Can HR software be designed to minimise its environmental footprint?

When I think about the impact of technology on the environment, the first thing that comes to mind is the energy used to power and cool data centres. It is in these data centres – usually sprawling, high security buildings that and are full of servers, cabling, and racks – that software code and customer data is stored. If software companies have a fall-back data centre and regularly back-up customer data, the consumption of hardware resources is even higher. These are realities that we accept, a bit like the fact that very few people switch off their electrical devices at home rather than leaving them in standby mode (although we know this consumes – in fact, wastes – electricity).

A few years ago, the PeopleWeek management team asked itself what PeopleWeek could do to limit our impact on the environment. We already hosted our data in a world-class, energy efficient data centre. What else could we do? We rarely travel as most client meetings and are by video conference. It is also rare that team members travel for meetings. The offices are paperless. We don’t use disposable plastic in the office. In short, our environmental footprint was relatively low and as a start-up we did not even have many customers and their data to host. However, we knew that overtime we would acquire a lot of customers and their precious data.

With this in mind, PeopleWeek decided in 2020 that all modules and new features would be designed to prevent unnecessary data storage by our clients – and consumption of CPU and RAM. This philosophy was first put into practice with the design of our Recruitment Module. We decided that it would only be possible for candidates to upload 1 document with their job application, i.e. their CV. The system would allow applicants to write a cover/motivation letter directly into the UI (if the customer wants this feature) but they would not be able to upload a cover letter, educational certificates, employment references, samples of work, etc.

We received a mixed reaction. Most organisations said that they do not need the supporting documents until they make a final hiring decision or have identified their top 2-3 candidates. At that stage, they might look at supporting documents, though they would probably only need them as part of the onboarding process (using PeopleWeek’s Onboarding Module). Other organisations were very surprised that applicants could not submit as many documents as they like. “This is not how we are used to working” was the typical response.

When I asked the less-than-enthusiastic organisations how many of the applicants’ supporting documents they typically reviewed prior to making a hiring decision (as opposed to as part of the onboarding process), they all said it was rare unless they received only a few job applications. This made me wonder why their initial response to this aspect of the design of PeopleWeek’s Recruitment Module was not to their liking. There are a few themes:

  • Discomfort amongst HR professionals to adjust to a new way of working;
  • Nervousness about the reaction of some hiring managers (personally, I could not imagine many hiring managers spending time on reviewing supporting documents); and
  • Concern that applicants may feel deprived of an opportunity to submit more information about themselves.

However, the primary reason for the initial objection was that they had not really thought about the data consumption, and the environmental impact, associated with giving applicants the option to upload multiple documents. Once I pointed out to them that if 100 people applied for a job and they each submitted on average 15 pages, it would add up to 1,500 pages. If the applications are held on record for 24 months – before being anonymised and all attachments deleted – that constitutes a significant amount of data. What’s more, PeopleWeek performs a daily back up of client data, meaning you have to double the data storage. Now imagine the organisation has 30 job vacancies per year, that adds up to 45,000 pages. And 100 job vacancies is 150,000 pages or 300,000 once backed-up. Now imagine a software provider like PeopleWeek has hundreds or thousands of customers (as we hope to have one day), that constitutes a heck of a lot of data storage. This may be fine if hosting all those documents adds operational value but, as I have seen in my conversations with HR professionals, they rarely even read them apart from for the candidates that are selected for hiring.

A recruitment module is just one example of how environmentally conscious design can minimise the environmental impact of software. The principle can be applied to other features of an HR software. Here are a few simple ideas that PeopleWeek has implemented or is in the process of implementing:

  • Applying a cap to the size of attachments that can be uploaded;
  • Applying a cap to and compressing photos that can be uploaded (PeopleWeek is photo heavy as we are also a collaboration platform for sharing news and creating events);
  • Building a core set of reports for all clients for each module so that they do not have the need to create tens or hundreds of reports that are auto-generated but nobody actually reviews them;
  • Replacing an updated payslip rather than adding it;
  • Placing a cap on the number of applicants when a job is posted, at which point the vacancy is automatically unpublished (but can be re-published later if needed);
  • Anonymising job applications, which also necessitates the permanent deletion of any uploaded documents (this is also a required feature for sound data privacy practices); and
  • Transferring onboarding documents from the Onboarding Module into the new hire’s Employee Profile, thereby only storing them in one location.

At PeopleWeek we believe that we need to show leadership on this topic, even if some organisations ultimately decide that they will not purchase our software because, for example, they want applicants to be able to upload 3 or 4 documents or as many pages as they like. Of course, we need to bring our clients with us on the journey and we can only do this if the user experience is a positive one despite certain environmentally minded features. However, we also need to invest time to help raise awareness amongst potential clients and existing clients. In our experience, perhaps after some reflection, organisations typically understand PeopleWeek’s philosophy and embrace it. They also soon realise that it involves only minor changes to existing ways of working, the overall user experience is positive and business operations are unaffected.