How Sun Communities went from paper trail to automated HR with SuccessFactors

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 31, 2017
It's rare to hear about anything close to "fully automated HR." But Sun Communities has come a long way from paper processes and disparate systems. Here's what I learned at SuccessConnect 2017.

Marc Farrugia of Sun Communities

When Marc Farrugia came on board Sun Communities two years ago, he found himself in a predicament most HR professionals can relate to:

Every single thing within the department was manual. I received a two inch binder via FedEx with my new hire paperwork. That was my number one mission when I came on board, was to transform everything.

On second thought, that's not a bad place for someone with a passion for HR and technology to find themselves. So Farrugia and his team embarked on their change mission. At SuccessConnect 2017, Farrugia, whose formal title is VP, Human Resources, told me how he did it.

One thing's for certain: Sun Communities can't afford to have outdated HR processes. A publicly-traded real estate investment trust (REIT) based near Detroit, Michigan, Sun Communities owns and operates 338 manufactured housing and recreational vehicle communities, in 29 states in the U.S. and also in Ontario, Canada. That means running more than 117,000 developed sites (numbers as of June 2016).

In HR terms, that's a lot of employees - and the nature of the work dictates a sizeable head count turnover, to the tune of 2,500 per year. You couldn't transform HR at a company like that without a clear mandate. Farrugia says that's exactly what he's received:

There's no way we would have been able to grow the way the company has through acquisition, be scalable, and support what we've been able to do over the past five or six years without [that mandate].

And did they see their mission through?

Yes, we are fully automated in HR now. Talking with other people very regularly at these types of conferences, it's kind of a utopia from an HR standpoint I think. We've been really fortunate.

What does automated HR look like?

So are the HR processes really that different? Not necessarily, but many of the steps are automated. One nifty example: the info a job applicant fills out goes into onboarding, and becomes part of their employee record in SuccessFactors after they are hired. Data entry and paperwork are rooted out like weeds:

Data entry is almost eliminated. No paper. Everything's done electronically. Electronic file keeping. There's lots of data validation built into Employee Central, so we realized benefits from an accounting and GL type standpoint.

Efficiency plays are good, but my ears perk up when I hear about business advantages, like this acquisition scenario:

The automation of data has allowed us to hire massive amounts of people in a very short period of time. An example would be: last summer, we acquired 103 locations, in about a 120 day window, which brought on a little over 1,000 employees. At the end of the closing day, there were 1,002 people live active in Employee Central, pushed out and ready to go.

That's a big change:

It never would have happened before. It would have taken us weeks. This also equated to getting up to speed on the job faster, quicker access to resources, all that stuff.

At first, Farrugia's team attempted to solve these issues with a range of tools. They had Taleo for talent, ADP for payroll, Workforce Now for HRIS, payroll, time and attendance. That didn't go so well: "We just had too many issues with data integrations, failures."

The other HR application Sun Communities had was Plateau for learning management. When SuccessFactors acquired Plateau, Farrugia took a closer look:

I realized that all of SuccessFactors' applications were on the same code platform, and that the integration aspect was almost eliminated. I started looking at it more. Through the process of a couple demos, I decided we were going to start switching things over.

Sun Communities put in SuccessFactors module by module. They now use everything except Employee Central payroll and advanced workforce planning and analytics. That means they're using everything from recruiting to onboarding to performance management to Jam.

The wrap - quantifying results

Farrugia doesn't seem like the kind of guy to slow down. So what's next?

Extend the data and information that we have outside of our department further. Obviously, it exists today, but we want to automate more things - especially with Intelligent Services.

He also wants to put more predictive tools in the hands of users, ideally in a visual format:

We're pushing more into the hands of our users from a predictive analytics standpoint, making sure that all the data we have is replicated into our data warehouse, easily accessible with Tableau, dashboarding, things like that.

A big challenge for HR departments is to shift perceptions from cost center/administrator to strategically important to the business. So where does Farrugia see his group?

I would say we're a lot more strategic, currently, in the sense that we've made a lot of headway to support the overall goals of the company, which is growth and maintaining a solid culture as we grow. I definitely think there's even more opportunity to take it to the next level with the analytics.

As predictive HR gets better, so does the business impact:

We need to make sure things operate without hiccup with staffing. That means we can forecast, and compare HR data to operational data to make sure we know if the weather is great. For example - if we're going to extend the season beyond Labor Day, then how are we going to make sure that we've got the staff for that?

With a regular surge of new employees, I figured training must be one of the sticking points. Farrugia says that over time, they have honed their training with SuccessFactors Jam and mobile access:

Another thing we've been fortunate with is we've actually adopted the SuccessFactors platform as our company's intranet. It's everyone's homepage, and the critical component to that is Jam. We've taken every policy, manual, a lot of walkthrough videos - all of that stuff. All that content is in Jam. We call it our knowledge base, and it's like our company Google.

That pays off in real-time situations in front of customers:

If a maintenance person goes to service a work order, and they're in someone's living room and something's broken, they can pull out a mobile device and search for it in Jam, and typically can find a video or something on how to fix it, so there's a one-to-one customer interaction and resolution. They've got the tools and stuff that they need.

Improving employee morale is not always easy to quantify. I asked Farrugia if his team had compiled any more quantifiable benefits. He told me that there will always be some amount of turnover, given the business they are in. That's a number you learn to accept. But other numbers support the changes:

The last time I looked at it, we now have 100 percent of our new hires with all of their paperwork ready to go, by the time they set foot i the door to start, which from a compliance standpoint has been incredible.

Locational complexities are accounted for:

The cool piece is if I hire you, and even if you live in Arizona, but you work in California, the rules are there. The system knows I need certain things because you're working in California versus Arizona. So now I don't have to worry about a recruiter forgetting to select that when they issue the paperwork.

The last time Farrugia's team crunched numbers, they also calculated a savings of one and a half FTEs from new hire data entry. The time it takes to provision someone in all their systems has also go down to from four days on average down to less than a day.

Farrugia told me they haven't done any head count reductions from those savings. But they haven't had to add new employees during their growth either. Has the lack of data entry made employees more strategic? To a degree, says Farrugia. Their expectations of how things work are now high:

I feel like we've really upped the bar. We've upped the expectation, and now people have come to expect that things should be firing on all cylinders.

You don't hear that from an HR person every day.

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