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The essentials of HR automation

The essentials of HR automation

Maresch Bär

Businesses are under growing pressure to do more with less, and HR teams are no different. But how do you enable productivity and provide a great employee experience at scale?

The answer is HR automation, allowing you to free yourself from the burden of manual, tedious tasks. As a result, HR leaders and team members have more time for value-creating work that they enjoy doing. Let’s get an overview of what HR automation is.


What is HR automation?

We define HR automation as the use of digital technologies to minimize human intervention across routine operations and employee journeys to a reasonable level. By automating tasks and processes, HR and People Operations teams can save time and cost, increase fairness and compliance, and improve the employee experience as a whole.

Let’s zoom in on the individual components of this definition.


What technologies enable HR automation?

On a high level, there are two different types of HR automation technology stacks: silo-based and cross-system.


Silo-based automation

Here, you’re using automation features that are built into your regular business apps. For each app, the automation focuses on a narrow set of functional tasks. Little or no cooperation happens between the different systems.

Examples are:

  • project management software (e.g., Asana or Monday) that automatically reminds you to set up the next performance review cycle,
  • your HRIS or dedicated payroll system that automatically generates payslips, ready for employees to access at their leisure, or
  • the applicant tracking system (ATS) that emails candidates based on how they respond to application questions. 

Modern HR software usually allows you to automate certain tasks to save time. Automating more complex or cross-system processes, however, becomes a real challenge without a more holistic approach to HR automation software.


Cross-system automation

Instead of relying solely on built-in automation features from your different HR apps, you’re adding an automation layer that glues everything together. Software like Back connects your systems of record with your day-to-day operational work and employee-facing communication channels.

Everyday use cases include:

  • Your employees get automatic responses to policy-related questions in Slack or Microsoft Teams, based on articles in your Confluence knowledge base.
  • When a new hire is added to your HRIS (e.g., BambooHR, Workday, or Personio), the employee receives a form in Slack to pick their preferred hardware. Simultaneously, IT, HR, and Office team members are assigned onboarding tasks to ensure that the employee has access to all the relevant systems and resources.


Minimizing human intervention in HR processes

HR automation is not boolean, meaning it’s not a question of being 100% automated or not automated at all. There are multiple maturity levels of HR automation, and even if your team is automation-first, there are always edge cases and unprecedented HR tasks that require human attention.

A popular model to describe how humans interact with automation systems is Sheridan and Verplank’s Levels of Automation of Decision and Action Selection. When we apply this model to HR, the levels look something like this:


The HR technology…

  1. offers no assistance; it’s entirely up to the HR person to decide and act.
  2. provides a long list of all possible actions.
  3. narrows the selection down to a few relevant options.
  4. suggests one action that appears to be the best one.
  5. asks the HR person to approve the suggestion before automatically executing it.
  6. gives the HR person time to veto before automatically executing it.
  7. acts on its own and informs the HR person about it.
  8. informs the HR person only if asked.
  9. informs the HR person only if it (the HR systems) decides to.
  10. decides everything and acts autonomously, ignoring the HR person.


The right level of automation

So how much automation is just right? In the words of every lawyer ever: it depends. If you think about what level from above you’d feel comfortable with, this will vary heavily depending on which task you’re looking at.

For a frequently asked question about your remote work policy, you’ll probably be fine if a bot answers it automatically without even bothering you (level 10). As long as employees can follow up and talk to a human if needed, complete autonomy of the HR system is not only safe – it’s a huge time saver.

Contrary, if you’re trying to settle a conflict between two employees, seeing a list of proven approaches (level 3) would certainly help. But then you’ll want to be as involved as possible, using your people skills to bring the issue to a positive resolution.


Two perspectives on HR automation

When talking about HR automation, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re looking at two groups that have a different perspective on HR automation.

You have the HR team members who experience automation as something that saves them time by removing mundane tasks. And then you have the employees, the customers of HR. They experience the workplace like a product, and automated touchpoints are distinctive features of that product.


Automating routine operations in HR

HR teams big and small usually spend a lot of time handling administrative tasks. Organizing and delegating work inside the team, keeping employees in the loop about a request’s status, sending reminders to managers and other internal teams like IT – the list goes on forever.

While many requests and tasks appear unique, we tend to underestimate how much repetitive work occurs on a daily basis. A lot of small things add up over time, so there’s a lot of hidden potential in automating internal workflows.


Automating employee journeys and touchpoints

HR automation isn’t just about making your People processes more efficient. You also want to make sure that employees have a great experience throughout their time at your company. This begins even before the employee’s first day, think ordering equipment or sharing relevant information with the employer. After that, there will continue to be more or less predictable events, from quick policy questions to parental leave requests, where automation can do the heavy lifting for you.

Below are some common examples of interactions an employee might have and that can already be automated today.

examples of HR automation for employees

When a person reaches out to HR because they have a question or a problem, it can mean that you’ve already missed an opportunity to create a frictionless employee experience. Automation is a powerful tool to proactively shape events or journeys that happen as part of an employee’s lifecycle.

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