Employee self-service (ESS) is technology that lets employees handle many human resources (HR), information technology (IT), and other administrative needs on their own. Often made available through a web portal or internal portal, ESS usually facilitates common tasks, including updating personal information, accessing employee handbooks, and logging vacation and personal days. Increasingly, employee self-service portals also allow individuals to manage their insurance plans and other benefits.

These sorts of routine HR tasks used to be paper based, processed manually by staffers. The digitalization of business processes led to self-service employee portals that save companies time and money, while reducing human error and expediting the handling of employee needs. Reduced administrative costs, in turn, make it more attractive for employers to offer additional employee benefit programs. Employee self-service is often a component of larger technology initiatives, and is delivered via SaaS platforms by third-party vendors.

Employee self-service portals combine interactive web applications with searchable knowledge databases to deliver a full suite of features. The interactive portions of ESS systems may combine automated systems with customer support in the form of live chat or a ticket-based help desk system. Many employee knowledge bases feature Q&A or social media-style discussions in which employees answer one another’s questions about common HR- and IT-related topics.

Different companies will have somewhat different needs when it comes to employee self-service systems. The nature of HR does, however, mean there are a number of features common to many ESS portals, which makes it easier for businesses to rely on third-party vendors for fulfillment.

There are two primary components to any self-service system: content and delivery. In the case of those first Piggly Wiggly stores we mentioned, the content was groceries and the delivery method was the stores themselves — more specifically, their shelves full of goods. For us, we’re talking about knowledge and software. You’ll stock your self-service system full of knowledge and use software to deliver it to your customers or employees.

Self-service experiences are often called “portals,” a term referring to a webpage that serves as a gateway to a specific topic or set of information. Let’s take a closer look at how self-service portals work for both customers and for employees.

HR departments deal with highly sensitive information, including financial and personal data pertaining to every employee in a company. Allowing employees to view, edit, and manage this sort of information on a self-service basis can be quite beneficial, but security is paramount. ESS systems are designed with careful attention to privacy and security, on both the server and client sides.

All personal employee information in an ESS, along with any confidential company documents, is firewalled behind a login page. Employee self-service logins often use a dual-authentication system for extra security. For example, logging in to the employee self-service portal might require a user to both type a password and authenticate their identity using a physical device such as a mobile phone or USB security key.

Some employee self-service portals are accessible from the open web, while others require an active virtual personal network (VPN) connection for a user to log in. VPNs serve as extensions of private computer networks, essentially allowing computers to act as if they were physically part of the local network even though they’re really communicating over a public connection. Many companies require employees to use their VPN when traveling, working remotely, or otherwise connecting to the company network while physically off campus.

Employee self-service systems are increasingly able to handle more and more tasks, making life easier for employees and HR staffers alike. Beyond basic management of personal information and time off from work, tasks related to employee benefits and reimbursements are common features of ESS portals.Many employers leverage employee self-service systems to handle benefits open enrollment periods, allowing employees to add, drop, or make changes to their health insurance and other benefit plans. ESS portals can significantly ease the burden on HR departments during these busy periods, streamlining benefit management for employees and HR staffers alike.

Throughout the year, employee self-service software allows employees direct and easy access to many other HR-related functions. ESS portals may, for example, facilitate applying for job-related reimbursements, managing business travel, and accessing wellness programs and other company perks. ESS systems also allow employees 24/7 access to pay stubs and other payroll information they may need for taxes, loan applications, and other personal use.

Employee self-service systems save time for employers and employees by automating and otherwise streamlining common HR-related tasks. While no ESS portal can take the place of expert human resources professionals, a well-designed and deployed system can free HR staffers from certain routine tasks, leaving them more time for tackling more complex problems. Similarly, smart use of employee self-service software can save employees time and effort by allowing them direct access to information and functionality from a desktop computer or mobile device. This, in turn, lets them focus more time and energy on their own work. The result is increased efficiency all around.

Beyond the savings to the employer’s bottom line, judicious use of an ESS system can help create a more inviting workplace for all. For starters, making it easier for individuals to access and manage portions of their own HR data is both convenient and empowering for workers. They can do it on their own time, at home, which on its own is a huge benefit. The reduced costs associated with self-service can free HR departments up to implement additional benefits like wellness and perks programs. A new wave of third-party benefit vendors is taking advantage of cloud-based HR platforms to offer nontraditional benefits such as discounts on shopping, travel, and personal services. These vendors leverage cloud computing and related technologies to make it easy — and inexpensive – for employers to subscribe to new benefits packages that are easily integrated into existing ESS portals.

