How to go easier on staff during busy season

Many firms across the country have begun to abolish requirements for high-hour workweeks during busy season. Here’s how they are doing it.
By Andrew Kenney

IMAGES BY WACHARAPHORN PHETPRADUB/EYEEM/GETTY IMAGES
IMAGES BY WACHARAPHORN PHETPRADUB/EYEEM/GETTY IMAGES

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.

“People generally didn’t think it was possible,” he said. “I made it part of our mission to have that kind of flexibility for our work and have the ability to work normal hours throughout the year.”

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.

“It really helps our way of working. It ensures that our culture is working well, and we’ve gotten really good people as a result,” Lance said.

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.

She continued: “At the minimum, you have to do what staff expect. And what they expect is to not be killed, not be overworked, to have a decent work/ life balance.”

So, how can firms meet that expectation? Here’s how these leaders and others are trying to change the busy season — and how it’s working for them so far.

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.

“That gold sticker drives behavior. We see so many returns flood the office in the 10 days before that deadline,” Chandler said.

But when clients miss that deadline, it’s not a problem: They can always extend their tax returns, and half the firm’s returns are completed after the standard April date.

Of course, putting a client on extension does not eliminate all work. The tax must be paid, and the application for an automatic extension still must be completed by the original deadline. And the firm often must ease the client’s anxieties about delaying the rest of the filing.

“Part of it is expectations; part of it is making sure that clients feel like they’re not being ignored,” Chandler said.

“Even though you’re putting them on extension, if they have questions or they have concerns and they call or email, you respond to their calls or emails.”

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.

Roche continued: “When you’re asking somebody to work 16 hours a day, things tend to get sloppy.”

Just before the merger, the firm aimed to have employees work no more than 55 hours per week during the busy season, because more hours don’t seem to increase productivity. To keep that number from increasing, the firm keeps a sharp focus on how time is used.

“We’re giving our team feedback about how much time they spent on a particular project, versus how much time we expected them to spend,” Roche said. 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.

“We’re literally planning what returns we’re doing on each day and who’s doing it,” Lance said. The firm uses time-tracking data from its tax preparation software, along with other internal metrics, to predict how long each return will take. Lance’s tax manager works out a plan months in advance, allowing the firm to set individual schedules and assess its overall capacity.

“We don’t feel like we have to take on every client,” Lance said. “We know what we need to do in each of our departments, and we kind of plan against that.”

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.

“It sounds silly in 2022, but that’s still something firms don’t utilize,” said Chris Cicalese, CPA, associate partner at Alloy Silverstein. “A lot of firms might not be using technology to leverage their time in that way, and the technology itself has gotten really good.”

The firm also hires per diem employees to help during busy season. The key is to choose the right work for the right contractors, Cicalese said. Contractors who have previously worked for the firm may be able to work directly with clients, while others are better suited for simpler tasks.

“You have to be strategic in the work that you’re giving them,” Cicalese said. Other firms are using offshore workers in similar ways, he said, but Alloy Silverstein has not made that leap yet.

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. “I do think there’s a difference between having pressure and stress. I think high performers like pressure. You have to provide that opportunity for them to be challenged and driven,” she said.

Cicalese thinks that a busy season will still be required to serve many client bases. “Clearly, it’s working for some people, but I don’t think there’s one formula that works for everyone,” he said.

Even firms that have made headway still see a long road ahead. Cox and other partners at Saltmarsh are still working long hours themselves. But their busy-season reforms for lower-level employees have attracted a wave of young talent, she said — and that will eventually benefit the whole firm.

“Once we develop our people, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I do see relief for us in the future,” she said.

And when that relief arrives, it can be quite sweet. After 23 years at Smith Adcock, Rodney Chandler recently worked his first tax season without a 70-hour week — a change he “kind of liked, by the way,” he joked.


About the author

Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney L. Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.


AICPA RESOURCES

Articles

5 Steps to Managing Client Expectations,” JofA, May 13, 2022

Manage a Stressful Workload With Meditation,” CPA Insider, April 19, 2021

Podcast episodes

Burnout’s Telltale Signs and How Leaders Can Better Understand Them,” JofA, May 19, 2022

Why the Busy Season Debrief Has Value, and Why It’s Not Just for Tax Teams,” JofA, May 17, 2022


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