Faces of HR

Questions HR Needs to Ask When Buying HR Software

Miranda was an HR Works Podcast 5-Minute Friday guest, listen to that here.

When you hit the market for HR software, it can be an overwhelming process. There are at least hundreds of solutions, many that specialize in one or two specific aspects of HR but then tag on all kinds of additional functionality. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what to ask a salesperson when you are considering such software? Today’s “Faces of HR” guest knows a thing or two about HR software, and she shared her thoughts in this interview.

Meet Miranda Nicholson, Sr. Vice President of Human Resources at Formstack, which creates workplace productivity and automation tools.

How’d you find yourself in HR?

When I was in my early career, I had an executive administrative background. One way or another, you kind of become HR for the executives you manage. As my career progressed, I got into office management, where I leveraged my administrative skills to manage an office instead of a person. When you’re an office manager in a start-up environment or even a small office, you become an HR department whether you want to or not. But, it’s actually one of my skills. I like to organize, I’m resourceful, and I like to get things done. I think when you’re the only person looked at to help make people efficient in an organization, you naturally move into HR. I found myself moving from an office manager to an HR department of one to where I am now: leading a team of eight people.

Wow, where do you get your guidance? Do you have more than one go-to?

I have tons. I belong to a bunch of advisory groups. SHRM is a great resource. I have actually looked at HR Daily Advisor. Some of it’s gut, and some of it is talking to a lawyer at just the right time. I leverage my network and those communities I’m a part of to help when I find a situation that my gut may not be able to answer, or I do a quick Google search in a pinch.

Do you also provide advice through some of those platforms?

I do. I found that during the pandemic, especially, a lot of people were reaching out to find out about remote culture—both how you build it and how you nurture it. That’s been kind of a surprise but not. We’ve been doing remote for such a long time that it feels like second nature. It’s hard to imagine anything but that, so being able to lend my expertise to others has been really nice, and I’m glad I can pay it forward.

Part of what’s interesting about the pandemic is how it forced so many employers to pull the trigger on the HR software they were thinking of getting or more likely that their HR person had been telling them they should get for probably a long time. What’s something that every HR pro really needs to know when he or she is selecting software?

You will never find something that checks every one of your boxes. That is a challenge, but you have to build a list of what you need to have, what’s nice to have, and what you’re willing to live with. I think there’s always an opportunity to supplement any HR information system. I should say that Formstack does a great job of that. A lot of times, Formstack is gathering people data, as well. How you can use that information and leverage it within your HR information system sometimes helps check those boxes that you may not find specifically in an HR information system.

Right. One of the things I marveled at when I went to trade shows like HR Tech and SHRM Expo was one, how many solutions there are and two, how awesome they all thought they were. Very rarely were they sending HR folks to man the booths; it was usually a marketer and a salesperson and maybe an executive. And that’s great for getting to know people and networking, but one of the problems is that they just tell you their software does it all and that it’s amazing.


If an HR professional is considering new software, what would be some good questions he or she should ask the salesperson to gauge how successful or how useful it really is?

I would say to ask how challenging it is to create reports in the system. I think that’s one gap that we’ve found pretty consistently throughout the HR information systems we’ve used. There’s always a need for an analyst or someone who knows the more BI software, or you get some pretty junior reports. You’ve got to do your own analysis outside of the system. That’s especially important for smaller HR departments that may not have an analyst or business analysts on staff.

Another one I would ask is how easy is the system to use for a person who is not a tech expert? While I would say that HR is getting tech-savvy, it is a department that can be kind of antiquated. It depends on the size of the organization, but you want software you can, to some degree, make your own. I think that’s what makes employees want to use it. That’s what makes the HR staff find it valuable. That’s what eases the burden for HR professionals—having a system they consider their system of record that they can rely on and don’t begrudgingly log into every day.

Good answers. Earlier, you were mentioning the remote experience, and you were talking a little bit about employee engagement. What role do you think HR tech plays when it comes to the employee experience, and how does that factor into employee engagement?

I think HR tech is becoming increasingly important with the rise of Millennials, Gen Z, and those folks who live on the Internet. You’ve got to find something that meets those needs. Very recently, we switched brokerage of our admin provider because the one we were using before wasn’t as tech-enabled, and our employees were frustrated by that. You’ve got to have something that works on mobile. You’ve got to have something that’s intuitive and easy to use. You don’t want an employee to have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get something he or she needs done. And the same could be said for HR professionals.

