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Payroll in a Pandemic

As a part of National Payroll Week this year I had a conversation with Linda Burt, Senior Payroll Manager and discussed her thoughts around challenges faced over the pandemic alongside how she sees the payroll function changing and evolving out of this period.

Please do have a read below and join in on the conversation in the comments, I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

What do you think are the biggest challenges payroll has faced during this time?

I think the biggest challenge has been in terms of payroll legislative changes, in particular the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS).

Ordinarily changes will be announced a couple of months before they come into place, meaning we have time to prepare and talk to others in the industry, figure out how we need to adapt and communicate those changes out to the broader business. With the CJRS there was none of that.

It was also the worst possible point in time for changes to come in on top of our additional responsibilities of preparing for the new tax year as well as adapting our teams to working from home.

We have never had to face anything close to this level of a challenge before which makes it incredibly difficult, an example being on Phase 2 of the CJRS in July there were 17 iterations of the guidance from HMRC on the first day it went live, let alone the number of changes since.

I have been quite lucky as I am involved in the Payroll Bureau Association which has been helpful as we have been able to bounce off of each other for advice and support, but it has been difficult for a lot of people if they have not had that resource and support around them.

What has your experience been onboarding someone remotely?

Learning how to recruit and support new starters during lockdown has definitely been another challenge for us. Working remotely has never been the ‘norm’ for payrollers - I never would have thought of putting a plan together in terms of remote training.

We have always had a one to one shadowing style of training in the office, taking that away has been difficult to adapt.

When in the office it can at times be more of a seamless process with team members helping each other but without managers having visibility and seeing where those gaps lie.

This time has been good as it has shown us where our weaknesses are and we have been able to work on those areas.

I think that another problem is that there has historically been the view that that there are limited decent candidates out there and so people compromise in a lot of ways when recruiting and take the attitude of ‘they’ll do’.

I believe Covid-19 will have highlighted the problem with this when going into lockdown and realising the people they have taken on board needed a higher level of support or couldn’t actually do the tasks they were required to do.

I think this goes back to ultimately making sure when we are hiring that we are getting what we are actually looking for - ‘they’ll do’ does a lot more harm in the long run.

My advice is to have the right partners to help you in that search, the right recruitment consultants who truly understand your business and recruitment needs and who can give you a broader visibility of the market rather than simply who comes through your job advert.

What measures have you put in place to prevent your team from burnout over this period?

We have several measures in place from a business perspective such as the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which has been regularly circulated to the business. I have also been encouraging my team to utilise that as much as I can.

As much as payroll is overwhelmingly busy right now, I am also making sure everybody is taking holiday.

A lot of people were resistant to this during lockdown as it felt like wasted annual leave, but I don’t think they understood how easily the increased workload and mental toll of isolation could spiral into burnout.

We also have a daily catch up across the team, where we can have a laugh together as well as discuss individual workloads and how we are all coping.

Do you believe the perception around payroll from the broader business has changed during this time?

Yes and no. I think that to an extent it has put more of a spotlight on payroll, but it depends on where you work as to how big that spotlight has been.

It is complicated. Historically payrollers have been really bad at standing up for ourselves and saying we are an important part of the business, not just administrators. There is a huge amount of technical detail that goes into our job roles as well as needing to be people-people. People don’t just get magically paid; it isn’t just a big red button that we press at the end of each month.

It has been many years in the making, things have changed significantly in the past 10 years, particularly since introduction of RTI and auto-enrollment but it is important that we keep banging that drum for payroll and helping people understand what our roles really are.

Payroll has historically been a function that has never been allowed the flexibility of working from home, for an array of reasons. Do you see this changing?

I believe it will come down to the individual company and how upper management feel about people working remotely.

When I work in London it is an additional 3 hours that is added on to my day just from commuting alone which is mentally very tiring. I feel more refreshed now than I have for a long time. It does make a difference; it will help get the most out of people if they feel they can strike that work life balance.

There are also some locations that really struggle with finding quality payroll people as they just do not exist in that part of the world. Adapting to remote working makes more sense as you then have a larger talent pool to select from.

There are a lot of companies racing to get back to how it was before Covid-19 but I think they will struggle in the future recruiting for new talent if there is no flexibility in what they are offering people.

If companies don’t look to change, they will lose talented people to businesses that are more flexible and willing to work with their employees.

Are there any other changes to the payroll function you foresee coming out of this period?

I think we will see changes in staff over the coming 12 months, both in terms of managers restructuring their team as well from as employees potentially feeling undervalued during this time.

I hope that once things start to quieten down payroll teams will start to look at the tools they are using and whether they are utilising them to the best of their ability.

Many people are trapped in data admin roles as we are not utilising our technology properly when they could be pushed into what payroll really is.

As leaders within payroll we need to get better at fighting for these tools but it equally comes down to the people we report into and whether they are listening to why we need these things.

For me, lockdown has made me push to look at new software and different tools which is a massive positive. I am hoping that it is something that is looked at across the board in the industry.

Whether or not there is another lockdown we need to have better software that is kept up to date – the software should be working for us not the other way around.

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