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Tackling low-hanging fruit can be hard in tall trees

Travel expense report? Oh, no. The system is so complicated you need support to file a report. I’ve now spent 18 hours on my latest, quite complicated trip and I’ve still not finished – not to mention all the time managers and accounts admin staff have spent helping me. How did it end up like this?

Many workplaces have poorly functioning IT systems. Jonathan Lazar from the University of Maryland researched models of workplace user frustration with computers as far back as 20 years ago. He found that IT users wasted, on average, just over 40 per cent of their time on the computer due to frustration caused by the IT systems. If we could tackle what causes most users frustration first, couldn’t we achieve huge efficiency improvements as a result? What causes you the most frustration in the workplace, and what could be done about it? These things should be low-hanging fruit.

Our systems for processing travel, from bookings to travel expense reports, are what I hear frustrations about most often. We have a system, that may not be used as much in other organizations, where first you have to place travel orders to authorise the travel in advance.  Not to mention that the system we purchased doesn’t enable you to do everything you’d need to in order to be economical with the assigned resources and live up to the sustainability requirements. The fact that you can easily Google cheaper alternatives to the purchased services is frustrating.

A few years ago, when I was Head of school and we were sourcing a new travel supplier, I asked for people from the operation to take part in the selection process as user representatives, and help to stipulate the requirements and evaluate the suppliers. No one from the operation registered an interest so in the end, in frustration, I went there to ask questions and put forward requirements from the operation. It was a fascinating experience. None of the suppliers could get remotely close to meeting my quite reasonable expectations. The service provider which the operation ultimately chose had major usability problems from the outset.

Furthermore, recently the supplier was taken over by a major international operator, which resulted in worse service and less customisation to our operation. It has quite simply become an unsustainable situation that no one wants, neither the people doing the travelling nor the administrative team. Everyone is very frustrated.
So, is there another way of doing things?

One way would be to go back to what we did before, when a department secretary who knew each member of staff took care of everything, from booking the travel to accounting for the trip, an administrative officer who did this type of work frequently and knew exactly what to do and how. Members of staff travel so rarely that we forever remain occasional users of the system who make mistakes and find it difficult to manage all the rules, procedures and systems, with a high risk of making errors and mistakes. And frustration.

But developments have now moved in the opposite direction, where administrative support has been cut back and many of these tasks have been transferred directly to the travelling staff, who often have unregulated working hours.

The European Commission, which is often accused of having highly onerous administration, has found smart ways around this. After going on a trip on behalf of the Commission, all they want you to do is send them your flight ticket. Everything else is calculated based on a standard formula: hotel costs, local travel; everything is based on the time you’ve been away as shown by the flight tickets. If the Commission should happen to pay out more in compensation than the person’s costs, this is quite simply justified by lower administrative expenses for processing travel. It is often asserted that doing this in Sweden would violate the Swedish Tax Agency’s rules on daily allowances and administration. However, I am certain that if the Tax Agency understood the level of costs caused by the greater administrative burden, it could certainly rethink its rules and procedures.

There are huge gains to be made by remedying the major causes of frustration in the operation. But it’s not always easy and requires some bold decisions.

Tackling low-hanging fruit can be hard in tall trees.