‘To app or not to app’ – do apps offer added value for your HR policy?

‘These days, HR departments are bombarded by the providers of all kinds of promising apps and online platforms which claim to make it easier to motivate, engage and evaluate your employees (and much more). But do the apps really live up to their promises? “As an HR professional, it's hard to see the wood for the trees nowadays. Although many people feel the need for apps, I can still sense some reluctance,” says Professor of Human Resource Management Koen Dewettinck. “The new digital HR solutions can certainly be useful and provide support, but a lot depends on what you want to use them for.”

Wide range on the market

HR tech is experiencing a huge rise in popularity. 3 billion dollars were invested in the US last year in all kinds of HR-related apps, from onboarding and selection to cultural fit. You name it, it's there. In Belgium, the number of players on the market is also increasing at a rapid pace.

HR Tech map Belgium
HR technology is on the up and up in Belgium. 
HR Tech Valley tries to keep its finger on the pulse.

In order to gain a better overview of the needs and usage, we conducted a short survey among the members of our Centre for Excellence in Strategic Talent Management.

  • 1 in 5 (19%) work with downloadable or native apps, almost half (48%) use web-based apps (i.e. platforms and applications which are accessible via a network connection and which often work within a web browser) and 33% do not use any apps.
  • The apps are mainly used for HR automation (leave, administration etc.), training and development and onboarding and wellbeing.
  • Apps have become more established within service companies (77%) than within production companies (50%).
  • 86% are interested in the possibilities offered by apps for HR applications; almost 70% are specifically looking for apps which offer feedback and evaluation, alongside onboarding (22%) and wellbeing (11%).

“Despite the high level of interest, our members are also experiencing various inhibiting factors,” says Koen Dewettinck. “The apps must fit in with the company culture. In addition, preference is often given to the expansion of existing applications, partly in order to avoid a proliferation of different tools all operating alongside each other. Not to mention the fact that the various different age groups are not equally familiar with apps and not everyone has a company phone. And finally, apps should not replace human contact either.”

So what should a good HR app be able to achieve? Koen Dewettinck: “Our members mainly want apps which are easy to integrate into existing software. They must also be appealing, fun, easy to use and multilingual. They certainly don't regard an app as a ‘one size fits all’ solution, but rather as something which can play a supporting role.”

Theory versus practice

More than enough reasons to take a look at the current offerings. Several app providers came to present their products in three specific areas: performance management, onboarding and wellbeing. A summary of the lessons is show below.

1/ Performance management

The survey revealed that evaluation and feedback apps and platforms attract the highest level of interest. “Many things are changing in the area of performance management,” explains Koen Dewettinck, who has identified three major trends. “Firstly, companies want to bring continuity into the process. Secondly, the emphasis increasingly lies on creating a feedback culture. Not just from managers to employees but also vice versa, as well as between the employees themselves. This involves both giving and asking for feedback. Finally, managers are increasingly taking the helm. HR no longer plays a monitoring role these days. Instead, it tends to support the manager who takes the initiative.”

Companies are therefore looking for ways to facilitate this new approach to performance management. “Automation and digitisation are not new, but these systems generally tend to be grafted onto the traditional methods of determining annual objectives and skills. Apps certainly provide an opportunity to do things differently and in a more light-hearted way. But don't make it too complex and try to regard it as something supplementary, something which could encourage a feedback culture. Ultimately, these apps will need to be embedded within the existing systems and a larger strategic whole. After all, performance management is a hugely central process with many links to other aspects of HR.”

Conclusion? Nice to have.

  • Suitable for initiating a shift in mindset.
  • Don't use too many platforms or apps alongside each other and opt for an integrated system if possible.
  • Think carefully in advance about what you wish to achieve and choose a system which is based on your needs (e.g. mainly stimulating good conversation versus a greater emphasis on scores, replacing your current tools or purely supporting them).
  • Could also be an alternative to the annual engagement survey – a more flexible way of measuring the temperature within your company, as it were.
  • Ask questions about what the app should be able to do: work out personalised feedback templates, determine who can/can't see feedback, feedback from external parties (clients), distinction between quick and comprehensive feedback, purely virtual or also a link with the real world (e.g. inviting someone for a coffee). 

