HRMS Technology Revolutionizes The Way HR Departments Do Business

The capabilities of new workforce management apps are jaw-droppingly astounding! Really!

It’s true – watching the contemporary development of human resources management systems (HRMS) is frequently nothing short of awe-inspiring.

For many, especially those who’ve used computers all through their working lives, it’s just business as usual, even as they appreciate improvements in various capabilities.

For the people of my generation (Baby Boomers), though, it’s far more meaningful.

We’re the people who conducted business entirely on paper, using pencil or ink as appropriate for the job.

We typed our correspondence with typewriters, and we had to correct mistakes manually, either by using a rubber eraser to rub out a mistake, or various correction fluids or tapes to blot out the error before typing over it.

To give you an idea just how old some of us are, we’re the generation for whom Michael Jackson was a good-looking, talented black kid — not just another weird white dude.


After years of struggling with the vacation book at the union, keeping track of everyone’s time off entitlements and availability in an oversized loose-leaf binder, I joined the HR staff at a telecom in the 1990s, taking the position of HR manager at a technical facility in New Jersey.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that I’d be responsible for leave management in my new job. “Don’t worry about it, it’ll be a breeze – it’s all computerized,” said my new boss Catherine.

It Means Just What I Choose It To Mean . . .

Let me tell you what I thought Catherine meant by “computerized.” Remember, I was going to work for a high-tech company, one which had sunk countless millions of dollars into building the facility I was going to work in.

When she said the leave management system was computerized, I thought she meant a centralized database that managers and employees could access at any time to see their time-off entitlements and availability, and that managers could use to manage their own departments’ leave.

I thought that perhaps employees could simply click a couple of buttons to request time off, and that managers could approve or deny the request with their own button clicks, following which the records would be automatically updated. You know – the sort of attendance management application that CakeHR makes.

So that’s the sort of thing I was expecting, and I thought my job would be overseeing the system, making sure new employees got properly added, and making the occasional overrides.

When I met with her before reporting for the first time to the New Jersey facility,

she handed me a CD and told me the leave management material was on it. “It’s intuitive,” she told me. “It’ll take you ten minutes to get it up and running.”

It turned out that someone had prepared a spreadsheet for her that she was using to track attendance and time-off entitlement and availability for the couple of dozen people at the headquarters where she worked.

Since it required a computer to enter the data and make calculations as to earnings, entitlement and availability of time off, it technically met the definition of “computerized.”

And honestly speaking, once I realized there was no .exe file on the disk, it didn’t even take me ten minutes to get the thing up and running. Turning it on, loading it up, and understanding the various rows, columns and spreadsheets — she was right, it was a snap.

Accentuate the Digital

What wasn’t a snap, though, was the actual establishment and maintenance of records for each person.

I’d been told that we were going to bring in close to 100 staff, all told, to our facility – and we certainly had the accommodations for at least that many.

I had to make a separate worksheet for each person, and even with the templates provided, there was a lot of manual setup required to get each person’s pertinent information entered, such as name, employee number, department number and name, hire date, various entitlements, any special considerations, etc.

For us, special considerations were important. As a startup, we’d hired a number of people from other larger, more established firms, and we had to make some concessions to get them to make the jump.

Many of these folks were earning four or five weeks’ vacation a year at their old jobs, and were somewhat upset to find that as new employees, they’d only get two weeks’ paid vacation annually for the first couple of years.

So for supervisors, we sweetened the pot some by increasing the two weeks to three and increasing their compensation a bit.

One woman, though, understood something that many of us would take years to learn: it’s not the money, it’s the time. And for her, the time was a deal breaker:

“Dale, I’m French. My children are grown and live in California, and the rest of the family’s in France. I need four weeks off a year — two weeks to spend with my kids, and two to spend with the rest of the family. If I can’t have four weeks off a year, I can’t work here. It’s not the money that I need, it’s the time — I’m not asking for paid vacation beyond what anyone else has.”

Of course we hired her, and she got the same two weeks paid vacation per year (she wasn’t a supervisor, but an excellent specialist) plus two weeks of unpaid leave per year, written into her offer letter and reflected as a special circumstance on her leave management spreadsheet page.

