01 March 2021

Maria Mason MCIPPdip, UK payroll director, Business Services & Outsourcing at BDO, shares her insights into successful payroll automation and the benefits it delivers

Could you outline some of the payroll-related automation projects that you have been involved in at BDO?
Automation projects are a key focus for BDO. Over the past twelve months, our firm’s automation team has delivered over 35 processes across the business. Payroll has led the way on much of the change that’s then been rolled out across the wider firm. As someone who is passionate about technology being utilised in payroll, it is fantastic to work within a business that shares this passion.
One of the first robotics projects we completed was the automation of payroll billing, and this approach has now been rolled out across other business streams.
Our clients tell us they choose BDO due to our using best-of-breed technology to manage the complexities of their payroll, while gaining the highest level of efficiencies. We’re driven to ensure we comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) at all times and reduce all areas of risk associated with the movement of data. Using robotics helps us to achieve this.
Payroll involves numerous repetitive, mundane and time-consuming tasks each period, many associated with relatively high risk due to the nature of the data we deal with. These tasks are prime targets for robotics – freeing up advisors’ time to work on more value add tasks.

We’re currently applying robotics in a number of cases within payroll, including:

  • raising of clients’ billing and dispatch to client
  • password protection and moving payroll reports from the payroll system to the secure shared client platform
  • moving the electronic payslip file from the payroll system to the electronic payslip portal
  • moving pension reporting to the provider’s specific system and uploading the file into the system.

Outside of robotics we look to utilise system functionality to the fullest. Payroll systems and technology platforms often have great functionality to manage complex pay calculations or upload data direct into the system.

However, this can be difficult and time-consuming to customise initially, with the result that workarounds or manual interventions continue.

For all clients being on-boarded, we work with them to take information direct from relevant systems, such as HR (human resources), time and attendance, and expenses. Uploading directly into the payroll system removes the need for rekeying, so saving time and reducing risk.

Projects in these areas have included:

  • introduction of automated timesheet or data uploads for large multi-sited clients
  • production of pre-populated timesheets for completion by clients
  • automation of complex sick scheme and holiday pay calculations within the payroll system.

What are the measures by which you decide which automation projects will be given priority?
Any development within the UK payroll team at BDO is undertaken to address risk and/or achieve efficiencies. We decide which automation projects to prioritise based on risk in the first instance: it is imperative that we pay people accurately and on time, while protecting our clients’ data. We then consider the efficiency savings and return on investment (RoI).

We hold regular workshops involving both the automation and payroll management teams to go through our processing framework to identify future projects. We are currently reviewing further use of robotics in relation to quality checks and the automated processing of no-change payrolls.

What effect does automation have on the business and on how the payroll function is perceived as a result?
The impact of automation on areas of risk is the most important factor for us. Our automation projects have created capacity within our function, enabling the team to spend more time on areas such as quality checks. This gives our clients peace of mind that payrolls are being processed at the highest accuracy rate possible.

To put the impact into perspective, the robotics responsible for the movement of reporting across the systems will have saved over £180,000 of time in the first year, enabling each of our payroll associates to accommodate the processing of around 500 additional payslips and support clients, both existing and new, as they expand.

This impact, coupled with the fact that many of our automation initiatives have been rolled out across our firm, has raised the profile of our payroll function within BDO.

...clients tell us they choose BDO due to our use best-of-breed technology to manage the complexities of their payroll, while gaining the highest level of efficiencies.

If BDO’s payroll service is similar to that of a payroll bureau, how might automation work for payroll functions that serve only their employer’s employees? Which projects have proved most successful?

Regardless of whether you process an in-house payroll or manage a bureau processing hundreds of client payrolls, every payroll goes through over twenty different processes each period. A large proportion of payroll work is repetitive and subject to risk, so could benefit from the introduction of robotics or other forms of automation.

All payroll processing should look to capture data at source and minimise manual intervention. When things go wrong with payroll, this is typically due to problems with the transfer of data.

By breaking down payroll processing into the associated tasks and reviewing each task separately, you can assess if there are easier ways to complete them. Examples could include using spreadsheets and macros for uploading data into a payroll system, utilising system functionality to manage complex calculations, and using robotics to manage the processing or movement of files.

In our experience, the project to use robots to move reporting between systems has been extremely successful. This has not only removed the risk of error and GDPR breaches from data being placed in incorrect client files, but also saved around ten minutes of time per client for a payroll associate to create the report, password protect it and then place the data in another system.

How would you evaluate the success of an automation project?
I would evaluate the success of an automation project by considering:

  • the extent to which risk has been minimised or removed
  • the level of efficiency savings achieved
  • the RoI.

In our experience, robotics and automation projects don’t necessarily involve a large up-front investment, but the savings in staff time can be substantial.

...determine the risk associated with defined elements, while also identifying repetitive and complex areas.

What guidance and advice can you give to anyone in the profession contemplating whether to automate? For example, preparing a return on investment justification.
Start at the beginning, as often change and automation are restricted by what is in place already. Review your current payroll’s entire processing map and determine the risk associated with defined elements, while also identifying repetitive and complex areas. This analysis helps to identify where automation is possible and could have the biggest impact.

Understand your systems’ capabilities, as often only a small amount of functionality within a system is being utilised. Determine what can be done within the system to increase automation before considering whether external processes or automation need to be introduced.

Within BDO we have developed a RoI calculator to help us decide where to introduce automation. We forecast the volume of transactions that would be handled through the automated solution, with an expected success rate. We then calculate the cost of those transactions if worked by the employee, based on the average time to work those items. This gives us a forecast RoI, minus the investment needed to develop the solution. In this way we determine whether there is a strong enough business case to take the change forward.

Featured in the February 2021 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.