Similarly, longtime fixtures in the HR world have adopted self-service portals to better serve their business customers. For instance, payroll and HR services giant ADP offers employee self-service access as part of its business-to-business offerings. Through ADP, myriad companies of all sizes give their own employees direct access to payroll, taxes, and other HR information, available from the web or mobile apps.

Alongside the interactive features we’ve discussed, a knowledge base of important information for employees is a key component of a successful ESS. A knowledge base is only useful if it has the answers your employees need. To include the most relevant content, monitor what employee search for most often and build out content around those topics. Look for self-service software that lets you tag or label similar cases, so you know when multiple employees are hunting for the same information. You can also use Google Analytics to find other topics that people are searching for. Highlight or otherwise prioritize these topics on your ESS portal so your employees have easy access to the most requested information.

Just as your business is always evolving, so too is your knowledge base never really finished. You need to continuously improve your content to get the most out of your investment in an ESS — and to best help your employees thrive. Plan regular, periodic reviews of all of your content (including graphics and video), and tag all new and existing content with expiration dates so you are forced to revisit everything that you create. Consider allowing your employees to rate self-service content so they can tell you what needs improvement.

Packing your employee self-service portal full of useful and up-to-date information is essential. But you also need to make it easy for employees to find the answers they need — fast. Start with the basics: Include a search bar on your portal. Make sure every topic and article has a meaningful name and is tagged with the right category so employees can find what they want via search or browsing.

When it comes to HR, your employees are your customers. When they’re on your self-service portal, you want them to feel in their element and to be comfortable with your support experience. Design your self-service portal to feel like it’s part of your company brand (because it is). Use a header and footer that’s either the same as your corporate site or part of a broader design language that’s consistent across all of your company properties. Use a style guide to ensure consistency across all of your sites, including internal-only experiences. You don’t have to write your guide from scratch; many established companies publish their own style guides that are up to date with industry standards. You can save a lot of time by finding a public style guide that works for your company.

Mobile phones are ubiquitous, and more and more employees are drawn to companies that support anywhere, anytime connectivity. Just as it’s critical to provide a consistent multichannel experience so your customers can solve their problems on the go, optimizing your employee self-service experience for mobile access is a great way to support a digital-first workforce.

Research shows that 50% of smartphone users would prefer to use a mobile customer service app to try to resolve their customer service issues before calling a contact center.* Your employees are no different — they’d just as soon fire up an app than call the internal help desk. Even if you’re not ready to roll out a dedicated employee self-service app, you can build your ESS portal using responsive design. Responsive design means that no matter what size screen your site is viewed on, the interface responds accordingly, so your employee users can get help they need from a phone, tablet, or laptop or desktop computer.

Once your self-service portal has been designed, loaded with information, and rolled out to employees, the last remaining hurdle is getting everyone to use the system. Education is key: Make sure to offer training as you roll out the new ESS tools. Classes introducing the system are one option, though depending on the size of your organization you may want to offer one-on-one training, video tutorials, or user manuals as well.

A surefire way to get people to use the new system is to phase out the old way of doing things. This can be tricky, as you want to make sure you’re not frustrating or alienating employees by forcing them to change too quickly. Offering HR office hours or other ad hoc coaching on key ESS features can be a way to ease people into using the new tools.

Internal marketing can be a great way to raise awareness, and adoption, of your new ESS system. For starters, consider running a fun contest for employees who use the system. And, of course, nothing beats rolling out a new tool that’s easy to use and addresses legitimate pain points within your organization. Once word gets out that the new system makes it easy to sign up for benefits and request vacation days, people will start using it. As they say, build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

Employee self-service is a great way to support your workers and bolster your HR-related efforts. A well-thought-out employee self-service portal can provide 24/7 internal support, ease the burden on your human resources team, and save employees time when handling job-related administrative tasks. From software that integrates with back-office systems to third-party benefits and payroll vendors that support ESS, there are a wide variety of options already on the market sure to suit your organization’s self-service needs.