Another special circumstance was actually fairly commonplace among our technical staff.

When everyone else was celebrating Christmas or Independence Day or any other national holiday, we always had at least a skeleton crew onsite to respond to any emergencies; likewise, we had additional people on an on-call basis, ready to drop whatever they were doing and report to the facility within an hour of being called in.

The people who worked on holidays were paid double – once for the holiday, and once for the actual time worked, and we (naturally) kept track of those payments.

The on-call people didn’t get paid in recognition of being on call unless they were actually called in, because it was built into their pay and we rotated the on-call assignments, but that was an area where we had to be excruciatingly attentive to detail and make sure that everyone was assigned to be on-call exactly the same as everyone else.

on call.

The special circumstances added up, though, as we built a team of experts who’d served long enough in the industry to earn more generous benefits and perks.

This is why some employers, when calculating some seniority-based benefits, count all the time worked in the industry, as opposed to just the time worked with the one company.

At any rate, I found myself continually adding columns to the time-off entitlement spreadsheet to track the special circumstances, and wracking my brain to develop formulas that would help me avoid simply calculating all the entitlements and availabilities on my calculator and plugging them in manually.

The other part of this particular process — attendance management — remained mired in the analog age. The formal process required an employee to request time off in writing from his supervisor.

The supervisor would deny or approve it; if approved, the memo would come to me for recording in the master spreadsheet as well as to ensure that the relevant compensation was appropriately designated “vacation pay” or “personal day” or whatever in the payroll itself. I’d then file the requests in individual employee’s personnel files.

In most organizations that have analog workforce management systems like my vacation book, or some ad hoc combination of analog and digital, such as what I used at the telecom, there’s usually an underlying, unwritten, informal process that accompanies the formal process.

In the case of leave management, the informal process generally is initiated by the employee seeking to take time off. He’ll call HR and ask someone for a summary of his time-off entitlement. If it’s insufficient to meet his needs, he’ll often brainstorm with the HR representative:

“Geez, I’ve only got one week available? That’s too bad – I really need to take two weeks to make this a worthwhile trip. When do I earn another week? Do I have any personal days I can use? How about sick time – how does that work? If I have any left over from last year, can I use it for vacation this year?”

Once the employee gets his vacation availability straightened out, he sometimes talks with the department head to find the best dates before submitting the written request, and sometimes he simply submits his written request.

Upon receiving the request, most department heads check with HR to ensure that the employee actually had the time available before approving it.

When HR receives a written, approved time-off request, the first thing it does is check to see that the employee has the time available.

If you’re keeping track, that’s the third time HR has checked that employee’s vacation availability with respect to the specific request.

Then it initiates a request to payroll to pay the employee so many weeks’ vacation pay on a particular pay date.

Eliminate the Analog

So I’ve had first-hand experience with attendance tracking and time-off entitlement on both an all-manual basis as well as on a semi-automated basis.

There are several drawbacks to performing any part of the process manually, drawbacks which can best be appreciated once you’ve actually experienced them. To help you avoid having to do that, I’m going to point out those drawbacks here.

A major drawback from the perspective of HR is that employees and their managers alike knew that HR tracked all time off, and so they didn’t.

And that makes perfect sense from their viewpoint — if HR’s already tracking leave entitlement, why should everyone else, or anyone else, duplicate their efforts?

It’s a waste of time! But from time to time, a department head would call me:

“Martha didn’t come in today – she hasn’t called in sick and I can’t reach her, and we’ve got a big deadline! I want her fired!”

So first thing, I’d check the spreadsheet, and more often than not, I’d learn that Martha was on the first day of a vacation she’d requested, and her department head had approved, months earlier.

In most cases, I’d consult with the department head, calm her down, and make arrangements for a temp to fill in until the employee returned from vacation.

Those calls from individual employees seeking information about their time off also are time-consuming, especially when they devolve into brainstorming sessions on how to allocate other kinds of time to vacation.

It also doesn’t make sense, once HR has already responded to an employee regarding her time-off entitlement, to have the exact same conversation with her supervisor.

One thing I tried to do at least once a year, and more frequently if possible, was send employees an accounting of their time off earned, used, and available, as well as a summary to each department head.

