hadn't changed the final outcome.


Single sign-on, I have to say is superb. We already had Active Directory and 2 factor authentication. With one company we already had the SAML gateway set up, for the other company we had to set that up. Setup was relatively straightforward, and then configuration of BambooHR to authenticate using the SAML gateway was very easy. When I or any of the staff want to log in, we just go to bamboohr.com, and when we attemt to log in, we're redirevted to our SAML gateway, where we enter our domain username and password. The SAML gateway triggers our 2-factor authentication request, and once I've confirmed on my phone (or in fact it's usually my Apple Watch that taps me on the writs and asks me to confirm that it really is me) then I am straight in to BambooHR. No extra passwords or anything to remember. Very nice - easy and secure.


There are a couple of potential issues with the SAML authentication:

  • configuring it is an "all or nothing" setting - once turned on, it applies to every single account. It would be good to have the option of excluding one or more accounts from being SAML enabled. e.g. having one "emergency, break glass" admin login which could be set with very strong password and IP address restrictions or SMS one time passcode from BambooHR itself, in case there was ever a problem with the SAML gateway.

  • For the above reason, it was also quite "scary" configuring it, because you were logged into an admin account, turned on SAML authentication, but had to keep your admin account running whilst you used another computer to test it, in case you'd mis-configured anything. It worked fine both times, and was very easy to set up, but you'd only have to mis-copy one character and the config might not have worked.

  • A SAML gateway is quite sophisticated to set up. It's not overly complex, and for companies using Microsoft Office 365 this caome as standard if you have the right level of Office 365/Azure AD Premium. But some small companies won't, and if the company hasn't moved to Office 365, then setting up SAML would be more complex. So this may make the setup with what I would consider the minimum sensible security, to be a little too complex for very small companies.

  • finally, all the above points could be addressed if there was a little more flexibility on authentication. it would be ideal if the default could be set to be SAML, but that certain accounts could be over-ridden, to either not require SAML and to use a BambooHR password. Or even better, to have the option of some accounts being authenticated using a single sign-on solution such as Facebook or Google accounts, and if there was the option of adding 2FA by using either SMS of a one time passcode to the user's phone (although I recognise there can be cost issues), or using Google Authenticator.

As an extra not to the above point, the tourist attraction provides a scenario that demonstrates that last point really well. It won't apply to most small companies, but might apply to some. The tourist attraction has 30-40 "core staff" who all have domain accounts, so doing single sign-on worked fine. And they were the users we wanted set up on BambooHR, because the other 30 - 180 "flexible staff" didn't have their own logins to the domain, and had quite different HR requirements. Their requirements were already covered by a bespoke system of roster, recruitment and payroll.


However, having seen how good BambooHR is, we would ideally like to put them all onto BambooHR, and gradually eliminate the bespoke systems. However those flexible staff really do not need an active directy domain login, either on the local domain, nor an Office365 subscription. However virtually all of them have a personal Facebook or Google account. So it would be superb if the core staff could be authenticated using SAML to authenticate the domain users, and then allow the zero-hours staff to choose to use Facebook, Google, or a BambooHR password with Google authenticator for 2FA, whichever is most convenient and secure for them.


Realistically, companies with zero hours staff are probably not BambooHR's target market.


Pricing and payments

One minor niggle I have is around payments. One company signed up to pay by credit card, monthly. Because their numbers vary, this gives flexibility. However, I'd prefer to have it invoiced and taken by direct debit, rather than using up a chunk of a company credit card on a monthly recurring "core" service, that could in time use a significant proportion of the monthly credit allowance. Not a major issue, but because BambooHR are not UK based, they don't do direct debits. This also means that of course the amount invoice is in US dollars, which means it can vary based upon exchange rates. Again, we're use to that with many cloud based suppliers, but it would be nice to budget (and easier) if the prices were fixed in UK pounds sterling.


The other company ran into a different problem. Because their number of users is fairly stable, and BambooHR offer a small discount for paying annually, they paid for a year in advance, which also meant it could be paid by bank transfer. All looking good - until part way through month 10, BamboOHR notified us that our "credit would run out partway through month 11, so we needed to pay for the next 12 months, during month 11." So I understand why, we'd gone from 15 users, down to 14 staff, and then grown to 17 staff. Each month BambooHR calculate how many user credits you've used for the month, and we'd used more than we'd pre-paid for.


However when you pay an annual fee, you expect, and budget to pay the annual renewal the same month each year. You know the amount can change each year, but expect to be able to predict the payment month from a cashflow point of view, and accounting for the costs by deferring them over the year. I'd prefer it if BambooHR handled annual paying customers a little better. (My previous company, Signify, had many customers paying for services on an annual basis, so I have a fair amount of experience of doing annual billing, and pro-rating customers up or down part way through the year as they grow or shrink. So I know it can be done better.).


Summary

So, 6 months in, are we happy with the choice of BambooHR?


As you can see above, of course there are a handful of small issues that could be improved. However, to be clear, they are very minor. In both cases, myself, and management at each company is very happy with BambooHR. In each case it has delivered everything we'd hoped for, and more.


It doesn't do everything that some systems could do - but it does everything we expected it to, and more. And as a result of it's focus, everything it does, it does very well. There's always room for improvement, and BambooHR are constantly improving - every month they send out their "30/30" updates - the last 30 days developments summarised in 30 seconds. Although it normally takes more than 30 seconds to summarise them!


I'm sure some of the other HR systems I looked at such as PeopleHR and BreatheHR might have done one or two of those things better. But I'm equally sure they wouldn't have done one or 2 things quite as well as BambooHR.


It's been 100% reliable, loved by the staff and managers, given us better records than we ever had before, better management of holidays, great records of both training and a couple of disciplinary processes. And the recruitment processes have been better than ever before, more successful, as well as saving a fortune in costs.


So yes, we're very happy with our choice. I'll always keep an eye on the market, and on BambooHR, and the other HR systems, in case there's something new, or something significantly better, but at the moment, I'd wholeheartedly recommend BambooHR, and we will be sticking with it.


Having said that, if you're still using spreadsheets and Outlook calendars for holiday management, and storing HR files on a file server somewhere, please do consider moving to a good, easy to use, secure HR system. Whether you choose BambooHR like we did, or if you choose another system such as PeopleHR or BreatheHR, or one of the many others, so long as you do sensible due diligence to ensure that it will meet your needs, any good system should help you improve the management of your staff.

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About the Author:

Dave Abraham is an independent consultant, working with a number of small businesses. Working at a strategic level, he looks at the strategic direction of the business with the directors, and helps the business improve processes, people management, and technology to help the business grow for the benefit of the staff, customers and owners of the business.  A core theme in recent years has been helping small companies improve how they nurture, grow, recruit and develop their staff, as it has such a massive impact on how a small company can go from surviving to thriving. 

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