Will payroll jobs be automated out?

Automation first became a topic for discussion in payroll circles when it really began to affect the industry at the start of the millennium. But as talk increasingly now turns to the potential repercussions of its next phase in the shape of artificial intelligence (AI), it begs the question of how roles are likely to evolve and - most importantly of all - will payroll professionals still have jobs at the end of it all?

While concern over job losses is completely understandable, it is also unnecessary. The benefit of automated systems in general, and AI in particular, lies in their ability to enhance the work performed by people. In fact, becoming involved in, and even leading the charge for, automation could well prove a path to career success.

Automated payroll systems have already revolutionised the average payroll professional’s workday by undertaking basic calculations and payroll reviews on their behalf as well as enabling faster and easier data aggregation. They also help to reduce manual errors and make regulatory compliance easier.

Global payroll applications, particularly when integrated with HR, finance and accounting packages, can also remove the need for monotonous data entry and generally perform boring manual work that would take individual hours to do. But it is clear that payroll professionals themselves are key to realising true shared value here.

Because you possess essential knowledge and understanding of your organisation’s payroll processes, requirements and goals, it means you are in a position to play a crucial role in successfully designing and implementing new systems.

Playing to your strengths

Moreover, rather than eradicate entire occupations when moving to AI, it makes more sense for most organisations to evaluate which different work activities their payroll process comprises. Doing so will help them understand which tasks best lend themselves to automation and which are better performed by humans due to their unique skills of strategic thinking, intuition and problem-solving.

Predictable and repetitive activities such as data collection and calculating tax are ideal for robots. But work that requires interpersonal skills, critical thinking or reasoning such as dealing with exceptions, stakeholder management or interpreting regulatory changes will undoubtedly remain in the human sphere.

We recently reviewed how much time teams spend on every primary payroll task and used a McKinsey model to calculate the automation potential of each as a percentage of time spent. Such tasks included repetitive ones such as data collection and processing as well as more sophisticated activities like managing others and interacting with stakeholders.

It became clear that payroll professionals spend a huge 40% of their time today on payroll tasks that have the potential to be automated. But within this figure lies both the challenge and how to address it.

Rather than fearing that staff numbers will be cut by 40%, payroll leaders should instead be considering how to boost the skills and capabilities of their team.

Getting involved

Automating repetitive tasks has the potential to free payroll professionals’ time up so they can undertake higher value activities such as improving the overall payroll experience, analysing payroll trends and ensuring payroll outputs match overall corporate goals. In addition, replacing monotonous activities with more creative or interactive work can help boost job satisfaction, which in turn leads to higher employee engagement and better performance.

But this kind of shift does not happen overnight. As with any significant process change, it can take months or even years before it is achieved. In the meantime, staff may need to assist in designing new ways of working and inputting data. They may also require extensive training to move into new roles. Certainly by the end of it all, your team is likely to look quite different.

However, you are likely to see substantial improvements, not only in terms of payroll performance but also in the kinds of work undertaken by this so-called “augmented” workforce, which is defined as humans and robots working in tandem, each focusing on what they do best.

So while AI-based payroll systems will excel at undertaking routine payroll tasks, it will be up to humans to evaluate and define which ones should be automated and how to use the team’s abilities to best advantage. Their insights will be instrumental in shaping the future – as long as they refrain from burying their heads in the sand and are prepared to get involved in the first place.


Paul Bartlett is chief executive of CloudPay, which provides global payroll and payments services to multinational organisations. A global business expert, Paul has deep experience of helping companies improve the efficiency and scalability of their operations using technology and services. He holds an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and an undergraduate degree from Princeton University.