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Managing payroll costs through compensation and benefit strategies

Payroll costs are ballooning out of control, with the official cost of commonwealth public service wages in Australia primed to explode by up to $9 billion a year.

Managing payroll costs through compensation and benefit strategies

At the same time, wage growth hit a 14-year high in early 2023 across the economy.

CFOs face immense pressure to control rapidly rising labour spend while retaining top talent. Soaring wages and worker demand make payroll a tough act to juggle.

However, strategic adjustments to compensation and benefits programs can provide a path forward. Thinking outside the box with pay, bonuses, and perks lets finance folks be smart with spending while getting the right hires.

Learn how to attract and keep top talent by improving pay and benefits, even in this competitive market. Balancing employee satisfaction and the bottom line is tough but achievable through compensation strategy fine-tuning. Read on to learn practical tips for tackling this pressing CFO challenge.

Understanding payroll costs

Payroll costs go far beyond the base salary you advertise on job postings. As a CFO or HR professional, understanding the breakdown is crucial for making informed decisions about your workforce budget. Let’s dissect the different components:

Understanding payroll costs

Direct costs:

  • Base salary: The fixed amount an employee salary receives regularly, usually per month or year.
  • Overtime: Pay period for hourly rate worked beyond standard schedules, often at a premium rate.
  • Bonuses: Performance-based rewards, usually paid annually or quarterly.
  • Commissions: Sales-based incentives linked to achieving specific targets.

Indirect costs:

  • Benefits: Contributions towards insurance, retirement plans, and other employee work-life balance programs.
  • Taxes: Employer-paid portions of payroll taxes, including Social Security and Medicare.
  • Administrative fees: Costs associated with processing payroll, either internally or through external providers.

How to control payroll costs

Now that you understand the breakdown, let’s explore areas for potential cost control:

  • Base salary: Conduct regular annual salary reviews based on performance and market trends, not just inflation. Learn more about Salaries and Wages: Your Comprehensive Guide
  • Overtime: Implement clear overtime policies and encourage efficient work practices to reduce unnecessary overtime.
  • Bonuses: Tie bonuses to measurable performance goals and communicate expectations.
  • Commissions: Review commission structures to ensure they align with sales goals and efficiency.
  • Benefits: Evaluate benefit implementation and explore cost-sharing options with employees or switch to more cost-effective plans. Learn more about Employee Benefits: A Guide to Australian Entitlements
  • Taxes: Stay informed about tax law changes and use tax credits and deductions available to your business.
  • Administrative fees: Compare payroll service providers and negotiate fees based on your company’s needs.

Remember, cost control doesn’t always mean cutting corners. Making smart changes to your payroll system can keep costs in check while creating a great work environment that attracts and keeps top talent.

Compensation strategies for cost control

Controlling payroll costs without sacrificing talent requires strategic thinking. Let’s dive into key compensation strategies that can help you achieve this delicate balance:

Compensation strategies for cost control

1. Fixed vs. Variable pay:

  • Fixed salaries: Pros: Predictable costs, fosters stability and security for employees. Cons: Limited motivation for exceeding expectations, can become stale over time. Cost Control: Best for roles with consistent output and minimal performance flexibility.
  • Variable pay (Commissions, Bonuses): 

Pros: Strong performance motivation, aligns employee rewards with company goals.

Cons: Can create income fluctuation for staff members, potential for internal competition. Cost Control: Best for roles with a direct impact on sales or revenue generation, where clear performance measurement is possible.


  • Hybrid approach: Combine base salary with performance-based incentives to provide stability and motivate high performance.
  • Match approach to role: Tailor the compensation mix to the specific requirements and impact of each role.

2. Salary structuring:

  • Flat increases: Pros: Easy to administer, promotes equity. Cons: Limited recognition for high performers, can demotivate top talent. Impact: Neutral to negative on morale, potentially increases attrition among high performers.
  • Merit-based adjustments: Pros: Rewards individual performance, motivates improvement. Cons: Requires robust performance evaluation system, potential for bias. Impact: Positive on morale for high performers, potentially negative for low performers.
  • Skill-based pay differentials: Pros: Rewards valuable skills and experience, attracts and retains specific talent. Cons: Can create perceived inequity, and requires clear skill evaluation criteria. Impact: Positive on morale for employees with valued skills, requires careful communication.


  • Multi-pronged approach: Reward based on performance, skills, and company goals.
  • Transparency & communication: Communicate the rationale behind salary decisions to encourage employee trust and understanding.

3. Incentive programs:

  • Design with budget constraints: Set clear performance targets and link rewards to achievable goals. Consider non-cash incentives like extra vacation days or recognition programs.
  • Target desired behaviours: Design incentives that align with company objectives, such as customer satisfaction or cost reduction. Consider team-based incentives to foster collaboration.

Non-monetary incentives:

  • Public recognition: Highlight top performers in company communications or award ceremonies.
  • Professional development opportunities: Offer training, conferences, or mentorship programs to increase employee skills and value in the long term.
  • Flexible work arrangements: Choose remote work, flex your hours, or compress your week.