What prevents employers from using their software correctly in your experience?

A lack of appropriate onboarding to a software, if you will. It goes back to how easy the tool is to use. How intuitive is it? But also, HR departments need to diagnose those pain points and proactively communicate how to work through them with employees, like creating resource guides and FAQs, for example. Something we increasingly do at Formstack is make short videos that walk employees through the experience; that way, they learn by doing, and you also address those groups who may be visual learners or those who learn by doing or those who learn through just listening to someone articulate something.

Would you encourage other HR folks to include their employees when making an HR tech purchase or making that decision?

No. I think in terms of hearing feedback from employees when switching systems or listening to employees and what their pain points are with your existing system or lack of system, I think those opinions can go into the buying process. But I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you proactively reach out to employees to collect their thoughts and feedback because that’s really hard to dilute down into something that’s actionable. You’re not going to please everybody. Where can you address the big pain points? I think that’s what sets you up for success regarding any software you buy.

Yeah. That’s a good point. Let’s say you’ve got a hundred employees, and they all said basically different stuff. Now you’ve got 99 people who are going to feel like they didn’t get heard.


That being said, what should you be communicating with your employees when you’re getting a new software or you’re upgrading one?

I think the sooner you can communicate it and the milestones that occur with an implementation is really important. Employees like the transparency. They like to know what’s coming next. They like to know if they’re going to need to take actions. For example, if they need to go in and select benefits or if they need to go in and make sure their Social Security number is correct or they need to learn a new way to submit paid time off (PTO) and those types of things and when they impact a person’s experience at the organization, you should be proactively communicating what and when those things will happen.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the last year, at least for me, so it’s anecdotal, is that I just don’t have the same kind of time I used to have, especially because there’s just been so much of an increase in attempts to train us online and communicate online. Everything our company puts out, which makes up maybe 3 or 4 hours a week, is just too much. I’m someone who has child care for my daughter. People who have kids at home have to crunch so much of their time into a shorter day. They just don’t have time to attend a webinar on their benefits or healthier eating or the ins and outs of their new 401(k) provider. What’s your advice for getting people to engage more in that realm?

Watch the webinar on two X speed. With Formstack being a workplace productivity tool, we’re very much focused on and concerned about how employees are setting themselves up to be the most productive with the way the world looks right now. Everybody’s working from home, and kids are home and all of these things, so how are you setting up your environment? How are you setting up your day? How are you setting up your calendar? How are you doing these things in order to be the most efficient you can be and have that work/life balance?

The things we’ve done at Formstack are suggesting you hang box your calendar. If there are things that are required from the organization that you need to take action on, how can you time block those together? That way, you’re focusing on that at that one point in time, and you can get it off your plate and focus on the next thing.

I would say another thing we do is when it comes to processes and things of that nature, we see if we can we automate those. How can you take the sort of “hands-on caretaker, need to follow up” babysitting out of the processes you need to take or engage with in the organization? Workflows within Formstack are a great option there. It works from person to person if you need to take action. You can’t do it until the person before you does, but it all flows together pretty seamlessly, which takes the time out of circling back with someone and saying, “Hey, where are you on this?” Certainly, you get the communication when the workflow is complete.

What are you looking forward to in the rest of 2021?

Personally, I’m looking forward to traveling again. I am hopeful by the end of the year to be able to go somewhere warm and can truly get away. I think that from a work perspective, 2020 was tough on our team, just like a lot of others. I’m looking forward to feeling a sense of normalcy and then being able to have things to look forward to and be able to reengage with each other and it not feel so heavy.

Well said. I’m looking forward to that, too. I mean, I don’t really like going places, but even I’m starting to miss it a little bit. So that’s when you know it’s bad.

It makes it hard to PTO when you’re really just PTO-ing at your house.

Yeah. That’s for sure, especially because virtually all of my PTO is just to look after my daughter. It’s family time, but it’s not time off.

Exactly. It’s what I call the difference between a vacation and a trip. A vacation does not have children. A trip has children.

Ha! I haven’t heard that before, but that’s 100% accurate. We’ve flown with my daughter before, ever since she was 6 months old, and each one of those trips was a little bit harder as she got older. And now, after a year of not being around people and not really socializing, I can’t even imagine bringing her on an airplane. Heavens, I can’t even imagine myself going on an airplane, and I always freaked out to begin with.


Yeah, snacks.

All the snacks.

Haha, thanks for the tip!