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How to go easier on staff during busy season

Written on Jan 12, 2023

By Andrew Kenney 

When he started working for a large accounting firm, Josh Lance, CPA, CGMA, knew that he might have to make personal sacrifices.  
 
At first, Lance recalled telling himself: “You’re an accountant, and you’re a CPA. You have a busy season, and you work crazy hours during that time. You do the work, and you want to be a team player.”  
 
Over time, though, he chose to try something radically new. Seven years ago, Lance founded his own firm in Chicago. And he decided it wouldn’t have a busy season.  

Today, the 40-hour week is the year-round standard at Lance CPA Group, making the 18-person firm a leader in the movement to unbusy the busy season.  
 
Across the United States, firms are abolishing requirements for high-hour workweeks. They’re using new time-tracking tools to help employees get more done in less time, finding new ways to distribute work among employees, and minimizing the busy-season surge by spreading work throughout the year.  

Not every firm can go as far as Lance, of course. But reforming the busy season is increasingly a necessity as the profession competes for talent, according to Suzanne Cox, CPA. 

“If you have happy people, you have happy clients. If you have no people, you have no clients,” said Cox, a shareholder leading the tax practice at Saltmarsh, Cleaveland and Gund, a large firm with offices in Florida and Tennessee.  
 
Changing the portfolio 

As he started his new firm, Lance hired staffers who shared his vision for a different type of firm, especially young parents. He embraced flexibility by offering fully remote jobs. But his loftiest goal — avoiding a busy-season surge — would mean redesigning the work of the firm itself. To that end, Lance focused on recruiting clients seeking client advisory services alongside the firm’s tax work.  

The goal was to find work that would repeat on a monthly, not yearly, basis. “[We’re] a firm that’s working with our client throughout the year, and [we’re] having a deeper relationship as a result,” he said. “We’re avoiding the surges that happen with tax season.”  

The firm still does plenty of returns, but only for clients who engage in other year-round work. It specializes in two niches: craft breweries and digital marketing agencies. Lance knows this type of overhaul isn’t feasible for every firm’s portfolio, but he suggested that leaders can do more to control their workflow. Rather than seeing themselves only as practitioners who will do whatever the client wants, he said, leaders should realize that they are business owners with the power to change how their organization operates. And, indeed, that’s a message firms of all stripes are taking up. 

Rearranging the schedule 

To reduce the stress and chaos of busy season, many firms are taking a more active hand in managing their tax clients. Often, they’re encouraging clients to either submit information early or file on extension. That allows them to complete more work in early winter, late spring, and beyond — instead of grinding through all returns in a limited period. “We communicate early and often that it’s only the earliest of the early birds who can expect their returns completed by April 15,” said Rodney Chandler, CPA, a partner at Smith Adcock, a firm based in Atlanta.  

“For the rest, extensions are a very real possibility.” The firm employs about three dozen people, with a specialty in construction clients. Originally, Smith Adcock used engagement letters to deliver the “early filing or extensions” message. But after realizing many clients didn’t read the letters that carefully, they tried something new: stickers. Each client annually receives paper organizers emblazoned with gold stickers that explain the March 1 deadline for on-time filing.  
 
Improving efficiency to beat “busy culture” 

Firms also are changing how they manage employees through the busy season. Working long hours may feel productive, but some leaders are realizing that the same work can be done in less time. “It’s about making sure that everybody’s working smarter, not harder. There is a point of diminishing returns,” said Erin Roche, CPA, CGMA, a tax planning and business strategy expert and a shareholder at Elliott CPA Group, a small firm based in Santa Rosa, Calif., that recently merged with BPM LLP, a large firm based in San Francisco.  

The goal is not to punish employees but to identify problems. For example, a staffer might be spending too much time in the weeds. “Don’t let yourself get lost on something when someone could help you course-correct,” Roche, as team leader, encourages employees. She tries to teach the difference between “good learning” and wasted time.  

Conversely, a deviation from the schedule also can reflect a bad assumption in management’s planning. To fix that, firms like Lance CPA Group are using software such as Excel and Karbon, a practice management software, to make more accurate schedules.  

Sharing the load  

Some employees are more willing — or more able — to take on heavy busy-season loads. 

So, instead of requiring every employee to work long hours, Smith Adcock has created incentives for those who can do so. “We do a purely mathematical tax season bonus,” Chandler said.  

The firm sets 38 as the weekly minimum number of hours. Employees who work hours beyond that number are paid at their salary’s hourly rate equivalent. They may accept the reward in cash or paid time off. “We expect the minimum, but we are rewarding you with this bonus,” Chandler said. “That sort of puts it in the staff member’s control over how big a bonus that they want — which lets them take all of their life circumstances into account.”  

Annual bonuses in this system range from $3,000 to $15,000 or more, he said. The system, which has been in place for many years, requires some oversight from management to ensure it’s not abused by people exaggerating the number of hours they’ve worked, but Chandler believes it has contributed to the firm’s “extremely low” turnover. Other firms also have found ways to ease employees’ workloads. Alloy Silverstein Accountants and Advisors, a firm of about 40 people in New Jersey, has invested in basic automation to scan forms and populate databases.  

Keeping staff engaged  

Despite efforts to reform, some firm leaders don’t think the busy season will be going away anytime soon. Some see positives in business that they would like to keep. Roche believes that, when properly managed, the season’s urgency and excitement can result in more engaged and experienced employees. She wants to continue to take on “interesting and complex work to give that good learning experience to the team members — without going into the mentality that we have to be at the beck and call of the client at any time of the day,” she said. Cox agrees.  

This article has been shortened in length. This article originally appeared in the Journal of Accountancy. ©2022 Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. All rights reserved. Used by permission.