The key to effective cost control lies in strategic design and clear communication. Cut costs and keep your team thriving with these strategies that address their needs.

Benefit strategies for managing pay costs

Payroll management costs and benefits often get overlooked. But with the right approach, you can turn them from a cost centre into a strategic advantage. Let’s explore some key benefit strategies to keep your wallet happy and your employees working healthy:

Benefit strategies for managing pay costs

1. Reviewing benefit offerings:

  • Evaluate implementation: Not all benefits are equally implemented. Conduct surveys or claims data insight to understand which benefits see the most use and evaluate their cost-effectiveness.
  • Consider alternatives: Research cost-sharing options for high-implementation benefits like insurance. Explore alternative providers or plan designs that offer similar coverage at lower costs.
  • Eliminate redundancies: Do certain benefits overlap or offer diminishing returns? Consider collecting similar benefits or offering opt-out options for specific groups.

Cost control doesn’t have to mean cutting vital benefits. Be transparent with employees about changes and communicate the rationale behind your decisions.

2. Employee wellness programs:

  • Preventative approach: Gym memberships and wellness checks can help prevent issues and keep costs down.
  • Measurable ROI: Track program participation, wellness implementation data, and employee satisfaction to demonstrate the return on investment in wellness initiatives.

Example: Companies that invest in employee wellness programs can save money on wellness costs. A study showed that for every $1 spent on a program, employers saved an average of $3.27 on wellness care.

3. Flexible benefits:

  • Empowerment & choice: More choices mean employees can find the right benefits for them. This can lower overall costs by reducing premium subsidies for rarely used benefits.
  • Tailored options: Give people plans with more or less coverage at different prices, or let them add things like dependent care or pet insurance.

By implementing these strategies, you can achieve a balanced approach to managing benefits and costs:

  • Reduce unnecessary expenses without compromising employee well-being and mental health.
  • Empower team members to make informed choices about their health and finances.
  • Demonstrate your commitment to their overall well-being and satisfaction.

Payroll technology and automation

In the modern era, manual payroll processes are simply not sustainable. They’re prone to errors, time-consuming, and ultimately lead to higher administrative costs. Fortunately, modern technology offers a solution: automation. With the right software, you can easily run payroll, avoid mistakes, and save time and money.

Payroll technology and automation

Streamlined efficiency

  • Seamless time tracking: Skip manual data entry – apps track time automatically.
  • Automated calculations: Payroll software automatically handles taxes, deductions, and overtime, keeping you accurate and compliant.
  • Instant paystubs and tax forms: Employees access paystubs and tax documents digitally, reducing paper waste and simplifying recordkeeping.
  • Automated tax filing: Your tax forms can now be auto-magically submitted to the ATO. This saves time and helps reduce the chance of mistakes that could lead to penalties.

Specific tools

  • Time and attendance softwareStreamline time tracking, capture project hours, and auto-generate payroll-ready timesheets.
  • Payroll softwareIntegrate timekeeping data with payroll calculations, manage taxes and deductions, and facilitate direct deposits or paychecks.
  • HR management platformsCombine payroll functionalities with employee onboarding, benefits administration, and performance management in one integrated system.

The ROI is real

Payroll tech can save businesses bucks! Studies say it can cut costs by as much as 20%. How? By making things faster, fewer mistakes, and easier to follow the rules.

Additionally, improved employee satisfaction and reduced administrative burden can positively impact your company’s overall productivity and morale.

Technology is not a silver bullet. Choose solutions that integrate seamlessly with your existing systems and consider the needs of your specific workforce.

Key takeaways

Balancing payroll costs and employee talent isn’t magic, it’s strategy. Here’s your cheat sheet:


  • Mix it up: Tailor fixed vs. variable pay to roles and performance goals.
  • Go beyond flat: Merit-based adjustments and skill differentials reward valuable individual employees.
  • Reward wisely: Set clear goals and consider non-monetary rewards.


  • Review regularly: Examine cost-effectiveness and explore alternatives.
  • Invest in wellness: The ROI can significantly reduce wellness costs.
  • Offer flexibility: Empower employees to choose plans that meet their needs.


  • Embrace automation: Timekeeping software, tax filing solutions, and self-service portals streamline processes and reduce errors.
  • Integrate seamlessly: Choose solutions that fit your workforce and systems.

Action steps for CFOs:

  1. Evaluate: Identify cost-saving opportunities across all components.
  2. Plan: Develop a plan aligned with your company culture and workforce needs.
  3. Evaluate: Study benefits implementation and explore alternative plans or flexible options.
  4. Automate: Invest in technology solutions that address specific pain points.
  5. Communicate: Keep employees informed about changes and their rationale.
  6. Measure: Track the impact of your strategies on costs, employee satisfaction, and overall business performance.

A happy and productive workforce is a cost-effective workforce. Implement these strategies and leverage technology to create a win-win situation for both your company and your employees.