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A foray into HR software for SMEs

It was 2016. I was doing some consulting work for a tourist attraction. They peaked at around 180-200 staff in summer, and shrank to around 60 in winter.

Most staff were on zero hours contracts, and the company had been very good at ensuring they complied with the spirit of zero hours contracts, as well as the laws. They did their best not to be exploitative - they understood that for students wanting summer jobs, the ability to have flexibility to request shifts when they wanted them, increasing in summer, and reducing or stopping over winter, worked for both company and staff. So staff would submit roster requests of how many shifts they'd like, and when they could work each week, and a manager would spend 2 or 3 days each week compiling a roster from those requests.

They had a rudimentary 12 year old staff database for storing the core worker's details, and calculating payroll. In fact, when written in 2004, it would have been pretty leading edge. But by 2016, it was feeling a bit dated. And just stored basic contact details, and enough job role details and pay rates to enable the payroll to be calculated each week.

More to the point, the HR manager and operations manager identified several things they couldn't do, were inefficient, or were insecure:

  • recording of holidays for salaried staff was haphazard using spreadsheets and not centrally managed

  • illness and time off wasn't recorded consistently for salaried staff

  • no recruitment system, so despite recruiting 100-150 staff each year, there was no central view of who was interviewed, how many were offered roles, how many were rejected etc

  • once staff were recruited, their application forms, CVs etc were kept in paper files

  • although there was a record of health issues, and emergency contacts, they were on paper - there was no electronic record so it was hard for managers to access the information if they needed it

  • there were no centralised disciplinary records.

  • there were no electronic copies of employment/worker contracts

  • as noted above, rostering was done very well and relatively fairly, however it was very inefficient, and experienced staff knew how to "play the system" to get the best shifts

  • once the roster had been done, it was published as a big spreadsheet .... which then would change as additional people said they could fill some empty slots

  • and staff would realise they couldn't do the shifts they'd been allocated because their social life had changed, so they'd just swap. So management would only have a rough idea who should turn up each day

Having said that, everything worked surprisingly well! It was "quaint". It had started out as 10-20 staff 20-odd years before, and had grown successfully over the years. Things carried on pretty much the same, just on a bigger scale each year. Long standing staff trusted that management knew what they were doing. New staff learned by osmosis from existing staff. Management did their best to be fair and reasonable to staff.

The payroll department knew that the systems weren't perfect, and that if there was any discrepancy, it was best to err in favour of the employee/worker. And management just worked very hard to get enough people working each day by gut feel, and to have good personal relationships with staff to deal with any issues that arose. They never knew quite how many staff they had on the books at one time (although the payroll department could have worked it out if asked), how many shifts those people wanted to work, how many people wanted to return from last year. Therefore each spring, they didn't know how many people they needed to recruit, nor indeed how many people they had recruited!

This was no longer a tiny business - it had grown to multi-million pound turnover business, making healthy profits. Even with these inefficiencies. Most staff were treated well, but it did help if you got to know the managers.

Somehow, the recruitment worked each year. Until one year it didn't. It hit peak summer season, and there just weren't enough staff to serve the customers. Something had gone wrong in recruitment, and no-one knew what, or how it compared to previous years.

I had been working as a consultant helping them replace and improve their EPOS and bookings system. I got called into a meeting to discuss what had happened. With my background of being CEO and CTO of a small business, I asked a few questions about what they'd been aiming to achieve, and how many staff they had been trying to recruit, how many had applied, how many had been recruited etc.

It soon became clear could see what needed to be improved. But it wasn't just technology they needed. It was going to be an evolution in processes as well as technology. Not just around recruitment, but around all of their people management systems and processes. However because the hodge-podge of systems, e-mail and paper "sort of worked" each year, and the company grew and made money each year, there wasn't a "burning platform". Most people were more scared of change, than of the problems that an outsider could see.

I'll be honest, as I was with them, I hadn't looked at HR systems before. In my previous business where I had been CEO, we had employed 30 staff, and probably needed an HR system - but at the time, had managed to get by on spreadsheets and Outlook calendar for holidays and illness records, and tried not to have to do any disciplinary actions!

So, we did some Internet searches to find potential software and cloud servicess, and then to find out more, I headed to the HR Software show at Olympia in London with the HR Manager and Operations Manager. We had written a rough spec of all the things that were needed, but before going too far, we needed to see what was on offer from the market in terms of software.

Wow, there were so many systems to choose from. Just from this initial pass, we came up with the following list of possibilities.

Quite a long list to start with. Some tried to do everything a company could possibly want. Some focused on a specific area, such as recruitment. Some were aimed at small companies, some were aimed at large companies.

Over my next few blog posts, I'll share how we whittled the list down to suit this particular company ...... found some more alternatives that are worth you considering if you're on a similar journey. And then as I learned more, I worked with a few other small businesses and identified a common set of features than most SMEs need.

Therefore if you're looking to choose an HR software system for your business, if you're a small-medium sized business, I hope my thoughts may show you how I settled on a small subset of HR companies that are well worthwhile looking at in more detail, and may help you choose a system to suit your needs.

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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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