25 Nov 2020
In challenging times, how can you support your staff who are under the most pressure? Nick Southcombe, CEO of Frontier Software, shares his insight.
‘Help for Helpers’ was one of the many catchphrases thrown around in early 2020 as the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be felt around the world. While other phrases became more popular, ‘help for helpers’ spoke to a need to provide support for those workers for whom COVID-19 was a major disruptor.
HR and payroll staff haven’t been at the coalface per se during this period, but they have faced significant challenges when adapting to changing business and regulatory landscapes. In this respect, they both could and should be considered ‘helpers’. At the time of writing, Australia is returning to some sense of ‘normal’. Significantly, Victoria is beginning to reopen, but it’s been a drastic transition after a near-total lockdown since March. People are understandably feeling isolated and often nervous about going back to the office, and a return to lockdown remains a real possibility.
“HR and payroll teams have been under immense pressure,” says Nick Southcombe, CEO of Frontier Software. “You have situations like remote working and the need to adapt to initiatives like JobKeeper, all while ensuring that accuracy and compliance are maintained.”
Human beings, Southcombe explains, are social creatures and seek meaningful connections. “COVID has required us to isolate, and that can lead to feelings of fear, loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression,” he says. “That can be particularly pronounced if the person is living alone, and there’s plenty of research to support the notion that loneliness impacts work performance.”
Southcombe also points to the influence that payroll has on employee engagement and wellbeing. Having security around finances is always a critical consideration for employees, let alone during a pandemic. The impact of underpayments or overpayments by payroll can be disastrous.
“Employees have an understandable expectation that their pay will be both timely and accurate,” says Southcombe. “Direct debits, mortgage payments, rent, bills and more are all planned around pay cycles, so the impact of a missed or late payment can actually be quite severe.”
As employees themselves, payroll teams already carry a degree of work stress. But such levels increase considerably when you factor in the new learning required. This includes JobKeeper, payroll tax, changes to processes to accommodate remote working, and equipment issues. Conceivably, then, Southcombe notes, the current combination of pressure and isolation could lead to payroll processing errors.
So, if employees are affected by a payroll error, what could that mean for staff wellbeing and engagement?
“A single error, repeated errors – or even a reputation for error – from a payroll team can have disastrous impacts on employee morale and engagement,” Southcombe explains. “More seriously, it can also have a big impact on whether employees choose to remain with the business.”
While good mental health support must be available for all employees, Southcombe is an advocate for supporting and monitoring payroll staff.
“Government initiatives can be announced one day, and staff expect the payroll or finance team to have all the answers and be ready to implement, often having only just learned of the changes themselves. This places the team under enormous pressure to deliver something new while maintaining business as usual. I want to ensure the wellbeing of my entire staff, which means attending to the hygiene factors, and the team responsible for so many of these right now is payroll.
“Given the key role that payroll has in the wellbeing of all staff, it makes sense that businesses need to be investing in mental health and resilience programs for them,” Softwaresays Southcombe. “Payroll teams need to be looking for process, training and work-related steps that can be put in place to assist with error reduction, accuracy and compliance.”But they can’t just be process-oriented, Southcombe explains. Equally importantly, they need to be people-oriented too.
“Remote work has been embraced by a lot of people, but for others it’s proven difficult. For leadership teams, it means that we have reduced visibility into our co-workers’ lives,” Southcombe says. “So we need to be proactive in looking for ways to support mental wellbeing. That’s going to look different in each workplace; it might be one-on-one check-ins, wellbeing webinars, providing health and wellbeing resources, providing assistance with homeschooling, online exercise classes... It really depends on what your staff want and need.”
Southcombe sees Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) as particularly valuable in the current climate.
“I think, culturally, we tend to have a reactive rather than proactive approach to mental health,” he says. “But I see EAPs as a means of changing that – they’re a service that’s geared at benefiting employee wellbeing. While obviously employees need help in a crisis, it’s also a tool that can be used proactively if they have any concerns. We need to normalise seeking help before something becomes a problem, rather than simply waiting until an issue has occurred.” Technology has a role to play in this process, too. After all, how can staff be expected to perform their jobs to their employer’s full satisfaction if they don’t have the right tools?
“Given the emphasis on remote work at the moment, businesses need to be assessing whether they have the right tech in place,” Southcombe says. “Are your HR and payroll systems cloud-based? Can the right employees access them remotely? Are your systems secure?” Now, he says, is the time to be looking out for more effective and modern solutions if your business hasn’t invested in them already. Outsourcing elements of your payroll process to provide support may also be a viable consideration, Southcombe points out, also highlighting its potential for risk mitigation. “Single-point sensitivity is still a concern for many organisations, particularly smaller ones,” he says. “It could be problematic if the knowledge held by a few key staff was lost due to turnover, redundancy, or any other reason during this period. There are probably lesser opportunities for knowledge transfer when teams are dispersed and working from home. “Additionally, during a time when there’s a greater margin for error, there can be benefits to segregating payroll duties to help mitigate the potential for mistakes or fraudulent activity.”
“While not everyone’s back in the office yet, that doesn’t mean you don’t have an influence over the staff work environment” Nick Southcombe, CEO, Frontier Software
While providing your payroll staff with the tools they need to thrive in the workplace is a duty-of-care consideration, Southcombe is also quick to stress that it’s an ethical responsibility too. Employees remember how they’re treated during good times and bad, and accordingly businesses need to be mindful of their approach.
Not attending to processes or providing for the practical and less tangible needs of employees is always unwise, but it is doubly important at the moment. “While not everyone’s back in the office yet, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have an influence over the staff work environment,” says Southcombe. “Organisations have a responsibility to be creating an environment that fosters wellbeing for the whole employee group – and that includes payroll as well.”
Originally published in HRD Magazine in November 2020