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Professional Spotlight

Meet Bernie O'Connor, Director, Global Payroll and Time Management, Schneider Electric


By Frank J. Mendelson

Editor’s Note: Bernie O’Connor is Director, Global Payroll and Time Management, Schneider Electric in Ireland. She has more than 17 years of payroll experience, starting with payroll as part of the finance organization then moving into payroll within the HR domain at Schneider Electric. Being part of the HR community has given her the opportunity to gain experience in other HR domains such as rewards and reward process and delivery. O’Connor started her career as a Payroll Specialist involved in the setup of an EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) shared service center for payroll, evolving to managing that function, replicating the model in APC (a Schneider acquisition) focusing on model and vendor evaluation and management. Finally, in the last 18 months, she moved into a global role focusing on strategy and governance for global payroll and time and attendance.


What is the changing role of the global payroll professional?

As payroll becomes increasingly automated and digitization becomes the new norm, a new type of professional is required to handle the function’s changing role.

In addition to the focus on the day-to-day activities of getting payroll out, which is not easy, additional focus needs to be put towards upskilling the resources to help in developing them for the future. Such skills include the following:

  1. Taking a strategic approach—Being able to develop a strategic vision and outline a future direction, anticipate market changes, and address challenges
  2. Creativity and innovation—Being able to come up with novel ideas or combinations of ideas and having a level of curiosity
  3. Data savvy—Knowing how to process data and extract relevant information, and being able to use analytical tools and methodologies
  4. Demonstrating business acumen—Understanding key business drivers, requirements, and priorities and being able to identify problems and coming up with alternatives
  5. Agility—Being open and welcoming to change and comfortable with shifting priorities and ambiguity

However, with robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) growing in the payroll space, we need to ensure that new governance approaches are also considered in this new world.

What are some of your current initiatives?

We are working on reviewing and ensuring documented contingency and service continuity plans for payroll are in place for all countries. As countries continue to evolve in terms of model and process, we need to ensure our contingency plans are up to date to adequately support this.

Another key initiative being worked on right now is our time and attendance/leave management landscape. Currently, we have quite a colourful mix of systems and processes globally, so there is a great opportunity to do a thorough review to determine how we can simplify this landscape and help to improve the manner in which we are feeding our payrolls with this crucial time and attendance data. Tied into this, of course, is the new ruling passed by the European Court when it ruled that companies in the EU must set up a system to record the hours of work of their employees.

The Court found that member states “must require employers to set up an objective, reliable, and accessible system enabling the duration of time worked each day by each worker to be measured.” This sets the need for us to conduct an overview of our current level of compliance in this area in order to bridge any gaps.


How can a payroll department provide support on a strategic level to corporate finance, human resources, and other departments?

Leveraging payroll data for analysis can be a huge asset. When you think of items such as pay gap reporting, this important topic is thankfully gaining momentum and critical to the organization’s values, employer brand, and employee proposition. I would put that in the strategic bracket, and to manage it correctly, you need actual pay data to do it—HR data may not cut it.

What are the value and limits to emerging technology, robotics, and AI in managing a global payroll?

There are, of course, great benefits to be gained from these new technologies when looking to standardize many of your payroll processes and operations across the globe. As mentioned previously, we need to ensure we equip and educate our payroll professionals accordingly.

However, in this tech-crazed world, an interesting trend is becoming apparent. It seems that as generations become more screen-obsessed and people seek out technology to ease their day-to-day work, the more we seek out ways to be human.

Take a recent study by Dell Technologies on Gen Z. They’re touted to be the ultimate digital native, exposed to screens practically from the moment they’re born. However, the study found that even they yearned for human interaction at work.

Yes, they do expect to work with cutting-edge technologies, but they still expect face-to-face human interaction at the office: 76% expect to learn on the job from co-workers, and 50% would prefer chatting with teammates in person instead of through messaging apps.

Hence, we need to move with a little caution. The more tools we have to connect with our colleagues, the more disconnected we feel.  

Organizations thus must balance between providing a digital-first work environment and ensuring the human element doesn’t get lost in the wires.


What if resistance to change/automation may be a cultural issue just presenting itself as resistance to change?

At a human resource development event, Sudakshina Ghosh, Senior Director HR, HR Head-Global Operations Business at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, shared her experience deploying an automated HR system.

“We wanted employees to be able to access everything that they wanted on their device, so they didn’t have to walk up to an HR operations person and ask for a letter or information,” Ghosh said. “But if you look at certain regions like Southeast Asia, Latin America, and pockets in Europe, there are a lot of cultural nuances where people are used to people. Employees do want to walk up to the HR/payroll person and have that conversation, so how do you tell (them) that you can now log on to the system and get all the details?”

That’s not to say that employees are averse to automation. They understand the merits of it, and most are optimistic about working in a digital-first environment.

A ServiceNow survey recently found that 82% of employees believe process automation has a positive effect on personal productivity. Greater use of technology, AI, and innovation in how we interact with employees and deliver service are indeed the latest trends that require attention. However, understanding the best use of these emerging trends is important so that impacts are carefully managed. 


Why and how did you become involved in payroll?

My story is probably familiar to most in payroll—I fell into the role!

Having returned from living in New York for five years, where I worked in the finance industry, I was lucky enough to secure a job in a shared services start-up company in Ireland. There I worked with a great mentor whom I partnered with to build an EMEA shared service center for payroll. Not only did this give me a great introduction to the world of payroll but also on an EMEA scale. Since then, my roles have varied, but always with one foot in the door of payroll. In recent years, I have been happy to find myself in the global payroll world.

Payroll touches every employee at every level and every function, routinely and consistently. Payroll is one of the most diverse and interesting functions in an organization.

What were some of your early career lessons?

Become a master in active listening and understanding, uncover root causes, and avoid Band-Aid or temporary solutions. Begin with the end in mind.

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Frank J. Mendelson is Acquisitions Editor for the Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI).