Automation and AI are making room for HR strategy to take center stage

New AI and mobile self-service technology, like Paychex Voice Assist, are paving the way for HR pros to move away from task-based work and dive deeper into company strategy.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Imagine being able to correct a payroll error from your couch while catching the latest episode of House of the Dragon, just by saying “Okay, Google…” Well, now you can.

Last month, HR and payroll software company Paychex launched Paychex Voice Assist. Using artificial intelligence and voice recognition, the new feature allows HR and payroll admins to tackle basic payroll tasks without lifting a finger.

Its creators call it a natural evolution in HR tech. As more HR tasks are managed online and on mobile devices, experts say the technology is evolving to make people professionals more efficient, freeing them up to do more high-level work.

With Paychex Voice Assist, HR pros can make quick changes and fixes to employee hours and pay rates, and even submit payroll using Google Assistant-compatible devices like a phone or smart speaker. The voice-to-AI software provides admins with real-time notifications and they can act on those notifications using just their voice.

"When we track the data of our utilization, we started to see that payroll was being initiated [from one location], and it was being modified from second locations, and it was being submitted from a third,” Tom Hammond, Paychex’s VP of corporate strategy and product management, told HR Brew. “We were able to actually see people are on the go again, and they’re doing this now at all hours of the day and night, and they’re looking for the opportunity to do it when they have time.”

The data Paychex collected demonstrated that more flexible, mobile-friendly, employee-centered solutions would allow HR pros additional time to focus on workplace safety, talent and retention, understanding diversity needs, and looking into issues like pay equity.

A seat at the C-suite table. Hammond pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic as one catalyst for new HR technology focused on efficiency and automation. Companies needed their HR teams focused less on tasks and more on building and maintaining systems for their new distributed workforces, as well as keeping employees safe from a deadly virus.

As a result, 98% of respondents to the 2021 Paychex Pulse of HR survey reported that the pandemic transformed their role. Hammond said that business owners and CEOs pulled up a chair for HR leaders as they looked to reshape company strategy during this time.

If HR leaders needed to develop a strategy for remote employee engagement and create new health and safety protocols for their workforce, some of the time consuming day-to-day work needed to be addressed. For some, this involved hiring new dedicated teams; for others, this involved rethinking HR tech.

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“All of the job duties and tasks that are lower value that HR has on its shoulders should be rethought,” said Peter Norlander, who directs Quinlan School of Business’s HR and employment relations program at Loyola University Chicago. “HR has been burdened for many years with a lot of administrative work that’s important and essential, but not necessarily going to deliver as much value.”

Norlander said day-to-day interruptions that come from poorly designed systems and unclear expectations on HR departments will always hinder that important strategic work.

Fixing employee self-service portals or automating some of the payroll processes may lighten the load.

It’s not just for HR teams. “When you’re remote, your digital experience is your employee experience,” said John Brownridge, a digital workplace leader for Deloitte Consulting. “[Employers] have to go beyond the clicks and the do we maintain employee experience across multiple dimensions to be successful?”

Brownridge helps companies reimagine how digital systems are deployed and interact together. He said addressing digital interfaces can dramatically affect an employee experience.

“The relationship between experience and productivity is pretty tight,” he said. “If you’re productive, you actually have a better experience, and if you have a better experience, you’re going to be more productive.”

Brownridge said the Paychex voice-to-AI tech could be even more useful if employees were able to use it: “Alexa, schedule a meeting with my boss on Thursday or Friday,” for example.

“Until now, a lot of the AI and automation work has been focused on very specific tasks,” he said. “I think there’s a shift now in the market to look at bigger problems, processes, and seeing how much can we automate throughout that process to minimize human interaction for processes that are fundamentally a logic problem.”

He predicted a day in the not-so-distant-future when all payroll is automated.

“I don’t think we'll ever get to a no human service because it’s not what we want 100%, but a very large percentage is absolutely what people and organizations are looking for,” Brownridge said.

Automation and AI tools can help an employee who missed a flight to a meeting find and book a new flight, he said, but admitted it probably isn’t the best approach for dealing with an employee who feels isolated and discouraged returning from maternity leave.—AD

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.