This was much appreciated, and they cut down on some of the calls for information, especially during the few weeks afterward.

However, they generated calls from people who wanted to double-check our figures – sometimes I made errors in my calculations (hey, I’m human!), and sometimes they did.

One secretary who made a habit of leaving early every day when her boss was out of town — which was frequently — was surprised to learn that we routinely noted those early departures and charged them against her time-off entitlement.

As you can imagine, that led to a rather heated and time-consuming discussion, with the woman storming out of my office complaining about what she called “Gestapo tactics.” Seriously – you can’t make this stuff up!

The Moving Finger Writes; And, Having Writ, Moves On . . .

So when I worked at the union, I had a rudimentary analog version of what CakeHR has built at the digital level.

First, I had a database in which I stored relevant data and which I updated periodically, and which I — and only I — could access at any time.

I used it to generate memos to staff and managers that summarized their leave availability, and I referred to it frequently when people wanted to know how much time off they had coming.

Among the information I didn’t have was data on any of the field staff –instead, all field staff’s attendance management data was maintained in regional offices.

At the telecom, the vacation book basically got transmogrified into a spreadsheet. It was just as labor-intensive as the vacation book was, requiring manual entry of data and constant tweaking of formulas to keep everything up-to-date and accurate.

I still fielded phone calls from staff and managers alike who wanted to know time-off availability. Most managers kept track of their staff’s upcoming time off in their weekly planners or in the computerized calendars that were commercially available.

I and they were chained to our computers for purposes of handling staff requests for information or approval.

The latest round of human resources systems addresses all those problems, and with a vengeance.

An employee no longer has to call HR to ask how much time she’s got available – she just accesses the company’s HRMS on her computer or other device.

She doesn’t have to restrict herself to working hours, when she or HR might be so caught up in their activities that they can’t connect to deal with it.

And the ease of use and accessibility is enhanced in those companies that use cloud computing for their HRMS needs, with the attendant savings in cost and staff time.

Once she finds out how much vacation time she’s got available, she checks the department calendar to see what dates, if any, are already blocked off.

She can pick and choose from the open dates, and completes a request for the time online. The request is marked urgent and delivered to her supervisor’s emailbox.

When he opens it, he can approve it or deny it. His job’s made easier because he doesn’t generally need to check the department calendar to see if the department can spare her.

Once he’s approved the request, a copy gets sent back to her mailbox, payroll is notified so that her vacation pay can be processed, and the database is updated.

In the whole process, nobody printed a memo or picked up a pen to sign anything. Just how awesome is that?

Modern HRMS systems carry truly global capabilities.

When I worked for the union, perhaps 20 percent of our members lived and worked in Canada, and we had offices in many Canadian cities.

I remember very clearly someone trying to call one of those offices and not getting an answer. Frustrated, he called another Canadian office. I walked in on him when he was trying his fourth or fifth, and he was clearly frustrated.

“What’s the deal? Is all of Canada shut down today and nobody bothered to tell us?” He was fuming. I looked at the calendar on his desk. “Eric, it’s July 1 – Canada Day. It’s their Independence Day, and I guess the country really is shut up tight!”

People mark Canada Day

Now, a modern HRMS might not have helped Eric because he may not have checked it to see why the Canadian offices were closed, but if he’d been planning a meeting or event that included Canadian staff, a quick check of staff availability would have shown that the Canadians had a national holiday that day.

Likewise, if he wanted to call a Canadian staff member, he’d have looked up the phone number and would also have been alerted of the local time.

Six-Two-and-Even, Over and Out!

It’s hard to imagine what lies ahead. When I was a kid, the square-jawed Dick Tracy was one of the most popular comic strips.

Tracy communicated with his headquarters by means of his 2-way wrist radio. In 1964, he graduated to a 2-way wrist TV, because portable radios were already becoming commonplace.

Tracy no longer graces the pages of the daily papers, but I’m sure he would have graduated to something like a wrist iPod by the 80s or 90s; what I’d really like to know is what would Dick Tracy have on his wrist today?

And what can we in HR expect from the wizards in IT over the course of the next decade or so?

What can they possibly come up with that’ll have us oohing and ahhing yet again?


Written By

Dale Marshall

Human Resources Manager.