Payroll during the pandemic: a professional’s insight

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Everyone has had their own individual challenges throughout the last year. But now, with light at the end of the tunnel, people are beginning to plan for the future and look forward.

For payroll professionals, changes in legislation and process have meant that the last twelve months have been particularly demanding.

In this candid interview, our Product Legal Adviser and Payroll Expert, Nichola Hailes, discusses the impact of the pandemic on both her personal and professional life and why events throughout the last year may have changed the role of those involved in payroll permanently.

PayFit interviewer: How did your job change when lockdown measures were introduced? 

Nichola Hailes: From a professional or personal perspective? 

PI: Why not both? 

NH: Well, from a personal perspective, the pandemic has seen me completely alter my work routine. Like many other people both in and outside of my profession, I am a mother to a young child. 

Entering lockdown meant that he could not attend nursery, which inevitably meant that he had to be at home with me. I know that my case is certainly not uncommon, but up until March last year, I had been fairly fortunate in that, apart from the occasional early-morning catch-up or the rare late-nighter, there had never been an occasion where my professional life had, let's say, collided with my private one.

So, when they did cross for the first time, I found it hard to find a balance between the two. Initially, juggling full-time work and looking after my young boy felt at odds with each other. To me, it felt like I was having to make a direct choice between being a good employee and a loving and caring parent. 

It wasn't easy for my little boy either. He too had his routine firmly disjointed. Nursery was of course cancelled, his big first day at school was postponed, he also couldn't see his grandparents and, perhaps most importantly, interact with people his own age. I think it's fair to say that the first few months were pretty difficult for both of us. 

Some days were easier than others and there were certainly moments when things got a little overwhelming. Inevitably, tears were shed and tantrums occurred, and I would be fibbing if I said that he was the only one having them. 

Nevertheless, I feel that on the whole, we have managed the situation pretty well and even embraced the unique set of circumstances. When I look back over the last year, I feel very privileged to have spent so much time with him and intend to make the most of it before schools reopen. In fact, the prospect of now sending him off to school makes me pretty emotional.  

He has enjoyed it too, at least, I like to think he has. Before the pandemic, explaining what Mummy did each day was not easy; however, I feel like a mutual understanding and respect of each others' daily tasks has developed over the last year. 

I may be getting ahead of myself, but I have a sneaky suspicion that I may even have a budding payroller on my hands. 

PI: Yes, the juggling act between work and parenthood has become a bit of a cause célèbre throughout the last year. In terms of your role as a payroll professional, how have you found things? 

NH: Listen, I have been in the industry for over 10 years now and I have seen many changes affecting payroll introduced that have been, well, challenging. 

I think many of my fellow payrollers will agree when I say that our profession can throw up new challenges on a reasonably regular basis. We have just become accustomed to and known to accept this as part and parcel of working within payroll. 

However, the last year has been particularly testing as we've seen unprecedented changes affecting both payroll legislation and processes. 

In my role as Product Legal Adviser and Payroll Expert, I have been spending much of the last year tackling legislative changes and ensuring that our product remains up to date and compliant to meet the new requirements. I've also spent a lot of time with the internal teams and customers to help them understand what the changes mean.

PI: You talk about challenges, but what exactly have these been? 

NH: Twelve months ago, the word 'furlough' was barely known outside of payroll. In all honesty, even I had to have a sneaky Google to understand precisely what it meant. Nevertheless, over the course of the last year, 10 million employments have been put on furlough leave at the cost of over £46 billion.

Accessing the scheme was not always very clear and its various iterations – changes in government contributions, part-time furloughing, withdrawal and reintroduction – have meant that it has been a constant battle to keep on top of. 

Other important changes affecting Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) were brought in to help combat the virus's spread in its early stages. Again, these were not always very clear, and people often struggled to understand whether they were entitled to benefit. 

PI: So, we know about the challenges that payroll professionals have faced throughout the last year, but how has the role of a payroll professional changed? 

NH: It's a good question, actually. One of the pandemic's significant outcomes has been the increased interest in employee wellbeing. While it has long been a big issue, I feel that the pandemic has made companies reevaluate how they approach this subject. 

Part of this is linked to the fact that employees have been working remotely, but I also think it's connected to what the pandemic has bred, certainly amongst employees, in terms of anxiety and uncertainty about what the future will hold. 

News of an imminent recession is well documented, and the fact that financial concerns have become so prevalent means that organisations can ill afford to make errors when paying their employees. 

Don't get me wrong, getting people paid correctly and on time is always important, but within the context of the last year, it has taken on particular significance. I can't help but think employers have become more aware of the issues that can arise due to not getting this right. 

So, the most considerable change, in my opinion, is that payroll-related roles, which have traditionally always been treated as 'back office', have suddenly been moved to the forefront of organisations. 

The importance and value of work performed by those involved in payroll was best highlighted by payroll professionals being added to a list of key workers in March last year. 

PI: That's interesting. Has it been easy for people to access these services? 

NH: I wouldn't know from personal experience as I have chosen not to. However, I've heard from colleagues that it hasn't always been easy to receive help.

To be honest, this isn't really a payroll-related question. The fact is, these services are on offer to people who perform vital roles, regardless of whether they're involved in payroll or not.  

I will say that we often hear discussions about furlough being an alternative option. This means that if people can't access the help they need, they can go on furlough.  

This is very much a misconception as it's the employer's, not employee's, decision about whether someone should be furloughed. 

I have heard of cases where parents and carers have requested to be furloughed, only for their request to be refused as there is still a business need for the services they provide. 

It's a sensitive subject, and I can see both sides of the argument and, unfortunately, there is never really a 'right' answer. 

PI: What do you think will be the long-term repercussions of the pandemic on payroll? 

NH: I genuinely think it's too hard to say at this stage. The fact that everything is still so uncertain means that it is difficult to predict what the long-term repercussions will be.

Now that we are approaching the first anniversary of when measures were introduced, I'd imagine decision-makers will be in the process of planning some sort of exit strategy. 

There will be hundreds of thousands of businesses who have meticulously planned for the next 6-12 months; however, many will have had to revisit plans and put contingencies in place because of legislation being changed, or local and national lockdowns starting and stopping.

What I think is certain is that people will want to avoid the confusion that took place back in October when the furlough scheme was supposed to be replaced by the Job Support Scheme (JSS). 

When this didn't happen, and instead the furlough scheme was extended, a lot of work and planning that had gone into an exit strategy was essentially torn up. 

Furlough will have to end one day and, as it stands, we are expecting this to be in April 2021. However, if we have learnt one thing throughout the last year, it is to expect the unexpected. 

PI: Finally, you say 'expect the unexpected'. But is there anything that has really surprised you during this last year? 

NH: Surprised is the wrong word. I am rarely surprised when it comes to payroll.

No, to be honest, the last year has been extremely challenging. But now there's light at the end of the tunnel and things are beginning to look up. 

However, events throughout the last twelve months have unfortunately highlighted that the same old issues exist within the system. 

For example, despite the good work done to close the gender pay gap in recent years, it was disappointing to see that more women were furloughed than men. Unfortunately, this does show that we still have a long way to go to achieve parity in our workforce. 

So, as we move forward and begin recovery, it will be interesting to see whether both the Government and organisations remain committed to implementing change and bring balance to these sorts of issues at the forefront of HR and payroll before the pandemic.

PayFit blog author

PayFit blog author

PayFit

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