A Brief Review of Workforce Management, Productivity Tools and Other Trends

Gee Whiz, We Can Do That Now?

Every so often, I stop and marvel at how far we’ve come, technologically speaking, in my lifetime.

I entered school near the end of the Eisenhower administration, a time of relative peace and unparalleled prosperity for the western world, even though it was scarred and healing in the aftermath of World War II.

I was attending the Scout Jamboree in Idaho in 1969, when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. In college, the computers we had access to filled entire rooms and did what we told them to by means of hundreds of punchcards.

Years later, I owned a Commodore computer and actually tried to develop code that would make it useful in a work environment. And in the 1980s, we finally started getting computers in the non-profit where I worked.

The first computers we had were three dumb IBM terminals on which we managed the subscriptions to our monthly newspaper for our 600,000 members.

It wasn’t until the late 80s or early 90s that we bought a mini-computer with two terminals for the finance department, and then we started buying PCs for individual users – myself among them.

Back then, competition was fierce to produce the office productivity software – word processors, spreadsheets and database management programs.

Everyone was writing code of some sort, but it was a while before reliable, flexible and robust software was developed that addressed my human resources needs – things like workforce management, attendance tracking and absence management.

In the meantime, I set about trying to develop my own applications using a database management program called dBase 3.

After a while, I had a respectable program that tracked the accrual and use of sick, personal and vacation time by employees – no mean feat, indeed, given the way the process worked.

Nevertheless, it was still kind of labor-intensive and subject to human error, and I had to perform a couple of manual overrides every week or so to address the oddball situations, like someone who worked only 4 days a week.

Luckily for me and the countless other HR professionals who spent so much of their working time on issues like vacation tracking and leave management, codemasters and entrepreneurs like CakeHR have sprung up to address these needs, creating staff leave software, digitized leave request modules that seamlessly incorporate approved leave requests into a firm’s schedule, holiday schedulers and so much more.

We’re All Here – Why Can’t We Have a Meeting?

I got my first “real” job in 1979 and stayed with the organization nearly 20 years, during which I saw the impact of technological change up close.

After several years, I’d climbed the ladder to Operations Director, which meant I got blamed for anything that went wrong.

Or so it sometimes felt. One of my jobs was to take care of the frequent meetings that were held in our office, which was the organization’s international headquarters.

When people came for meetings, they brought with them huge valises full of papers, and many folks brought more than one.

One time we had all of our vice presidents in town for their regular quarterly meeting

After they adjourned one day, a group of them were hanging out in my boss’ office, and I was among them, chatting away and feeling good about everything.

Suddenly my boss looked around and said “Hey, we’re all on the minimum wage subcommittee – let’s have a meeting right now and see if we can’t put some of those issues to bed.”

Some of them reached into their valises and brought out folders and notebooks, but the others looked around at each other, and at John, and finally one of them said “John, I didn’t think we’d be meeting on minimum wage today, so I left that notebook at the hotel.”

The others murmured in assent.

Of course, that meeting would have gone forward today because everyone would have called up their notes and other documents in their mobile devices and they’d have been meeting within two minutes.

And they wouldn’t have arrived with industrial-strength briefcases toting reams and reams of paperwork – indeed, many would have required only those mobile devices, and the only ones hauling around lots of paper would be those who needed original signatures on legal documents.

Modern technology enables organizations to be far more flexible and versatile in responding to ever-changing environments.

In fact, we’ve been hearing about the paperless office for about a generation now, but it’s starting to look as if it’s actually becoming a reality!

One of my jobs was to order everyone’s desk calendar. Managers and up also got a planner, usually a wirebound book with a separate printed page for each week.

Of course, everyone wanted a different type – I had to sit down with each person and make sure I ordered the right one.

Smart phones and other mobile devices today are increasingly making those planners a thing of the past.

“Why Don’t You Screen the Candidates and Send Me the Top Three, Okay?”

One of the hiring managers for whom I interviewed was the general counsel – he needed lawyers.

