“You’ve used too much vacation,” came the voice across the phone. That’s never good news. I also thought it sounded … wrong. We’d gone from a simple spreadsheet system to an online attendance system. Since then, many staff had retreated to double books but I had tried to commit to the online system. It turns out the system was wrong. But more than that, it seems to be broken. When a core system is broken, it can be hard to find a way to push past the impact on staff.

The attendance system is managed by Human Resources. They selected it, they pay the license, they manage it. That’s key because it means a couple of things:

  • it isn’t a system I can fix or impact directly – I’m just a customer of an internal team, not a decision-maker
  • it isn’t a system I can ignore – attendance is important, and non-compliance can lead to other bad organizational behaviors

Let’s put aside all of the technical issues this system is terrible, which include:

  • You can only access it using a Microsoft Silverlight plugin on Microsoft Internet Explorer. Both of those technologies are end-of-life or older
  • There are multiple data entry points and your ability to see what has been entered is dependent on which entry point is used by the staff person entering it, even though they should all have the same result

The result is that you have to decide whether to develop your own and support others’ workarounds or try to impact the broken system in some way.

User Interface

One thing that became clear relatively quickly is that my leave use was within guidelines. I use only a handful of leave types (vacation, sick leave, personal day) even though HR and the system support about 30 different leave types. This can cause confusion, of course, and complexity.

In the old days (5 years ago), we all used spreadsheets. Ironically, soon after I’d started here, I’d created an Excel template for my team that I forwarded to HR and it became a standard for the organization. It was simple, because in the law library, our staff only take about 3-4 types of leave. Any leave types beyond that were HR-approved (disability, maternity, etc.) and so didn’t need to be accounted for in a simple template.

Mistakes happen. Our system shows you your balance based on what’s been used, not what’s been scheduled and used. Potentially you could book 9 weeks of vacation in the future and it would show you as having your 2 week allowance if you hadn’t taken any.

Now we have to scroll through all of the types (even if they’re for hourly employees and you’re salaried), in alphabetical order (even though vacation leave is probably the most used since it’s the largest amount of leave employees get). Complexity. Perhaps I’d made a mistake.

We spent about 20 minutes on the phone trying to find the error. When I looked at the online system’s count of days used, it showed I was within bounds. But the other person had a different number, so we went through, week by week. Turns out that there are two leave types that share nearly the same system abbrevication:

CCF (conference leave) and CFF (carry forward, vacation from a previous year)

One thing I might suggest to HR is that they come up with different codes. Like VCF (vacation carry forward) since it’s vacation. Or that they investigate whether their system can display full labels rather than short codes, since there seems to be plenty of space to display them.

It seems also typical that a system that was intended to save effort for attendance monitors with Excel spreadsheets has done the opposite. We license a system, hire staff to manage the system, and staff still need Excel to get the work done.

Either way, it’s interface and implementation. It will depend on whether the system supports it. And if it does, it will depend on whether the HR process supports it. Those are not always compatible.

The Problem with Workarounds

The more I thought about it, though, I realized that even the labeling shouldn’t really have been an issue. As kludgy as this system is, it has drop-down menus so that you can look at data. It’s not intuitive, but someone can look at Employee A, for Leave Type B, and see both used v. unused.

So perhaps the system wasn’t broken but the workaround was.

It turns out, as it often does, that when someone uses System A and System B and transfers data by retyping it from A to B, things may not get carried over. If the staff person had been told to keep track of attendance for a group of employees, and didn’t use the primary system, they’d need to get the data into their own system.

My guess is that, in this case, I’m the only employee this person monitors who goes to conferences or uses the corporate leave type for conference attendance. Since most people only use a small number of codes, that would make sense. In our library, where many people go to professional development conferences, we’d be more cognizant of the distinction.

It means we have a substandard primary system and the workarounds introduce additional opportunities for disruption. The primary product has come up numerous times over the years at management level as being not fit for purpose but we lack a way to impact that system due to internal communication and political challenges.

At the same time, there’s no way to control the workarounds either. They are highly individual variants that are intended to create efficiencies when the organization fails to properly implement processes. I’ve got mine and this person has theirs. I expect we probably won’t have this issue again, but we both wasted a lot of time since she felt her dataset was the more reliable. In fact, if she’d fallen back – as you have to sometimes – on the original data to verify, she would have seen the system was correct and it was her data that was wrong.

I like workarounds. For me, they allow creative people to try to make things better despite whatever the overall corporate approach is. In some cases, they can find better ways to get things done.

But I’m at a bit of a loss what to do when the system and the workarounds aren’t working. My teams are losing time because they have to use both the broken system and are subject to workarounds that may merely create double work. You can understand why some law libraries bring all of their staff and systems (specifically IT but I could see others, like HR or finance) in-house. What you lose in centralized scaled support, you gain in eliminating waste.