Shift From Manual To Automation: Payroll In The Post-Viral Era

Times of crisis bring rapid change. And when a crisis is so significant, then the change that follows is likely to be equally far-reaching.

Due to the recent enforced changes of the COVID-19 outbreak and anticipated recession, many now believe that automation is set for far greater, widespread adoption, much earlier than originally predicted. This could indeed have a profound impact on the way we all work.

The Brookings Institute recently published its view that a recession is likely to bring about a spike in ‘labor-replacing’ automation — with employers reducing their less-skilled workers. They argue that automation surges during a recession, which could bring long-term structural changes to the labor force. This echoes an article where London School of Economics Professor, Mirko Draca said a recession will bring with it, ‘a wave of AI and automation’.

This should not really be a surprise though. When recessions happen in the age of technology, employers generally look to automation to save money. Research from Canada’s University of British Columbia has found that over the last 30 years, ‘routine’ occupations that could be replaced by automation accounted for 88% of job losses during recessions.

Far from the root of all evil

To the uninitiated, automation often gets a ‘bad rep’, yet it doesn’t have to be the root of all evil. For your payroll team, who may be under greater pressure at this time, automation could be a huge help.

The biggest drivers for automation are to help streamline processes, reduce human errors, enable the processing of large volumes of basic transactions and free-up human workers for tasks requiring more subjective thinking. Today, these are benefits that global payroll teams would likely be very thankful for.

Keeping all the plates spinning

Many global payroll teams are finding life challenging right now. With entire workforces in lockdown or working remotely, many payroll teams have found themselves overwhelmed with the volume of queries around pay, expenses, bonuses, commissions, holiday time, sick pay, reduced earnings and other personal matters.

Add in the extra layer of complication created by the new home working arrangements forced by lockdown restrictions, while also dealing with new government legislation, rules and payments around furloughed staff - and the subsequent implications on annual leave. 

Automation can quickly and easily take away the strain of many of these tasks. For example, you could deploy a chatbot that can handle common queries that arise on a regular basis. Additionally, a cloud-based solution can enable employees to take photos of expense receipts on their phones and automatically upload them, to simplify the expense admin process. At a time when more than half of large organizations still use spreadsheets as at least part of their payroll operations, automation can therefore make a huge difference.

Only a solution that’s built to last

Automation is not a quick fix to your pain points around payroll, nor should it be considered as such. As part of the ‘next normal’, we will all be living with restrictions or compromises for a while to come. Effective automation does require a level of investment that isn’t really justifiable if it’s only being adopted as a short-term solution.

That’s why it’s important to look at the benefits of automation as part of a long-term strategy, with the cloud at its core. A cloud-based payroll set-up would allow you to easily integrate new technologies like artificial intelligence, automating repetitive or high-volume tasks and lightening the load on payroll staff even further. With no data stored on-premise, teams can access all information remotely at all times: a critical consideration at a time when home working isl’ likely to remain far more widespread than it was previously.

Six steps towards to payroll automation

It’s clear that there’s never been a better time to re-evaluate your payroll processes, and introduce automation in a way that works for your business long-term. But as you integrate the technology, it’s absolutely vital that you don’t overlook the human side to the operation.

Before jumping into the application of technology to automate aspects of your payroll, you need to first carefully evaluate individual processes to identify those that are the best fit. It’s important to consider not just the feasibility of automating the process, but the value of doing so. In other words, just because you can automate something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should - so think through how it might work in practice. 

For example, do you need to include workflow with some approval requests and digital forms? Is this a particular job for a robot to perform or is this a decision-based process requiring human input?  Is it a higher value process, or is it high volume and repetitive? You may also want to consider where you are capturing information and where it is being routed to. Follow this six step approach and it should help: 


  • Review your current processes. Start by assessing how your payroll operates at present, uncover the pain points where automation can help, and begin to assess solutions with those core goals in mind. 
  • Consult your payroll teams. Clearly communicate your new goals early on, and get your team’s view on how best to apply the automation. It’s crucial to get their buy-in and understanding to ensure the automation enhances, rather than disrupts a process.
  • Identify the best candidates for automation. Processes that work best need to be linear, high-volume and task oriented (rule-based) or with a clear workflow that can enable decisions to be made quickly and actioned after specific steps. 
  • Change your processes before applying the automation. Automating a process is just one step in process improvement and technology should be deployed at the right stage to minimise any costly mistakes. There may be some trial and error but carefully think through how the process will work with automation, before deployment. 
  • Allocate ownership to the processes. Automation still needs a certain level of oversight, so clear delegation of process ownership can ensure things run smoothly. This can also help with empowering your employees and gaining their buy-in.
  • Never rest on your laurels. The next few months are likely to be fast-changing, so adaptability is critical. Constantly monitor the effectiveness of your automation to identify regular opportunities for improvement.


When used and deployed correctly, automation is much like a hard-working team-mate that takes care of your most repetitive and mundane tasks, while also delivering a helpful layer of insights derived from your data. With many payroll teams feeling overwhelmed, augmenting your operations with automation can have a profound and positive impact on productivity and motivation, while reducing stress.