Do self-service portals increase employee satisfaction?

Research shows that having agency and real choice can significantly impact personal and professional happiness. Freepik

Research shows that having agency and real choice can significantly impact personal and professional happiness. Freepik

Published Apr 9, 2024



EMPLOYEES want more control and autonomy. But that doesn't always require a four-day week or working from coffee shops. Self-service portals can consistently improve workplace loyalty and satisfaction by giving employees more control over their work affairs.

The business world is currently in a tug-of-war. Employers are trying to get employees back to how things operated before the pandemic years - but employees have been exposed to a higher degree of autonomy. Concepts like work-life balance have shifted from fanciful management ideas to practical realities for workers. No wonder employers encounter a lot of resistance from their employees when trying to reconfigure remote working and flexible hours.

This conflict presents an opportunity for employers to question what really makes employees content, even happy, with their workplaces. While there are many answers, the battle over work hours and locations shows that autonomy is often the best.

Agency and choice

Autonomy is very important in a business. Foremost, it makes sense because it's more efficient. A business where everything is slow, manual and micro-managed does not perform well. And it also makes a lot of sense for employees - both because it shows the degree to which you trust and respect them, and it gives them space to arrange their professional lives.

The connection between autonomy and happiness is not just anecdotal. A 2022 Journal of Positive Psychology study measured which activities make people happier. They discovered that the type of activity mattered far less than whether people could do it at their own volition. The fine line between “have to” and “want to” seems to have an outsized impact on personal and professional happiness.

If we only did what we wanted to, we would likely be happier - at least for a short while. But that isn't autonomy. According to those researchers, genuine autonomy is the sense of wanting to take action instead of being coerced into action.

It's surprising how often this dynamic appears. An obvious example is a management culture that bullies employees into long hours and unrealistic expectations.

But we can easily overlook the more subtle encumbrances. For example, how easy is it for an employee to apply for leave? They might willingly apply for leave, but then feel aggrieved by having to fill in a pile of paperwork and manually co-ordinate schedules. How easy is it to get a payslip? While relying on overworked and stressed HR staff to deliver the slip promptly might not be coercive, it definitely won’t feel like a positive choice for the employee.

Another point to consider is that everyone has access to technology. People are used to convenience and getting what they need when they need it. These expectations don't take a back seat when people enter the workplace. It's the opposite. Employees often judge their business tools and processes by the same standard; and then become frustrated and annoyed when things fall short.

Creating self-service

Employee autonomy and happiness may not require remote working and similar gestures. In many work environments - factories, mines, retailers, to name a few - remote or hybrid models are impractical or only serve a small part of the workforce.

But if we consider that technology enablement has increased expectations of autonomy and focus on creating universal self-services for employees, every business can contribute significantly to satisfaction and happiness. The examples of leave and payslips are apt illustrations of this synergy.

One of our most popular services is a WhatsApp bot that engages with leave processes and payroll services on behalf of the employee. They don't need a laptop or even an email address. They just jump onto the app, chat to the bot, and get what they need. In one move, they get access to important business services and enjoy the same technological autonomy they experience with other services.

Other examples are also starting to emerge. Most recently, generative artificial intelligence is helping employees access business knowledge and data analysis through plain-language interactions. And employee super-apps that combine multiple self-service and information features into one application are popular at large enterprises.

These concepts represent ways to bring autonomy more readily and reliably into a business. However, there is a catch: you can't do this on yesterday's technology infrastructure. The best self-service tools for employees and customers are powered by cloud-native platforms. Otherwise, it becomes far too complicated and expensive to do things like integration and automation, or to design forms and interfaces without relying constantly on IT teams. The best cloud platforms have these features built-in and ready to deploy, at a fraction of the cost of trying to do it all yourself.

Research has confirmed that autonomy is the most significant ingredient for happiness, while the digital age has shown people the satisfaction of self-service. Now businesses can harness both forces together.

Some employees might still want to work remotely, and a few will probably never like their jobs. But for the vast majority, a selection of self-service portals in the right places could make the difference between just showing up and wanting to excel.

* Duncan is head of HR at PaySpace