2/ Onboarding

“At best, a good candidate who is poorly socialised will turn into an average employee. An average candidate who is very well socialised will develop into a very good employee. Onboarding is crucial, so anything which could improve this process is worth a look,” says Dirk Buyens, Professor of Human Resources Management.

So what can these apps or platforms do for you in concrete terms? According to Dirk, there are numerous opportunities. “In essence, they all involve conversation. For example, in some companies several months can pass between the signing of the contract and the effective start date. Apps allow you to maintain an automatic and constant conversation in a fast, efficient and user-friendly way. This varies from sharing news about the company or the conditions of employment to short messages like ‘Just 2 more months before we can welcome you to our company’ or ‘Tomorrow's the day!’. Once the employee is on board, the conversation can simply continue. Examples include scheduling introductory conversations with colleagues or follow-up conversations with the line manager. However, the possibilities also include bundled video messages from the management as an alternative to bringing the management team and new staff together on a regular basis.”

As a result, the technology is genuinely creating a fundamental change in the HR processes in this area. “It means you've already done almost half the onboarding in advance. Not only does the HR department save time as a result, it's also a lot more interactive and personal. And it immediately reveals a great deal about the company culture and the atmosphere which you wish to convey to these new employees.”

In the ideal world, Dirk feels that you should also extend this into the back office and ensure proper integration with recruitment and selection, covering the entire integration process which a candidate goes through. “On the one hand, this involves administration such as sending invitations to candidates, brief evaluations etc. Here, it is naturally important for these apps to tie in with your existing systems. On the other hand, there are also small, standalone apps which allow you to carry out an initial selection quickly and efficiently. Examples include introducing yourself on video in French or answering brief questions. You'll never find the right candidate this way, but it will certainly help you to eliminate a lot of unsuitable candidates. Or you could replace physical discussions in the first round with online discussions. These might just be appealing extras at the moment, but soon they will be the bare minimum so it's better to start experimenting now.”

Conclusion? Must have.

  • Mainly intended to keep up the conversation between the future employee and the company, both before and after the first day on the job.
  • Main plus points: simplification, ease of use, personalised, time savings.
  • Small standalone apps are perfectly possible, but if they are linked to your administration it's best to opt for applications which can interface easily with your existing systems.
  • In the long term, these will fundamentally change your HR processes, certainly when it comes to selection.
  • You have no choice: as soon as the technology permits, you will need to start experimenting.

3/ Wellbeing

“In many companies, wellbeing is still low on the list of priorities,” says researcher Astrid Vandenbroucke. “As a result, apps can certainly be a good way of drawing more attention to the wellbeing of your employees and making the subject more open to discussion. For example, some of the platforms on the market mainly focus on combining the preventive and the curative. They offer insights into both your physical and mental wellbeing and you can also use them to get help if required. Other applications adopt an extremely bottom-up approach and combine separate initiatives such as a running group or sharing knowledge throughout the afternoon. They can encourage employees to separate themselves from their job, tasks and deadlines for a while.”

Conclusion? Nice to have.

  • An app in itself will not suddenly produce healthier employees who feel more comfortable in their own skin. Instead, you should regard it more as a useful tool within a broader wellbeing policy, whereby the initiative will also need to come from the actual employee.
  • First and foremost, apps are a digitised way of making existing wellbeing resources more accessible and lowering the barrier to entry.
  • Avoid standalone apps which do not fit into the bigger picture.
  • As with traditional methods of focusing on wellbeing, it is important to get the people at the top of the company on board too. It won't work without buy-in from the C-level.  

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