The future of payroll skills roundtable

  • August 2021

The CIPP policy and research team recently hosted this roundtable which was led by Samantha Johnson LLB(Hons) ChMCIPPdip, CIPP policy lead


Brian Sparling ChMCIPPdip, Ceridian

Catey Palmer, Deloitte

John Cronin, Subio

Lesley Daniel BA (Hons) ChFCIPP, Applus UK Ltd

Lisa Orton MCIPP, PWC

Nick Day ACIPP, James Gray Associates

The pace of change in payroll over the previous twelve to eighteen months has been unprecedented. Payroll teams are familiar with change; technology, legislation and business strategy are all areas where we have had to adapt and remain agile to continue to deliver an accurate and timely service. However, the challenges of working from home, managing the coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS), processing Covid-related absence, and reacting to the changing demands of often struggling business, have seriously tested the skills of payroll professionals. Despite this, payroll teams have delivered; and it is testament to the skills, knowledge and behaviour of those teams that meant we kept the UK paid in 2020 – and continue to do so.

The CIPP continues to look to the future of payroll, so we invited payroll professionals and experts from across the industry to discuss the future of payroll skills as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. The discussions were prompted by questions focused on four key areas.

1. Payroll skills and technology

Will technology remove transactional payroll tasks?

Nick Day: Large employers will adopt this technology, but the rate of adoption will be smaller in those businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees. Senior leaders in the payroll industry want to see payroll play a more strategic role.

Removing these transactional tasks will help to do this and will raise the profile of payroll.

Lisa Orton: In 2019, we migrated to a cloud-based system. This was a godsend during the pandemic, which helped us explore new ways of doing things and removed some manual tasks. However, it is economies of scale – you cannot invest large amounts of money if you only have a small payroll.


How will artificial intelligence and chatbots shape future payroll skills?

Catey Palmer: The risk is that this technology undermines our message. Payroll is a complex industry and indicating that we can replace payroll professionals with technology implies that we are just data crunchers.

Brian Sparling: Chatbots and AI will have their place. Some 75–80% of queries in Ceridian could be answered by technology. However, that technology needs to really work to drive a change in human behaviour to embrace it.

John Cronin: Terms such as AI and chatbots mean different things to different people. There are already layers of AI that are in operation now, but we don’t think of it in those terms.

These changes need to be about positioning, not what it takes away, but how it enhances the profession. Payroll is the bridge between finance and HR (human resources) in many aspects, and technology can change what payroll professionals mean to an organisation and increase their value.

LO: Business needs to consult payroll teams when implementing this technology. They are the teams delivering these functions now, and consultation will help them buy in to the new technology and understand how it can rebrand payroll professionals as strategic.


How will payroll skills need to change to adapt to technology?

ND: As technology advances, so do payroll skills. The skills don’t become less in demand, they become more difficult and complex. Recruitment in payroll is more challenging now because there are so many facets to the payroll profession. Individuals should also be mindful that as technology changes, so these skills can become outdated. Technology creates an opportunity to develop those hybrid skills, leadership in particular – individuals with these softer skills are easier to place.

BS: Ten to fifteen years ago, you were looking for data entry skills when recruiting in payroll. Technology has removed the data entry to make payroll something different, and AI will be an extension of that. Technology has ability to flag risks and trends in data so payroll teams can review and turn them into action.


2. Education, qualifications and experience

What are the top skills you look for when recruiting in payroll?

ND: That’s a big question. Broadly, employees are now deemed as consumers, and employee engagement can have huge ramifications on the effectiveness of your business performance. In payroll, the ability to understand and engage with employees is more important than ever.

LD: I look for someone with the ability to question and interrogate data, who has a thirst for knowledge and who wants to continue to develop. Report writing is another important skill; being able to extract data from a system, spot trends and highlight issues and present that to help business decision making.

LO: Payroll recruitment can be challenging. I look for candidates who can be creative and are open to change. In a bureau environment, clients will come with questions and ask for new ways of doing things, and I need someone who can help make this happen and provide clients with the data they need.

BS: We’re a customer service function, and in those interactions the softer skills come in. Payroll professionals need to communicate with so many different levels of customers, they need technical skills and the ability to keep up to date. We’re looking for a fantastic array of skills.

CP: I’m looking for an ability to consult. It’s difficult to teach that skill; how you build relationships and trust and ultimately how you engage with people. It’s also important individuals take accountability for the end-to-end service and take action to drive through initiatives, share knowledge and train others. Payroll requires dynamic and collaborative working.

JC: A lot of what we’re talking about is behavioural, the ability to join up the dots is important. Payroll managers and leadership teams need to step away from the transactional processing and drive forward to show how payroll can add real value to the business.


Are qualifications or experience more important in recruitment?

LD: The two go hand in hand. I always do a knowledge practical test at recruitment stage. If I had to choose, I would veer towards experience, but the CIPP qualifications give a great underpinning of knowledge.

CP: I’d choose experience over qualifications; however, qualifications show me that the candidate has made a conscious choice to invest in their payroll career. I’d also be an advocate of my team doing qualifications that fit with what they want to do.

ND: It’s 100% experience and behaviours, but it’s not that qualifications aren’t important. Indeed, I am always studying and am passionate about qualifications as they show a commitment to your profession. Also, salaries are higher with CIPP qualifications, so candidates are typically rewarded for having these.


3. Payroll and financial wellbeing

How could pay on demand impact the traditional payroll cycle?

BS: Pay on demand will destroy the traditional monthly pay cycle. This isn’t restricted to certain sectors, it is a generational topic and millennials are used to having instant access – and this will include pay, too.

ND: This is a huge buzz word at the moment. I think we’ll see a shift towards pay on demand in low pay sectors and for shift working, but I don’t see it being widely accepted. We’re used to the monthly pay cycle and moving away from that is underestimating the power of human habit.


What role will payroll play in financial wellbeing?

CP: We need to go back to education and the national curriculum and explain what a personal allowance is, talk about salary and payroll, and explain the importance of saving at a young age. Young children don’t have that education at the moment.

LD: Payroll can play a part to help people become aware of resources that are already there, such as the married couples or working from home allowances. We must be careful about what is guidance and what is advice, but employers could certainly support employees more with advice around pensions when making retirement decisions.

JC: Wellbeing strategies are about understanding needs, educating, and supporting. Payroll has a great opportunity to signpost employees and clients to support all three of these areas and move toward that strategic value add function.


4. Remote working and the future of payroll

Is home working the future of payroll?

LO: Remote working is on people’s minds; previously payroll couldn’t work from home and now we’ve shown it can be done. It has got to be the choice of the individual, and employers have to embrace that approach. We know it doesn’t affect the ability for you to perform.

ND: Candidates are starting to demand homeworking; however, old-school leadership and a lack of trust is a problem. So, leadership skills must evolve. Employee choice should win out because good talent will leave and the cost of losing experienced talent outweighs the cost of keeping them. Hybrid working seems to be the most overriding preference in our research, and hiring managers are starting to accommodate this more. Remember, if you want the top talent, they will ask for more.

JC: High performing organisations tend to be those that focus on output and have an innate belief that people are doing their best to do a good job. Those who choose to micromanage have seen increased mental health issues and have had to introduce further controls to check what is going on. Business must adapt their culture to make the most of this type of working. 

The future of payroll skills roundtable

August 2021