At one point he had a vacancy and so we put out the call for brilliant legal minds and got quite a few impressive candidates fresh from law school, but one stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

Immediately after I interviewed her, I started trying to put the two in the same room together. He was on the road for the rest of the week, though, and had another trip planned the following week.

He was adamant that only he could make the hiring decision, and he wouldn’t do so without a proper interview.

You see where this is going, right? To make a long story short, by the time he was back in town long enough to catch his breath and take the time to give her a proper interview, she’d accepted someone else’s offer.

Those situations are much more manageable today through the miracles of modern videoconferencing technology.

Whether in his hotel room or the hotel’s business center, and with only a couple of moments’ preparation, he could have sat down and held a productive interview with her shortly after my initial meeting.

Using the same technology, in fact, hiring managers can even “sit in” on those initial interviews, and collaborate with you on setting up that short list of candidates to call in for the second interview.

If This Is Tuesday, We Must Be in Belgium . . .

It’s funny from one perspective – people trying to pack as much as possible into a trip – so much so that they sometimes forget where they are!

On the other hand, the people in Finance aren’t laughing at all as the airfare and lodging bills come in for payment.

The fact is, though, that cost containment has become a watchword that’s never going to go away, and the travel and entertainment budget is always a target when belts need to be tightened.

This can cause problems for businesspeople for whom travel is a frequent necessity, including recruiters who sometimes need to travel to meet good candidates.

When I directed HR for a vitamin factory and we needed help in a production department, we just hung out the “Now Hiring” sign and within half an hour, people would start trooping in to apply.

Not so for managerial and professional positions, though, let alone good technical people.

In many cases, you had to steal the best such people from other employers or snatch them right out of school, and things today are no different.

“Now hiring” sign.

Even if you find someone you really want to interview who’s between jobs, you’re often going to have to go to her or pay for her to come to you.

Videoconferencing and VOIP applications like Skype have opened a whole new area of opportunity for recruiters to make initial contact with likely candidates.

Instead of travelling across the country to interview someone about to graduate from university, you can videoconference with her first to get an idea whether or not you want to pursue her.

This won’t just save the financial cost of travel, it’ll save the time as well.

Videoconferencing and VOIP applications like Skype have opened a whole new area of opportunity

Then there are the times you just can’t help but travel. In those cases, modern technology helps keep you in close contact with your office to a degree that even a few years ago would have been considered wishful thinking.

Whenever I attended conferences outside the office, whenever we had a break, the participants would rush for the bank of pay phones outside the conference room. Who knows why?

Perhaps they were keeping abreast of developments in their offices, or perhaps they just wanted to find out what to bring home for dinner!

It was no different when we held meetings at our own headquarters building.

Our biggest conference room was on the executive floor, and at every break in the meeting, everyone would rush out to use a phone.

We didn’t have phone banks, though — just the phones in our executives’ offices, which included at least one guest phone each.

The lower-ranking participants would have to take the time to come downstairs to other offices – even mine!

Minicams and microphones, combined with Bluetooth technology, make it possible for someone in the office to see what you see and hear what you hear.

This means that when there’s a break in your conference, you can use your Bluetooth to get in touch with whomever you need to talk to, while you’re getting another cup of coffee or perhaps a snack.

This capability is extremely useful beyond convenience and enhancing your ability to multitask, though. Imagine you’re waiting in an airport for a delayed flight.

A Bluetooth-enabled smart phone, or a minican-equipped laptop, or Google Glasses can give you not only voice communication, but also visual collaboration – whether it’s simply a live picture of the person you’re talking to or documents and spreadsheets you’re discussing.

“Google Glass”

The Professional Recruiter

Especially when I worked for a telecom, I did a lot of recruiting of technical staff. I never worked for a company large enough to employ its own recruiters, and so I was pretty much on my own when it came to sourcing good candidates.

Which meant that after a little while of trying to reinvent the wheel, I broke down and called a professional recruiter.

She worked for a local staffing agency and was very good. I think she’d be much better today, though, given the ongoing trends in the marketplace.

You see, she performed two major functions – she actively recruited potential candidates using a variety of methods – job fairs, working with technical schools, advertising, and other methods.

