CPA INSIDER

How the 2021 busy season is different

Two firms explain how they are practicing flexibility and understanding this busy season.
By Kelly Hinchcliffe

Across the country, some accounting firms prepared for the 2021 busy season by staffing up and offering more flexible work options for employees who are dealing with family issues during the pandemic.

But navigating business needs amid employees' personal needs during an ongoing pandemic has proved to be challenging.

Liz Mason, CPA, knows that difficult balance well.

As a mother of a young child and CEO and founder of High Rock Accounting in Scottsdale, Ariz., she began preparing her staff last year for the early 2021 rush.

"I had a team meeting where I basically told the team, 'Look, this year sucks,'" said Mason. "We are living through the weirdest year anyone's ever had to deal with, and many of us have young children at home."

Extra hurdles for women

Studies show working women, like Mason, have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, especially mothers, senior-level women, and Black women.

The annual Women in the Workplace study from LeanIn.org and consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that at least a quarter of women have considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. More than 300 companies employing more than 12 million people were included in the study.

At her accounting firm, Mason took steps to try to ease the pressure on her staff as best she could.

Mason's 25-person team primarily handles accounting work for the technology and cannabis industries. They spent the final months of 2020 "buckling down and really being cognizant of where we're spending time," she said, so they could get caught up and focus on the coming busy season.

Mason understands the importance of flexible schedules, especially for people with children. She has needed that flexibility herself. 

Last summer, she retreated to her parents' home out of state for a month so they could watch her 4-year-old son during the day while she worked. Without their help, she was struggling to run her business and entertain her son without putting him in front of the TV all day. But sometimes, screen time was necessary.

"For client meetings, I put on his favorite movie and hoped he didn't come in with no pants on," Mason said. "It's awkward and hysterical but also really difficult to manage."

After getting her son to bed each night, Mason logged back onto her computer, often working from 8 p.m. until 1 or 2 the next morning. She slept maybe four or five hours a night. 

"My days didn't really end," she said.

Taking and giving flexibility

Christie Huck is another High Rock staffer who has needed some flexibility. Inside her home office, Huck sits steps away from her children as she works. Like many parents struggling through the pandemic, she juggles business calls, work deadlines, and virtual school for her son, 13, and daughter, 7.

It's tough to manage it all some days, she said, but it's even tougher to manage the guilt.

"There's a lot of guilt for not spending time with them, because they're here but I'm not actually paying any attention to them," said Huck, an enrolled agent and accounting and tax specialist.

Other staff members at High Rock have been dealing with similar situations. Some have shifted schedules to work early in the morning or late at night. Others take a couple hours off in the middle of the day to help their kids with virtual school.

Despite the difficult circumstances that constantly blur her work and family life, Huck is grateful to have a job and the ability to work from home. But she knows her work is even more demanding in the first quarter of the year — a busy time for accounting professionals — so she tries to work ahead as much as possible.

At Kollath CPA in Madison, Wis., employees worked remotely before the pandemic, but in 2020 the company allowed even more flexibility with schedules.

"We allow work to be done around the employee's schedule rather than a normal workday," said Chris Flessert, the company's human resource services manager. "People know they have to be responsible and get the work done."

Preparing for the busy season

One of the best ways to handle the busy season is to prepare months ahead of time, according to Flessert.

To prepare for this year's busy season, Kollath leaders began scouting interns last June and July through virtual job fairs. They prefer paid interns instead of seasonal help because the latter can be hard to find. Interns require more hands-on training, but company leaders see it as investment in the future.

"That's kind of our pipeline into hiring," said Flessert. "When they graduate, maybe they'll come back to us."

Kollath's interns do simple tax returns and enter data into a tax system so more experienced accountants can handle more complicated returns.

At High Rock Accounting, Mason and her business partner Melissa Diaz, CPA, take a different approach. They typically hire interns but decided not to in 2020 because they have found it difficult to train people remotely. They also found that some previous interns were not mature enough to work from home.

For 2021, they focused on the emotional health of their employees and tried to add more full-time staff for the busy season.

"We're making all these plans and hiring decisions based on at least staying the same size if not growing a little bit, and that's scary, because we have no idea what's going to happen with the economy," said Mason.

All the uncertainty has been hard on CPA firms as well as employees. The emotional strain on staff has been more of a challenge than they expected, especially due to childcare issues during a pandemic, said Diaz, High Rock's CFO.

"Don't overlook the emotional strain. Your employees are likely under more strain than you might think," she said.

To cope, the High Rock team hosts one-on-one virtual calls to check in with one another and offer help. One staff member has been sending her colleagues deliveries of treats, including an ice cream cake to Christie Huck's house.

"I ate the whole thing. Why not?" Huck laughed.

When another High Rock staffer ran out of toilet paper at home, a colleague drove by and tossed some out the car window. Gestures like those have been helping the team stay motivated as they approach the busy season.

Kelly Hinchcliffe 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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