CPA INSIDER

How to be a great boss during busy season

Tips to help your employees power through when the going gets tough.
By Teri Saylor

When the busy tax season is at full throttle, public accountants across the country are racing against time to get their work completed by the tax deadline. With careful planning, a good imagination, hearty helpings of tasty snacks, and a little fun tossed in, managers can provide the support and encouragement their teams need to get to the finish line.

John Broadfoot, CPA, director of business development and marketing at Thomas, Judy & Tucker in Raleigh, N.C., describes the busy season as a marathon rather than a sprint, and encourages his staff to pace themselves to avoid burnout. His firm uses strategic planning techniques, such as setting priorities, calling on experiences from prior years to predict current workflows, and controlling the number of hours employees work each week to help avoid exhaustion too early in the season.

"If we sprint right out of the starting gate in January, we won't make it until April before running out of gas," he said.

DeAnn Hill, CPA, owner of DeAnn Auman Hill, CPA of Baxter Springs, Kan., acknowledges that busy seasons are fraught with tough deadlines at a time when many factors are out of your control. To help alleviate the stress that comes with managing those deadlines, she closely monitors her firm's consulting and tax processes, and she does it mostly the old-fashioned way: on an Excel spreadsheet she designed 30 years ago. It provides a "five-second, at-a-glance" look in to the status of the process. Of course, the firm uses other software that is more detailed, but this is what lets her sleep at night.

The team meets weekly to monitor how the workload is trending compared to previous years. If they start to fall behind, everyone bumps up his or her hours a bit to catch up, keeping individual employees from accumulating significant overtime.

"This helps us keep pace, and we always know where we are in the process," she said.

Managing processes is just one way managers can help employees make it through their busiest time of the year. Here are a few other examples from our experts on how they support their staff when the going gets tough.

Invest in time-saving software. When it comes to controlling workflow, Kevin Gienger, CPA, turns to project management software XCM. Gienger is the managing partner of Boldt Carlisle + Smith, an Oregon CPA firm with offices in Salem, Stayton, and Albany. Even though employees are spread out over three cities, the software keeps them well-informed and tightly knit, as though they were working together in the same office. The software provides real-time information, helps with ongoing status reports, identifies stale projects, and fosters teamwork by identifying areas where staff may be struggling and where others can step in to help.

"Everyone is keyed into each other's work, and using the software, we can continuously measure our workflow," he said.

Help employees control their hours. At Thomas, Judy & Tucker, employees are not expected to work unlimited numbers of hours during busy season and are given flexibility to allocate their time, based on their workflow, according to Broadfoot. Employees are strongly encouraged to work no more than 60 hours in a single week and to take at least one day off per week, usually Sunday, he said, adding that firm staff are encouraged to work less than 12 hours in a day.

The firm's management team pays close attention to time sheets, counsels staff on ways to rein in their time by helping them set priorities, and helps manage client demands. Employees are also encouraged to ask for help when they are overloaded.

Provide quiet time. Designating a few hours each week for staff to devote to catching up on paperwork without interruptions goes a long way toward employee satisfaction at Boldt Carlisle + Smith, Gienger said. They can put their phones in "do-not-disturb" mode, close their office doors, or block time on the office calendar to signal to others they are using their personal time to focus on complex clients and work toward making their deadlines.

"Allowing our employees to set aside two-hour blocks of time three times a week to focus on things that require concentration is a way we help them manage their time," Gienger said. "It's a huge morale booster."

Offer perks and rewards. At Thomas, Judy & Tucker, managers keep the food flowing during busy season, according to Broadfoot.

"It's universal knowledge that CPAs love to eat," he said. The firm caters lunch on Wednesdays and breakfast on Fridays and Saturdays, and provides milkshakes on random afternoons.

Boldt Carlisle + Smith treats employees to weekly lunches, where they can decompress, socialize, and play games. "We vary the menu each week and encourage the staff to suggest their favorite food items," Gienger said.

Help employees maintain a healthy lifestyle. Healthy snacks, such as fruit and energy bars, are often on the menu for employees at Boldt Carlisle + Smith, according to Gienger. The firm also gives the staff flexibility to request office equipment that would encourage a healthy work environment, and some have asked for standing desks. "During busy season, we bring in a local chiropractor to provide 15-minute neck massages, and employees can count it as a free break," he said.

Have some fun. Sure, tax season is a stressful time, but it's OK to have some fun to take the edge off. Broadfoot likes to stage an annual Easter egg hunt, with big payoffs. "During Easter weekend, I hide Easter eggs. Some of them are filled with candy, but some are 'golden' eggs containing $20 gift cards," he said.

Offer flexible schedules. Despite this deadline-heavy time of year, a little flexibility goes a long way to mitigate stress. Every year, Hill gives her employees a bank of hours they can use for personal time, even during the busy season, and they share their calendars to keep up with each other's schedules and to foster teamwork.

Gienger also gives his staff the personal time they need to enjoy activities with friends and family and pursue outside interests.

"We give people the flexibility to go for walks each day for a breath of fresh air or leave work early. Our staff can always log in from home if they need to," he said. "Life doesn't stop for busy season."

Editor's note: The AICPA has a downloadable calendar of ideas on ways your staff might inject a little fun into your busy season activities and all year long.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.  To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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