The problem was, though, that she also spent a great deal of time with clients like me, either selling her services to begin with, or, when I needed someone, reviewing the available candidates.

This is how it was at big employers as well – recruiters would spend some time sourcing, some time with hiring managers and others learning about the vacancies they have to fill, and a good amount of time interviewing those potential candidates to prequalify them for an interview with the hiring manager.

The trend nowadays is to let recruiters focus strictly on recruiting, and let the hiring managers do all the interviewing

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The recruiter’s job today is focusing more on sourcing the best candidates, and giving hiring managers more training in conducting interviews themselves.

Smaller companies – like the ones I worked for – either relied on their in-house HR generalist (that’d be me) or sometimes engage the services of third-party recruiters, either freelancers or staffing companies.

So What Else is New?

There’s a ton of productivity software and mobile apps coming online seemingly every week – some of it is for work in general, and some of it is oriented to specific disciplines, like sales, accounting, or HR.

Among the most exciting of these from a recruiting perspective are the dictation-transcription and voice command tools, which are far superior to the versions that were available for the general market even a few years ago, and the project management and collaboration tools, most of which employ cloud storage to permit all members of a project to work on files at any and all times, sometimes simultaneously.

Cloud computing benefits.

There are apps and software that keep track of the articles you want to read, but don’t have time to access just now, others that scour social media for any mention of your company’s name, and still others that manage your email far more comprehensively than the tools that accompany Outlook or Gmail.

Candidate assessment is also a burgeoning science today as companies become more and more adept and crafting applications that will perform customized skills testing and background checking that’s fine-tuned to the specific position being filled.

Another trend is “employment branding,” which promotes your company as a great place to work. For instance, of all the hits your company’s website gets, a good percentage are job-seekers.

A great many company websites have a Careers page, and they expect job-seekers to navigate their way to that page, where they’ll learn why working for their company is such a wonderful proposition.

This thinking is shifting, though. As much as possible, you want to employ people who love what you do and how you do it, and the place to start building on that is on your home page.

Don’t worry about discouraging talented people who aren’t really enthusiastic about your firm, the thinking goes.

If you hire them, they might just mark time with your firm until a better offer comes along.

Historically, one of the big bugaboos of HR has been seeing that employees get the time off to which they’re entitled.

Back in the day, this was a labor-intensive process that sometimes didn’t work quite as expected, and often fell short in terms of giving firms sufficient tools to manage employee attendance.

There’s a raft of workforce management and attendance tracking software and applications available now, produced by enterprises like CakeHR, that make it far easier and more intuitive for employees to navigate their way through the leave request process and for managers to determine quickly who’s at work, who’s on vacation, and what’s anticipated in terms of staff attendance in the weeks and months to come – critical information for anyone planning a project with drop-dead deadlines.

Looking ahead . . .

It’s fun to try to imagine what the future will bring to our profession. I see some positive trends and some that are somewhat disturbing as well. So-called wearable tech like Google glasses will make it easier for us to conduct business at all hours and from a much broader variety of places.

This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though – imaging taking a long flight and the clown next to you is conducting a job interview.

It also cuts down on that leisure time we’re all so eager to enjoy – we’re already way too used to having dinner in a nice restaurant interrupted by some fool at the next table arguing on the telephone.

Nevertheless, the handwriting’s on the wall that recruiting will continue its foray into mobility, at least in the short term, as more and more players take advantage of advances in video technology.

At one point the rise of job boards like Monster and CareerBuilder seemed promising – candidates would complete only one job application that would then be accessed by multiple potential employers.

Unfortunately, most of those employers want candidates to complete their own online application.

Freelancing is the new normal: oDesk and the future of the workforce marketplace
Freelancing is the new normal: oDesk and the future of the workforce marketplace

Freelancing is becoming a more popular way to work, and is driving the proliferation of online sites like oDesk, Constant Content, Skyword and Demand Studios, among many others.

While freelancers can often find jobs on these and other sites that pay fairly well, they need to be especially prudent in their online dealings to ensure that they aren’t cheated.


Written By

Dale Marshall

Human Resources Manager.