Surviving the New Normal Busy Season
Last year’s tax season was one for the history books. Take these lessons learned the hard way to make the upcoming busy season a success.
Endless hours, burning eyes, aching shoulders, clients who still can’t seem to get their paperwork to you before the week of the filing deadline: Tax season is closer than you think. How can you start preparing now?
“Every tax season is stressful, with the last two being exceptionally stressful due to COVID-related legislation, rules being issued on the fly, and the challenges of learning to function remotely. As far as the upcoming tax season, the primary stressor right now is uncertainty,” says former Illinois CPA Society Chairperson Geoff Harlow, CPA, a partner specializing in business and personal tax at Wipfli LLP in Lincolnshire, Ill.
“The unknown is always more stressful than the known,” says Neil Keller, CPA, tax partner at Sikich in Milwaukee. “We’re very confident that new tax law is coming. The problem is, we don’t know how it will look, when it will pass, or what time periods it will affect. And I don’t think many of us want another year of a nontraditional due date.”
With another busy season and unknown changes right around the corner, here’s how to get set for success, no matter what challenges await.
Keep Up With Change
Last-minute pandemic tax relief changes heightened stress last season, and research from the National Association of Tax Professionals (NATP) shows that many firms expect this to persist into the next busy season.
“Will tax legislation pass Congress before year-end? Will COVID be less of an issue in the coming six months? Will my current staff stay, and will I be able to add staff?” Harlow wonders. “It could be a more normal tax season, or it could be another nightmare.”
“The best sources for tax changes include updates from key members of Congress,” says Tom Kinder, CPA, managing partner in Plante Moran’s Chicago office. “News media, including traditional newspapers, social media, tax-specific publications, industry groups, and other sources, like accounting and law firms, are also worth following.” The AICPA also offers a tax season hub with subjects ranging from cryptocurrency compliance and contacting the IRS to state-by-state Paycheck Protection Program tax treatment and the Employee Retention Credit.
“I recommend reading everything you can lay your hands on, especially on COVID-related programs,” Harlow says. “A great resource is the continuing education offered by the Illinois CPA Society.”
In a time of rapid change, clients also need timely information. NATP’s research found that many tax preparers plan to include more information in e-newsletters and on their websites than they did prior to the pandemic.
But there’s reason to believe this tax season won’t be quite as hectic as last.
“As legislation takes shape, it appears that most changes will not take effect until 2022, with a few notable exceptions,” Kinder says. “This should make 2021 tax return preparations less complex than many fear. The direct impact of new tax changes is expected to be initially felt during year-end planning in late 2021, while the full impact of changes will be spread over the course of 2022.”
It wouldn’t be busy season without a time crunch and work overload. How can CPAs duck this double whammy?
To maximize your time, catch problems while they’re still small. “When I’m at my best, I’m able to be more efficient by addressing small items and issues—those that take less than two minutes—immediately so they don’t balloon into something larger,” says Damien Martin, CPA, partner with BKD CPAs and Advisors in Chicago.
Another timesaving move: Discuss filing extensions with clients as soon as possible. While this often just postpones the work until the fall, more time during busy season can be invaluable.
“Make it a goal to have all audit and year-end tax planning done by December 31, if not earlier,” Kinder adds. “Also, set expectations and timelines with clients. If the client won’t have materials ready for their audit or tax preparation at the agreed time, work with them to develop a realistic timeline that’s efficient and effective.”
Perhaps most importantly, weed out the clients who only compound the frustration and exhaustion of an already overwhelming busy season. “Consider firing that difficult client no one wants to work with,” Harlow advises.
“When I worked in national CPA firms, we always had this crazy, frantic, last-minute, all-night type of schedule,” says industry blogger Eva Rosenberg, EA, MBA. “In my own practice, I cut all clients off two weeks before the deadline. Period. Clients had to comply or go elsewhere. Try it next year. It works.”
NATP’s research found that 67 percent of firm owners
made no changes to their staffing levels last busy season in response to the COVID relief acts, though in hindsight they said they would’ve hired more staff given the season’s complexities. More firms plan to increase their staffing this busy season, but finding talented workers remains a major challenge.
Personal referrals and networking remain the best tools for finding new staff but focusing on your existing employees should always come first: Retention is a lot easier than replacement. “Do everything you can to retain the staff you already have,” Harlow says. “Paying more is one approach, but often overlooked is doing nice things that make them feel appreciated. Ask them what would make their lives better. Upgrade your internet and systems. Make sure they have the support they deserve.”
“In the short term, look to hire seasonal staff, and be creative with where you find them,” Kinder says. “For example, think about staff who left your firm or retired recently and ask yourself if they’d consider part-time or temporary work—especially if it could be remote.”
Recent research from ZipRecruiter found that 60 percent of workers
preferred a job that lets them work from home. After COVID made remote work commonplace, accounting firms can’t afford to enter busy season without work-from-home flexibility.
“The pandemic showed us that certain tasks can be completed remotely without a significant loss in effectiveness,” Kinder says. “But we know that working remotely isn’t the right answer for all situations or for relationship-building over the long term. At Plante Moran, we’re focused on a hybrid model that allows for added flexibility when appropriate, while developing our staff and serving our clients.”
The flexible work options that can attract and retain staff are more than a matter of policy: You need a solid IT infrastructure. “For many, including my firm, the remote desktop is identical to the one in the office. Remote staff are able to be just as productive and communicate just as easily as being in the office,” Harlow says. “If your firm can’t say the same, you should probably upgrade your systems and consider moving to cloud-based software.”
Firms must also focus on replicating the benefits of in-office connection to make remote work successful. “The flexibility of being able to work remotely can be great, but it’s not without its challenges,” Keller says. “You have to be very intentional with communication and collaboration since it often doesn’t happen as naturally as when everyone is in the same office. Employees need to err on the side of overcommunicating when working remotely.”
“Meeting people where they are in terms of their preferred mode of communication is essential to successful remote work,” Martin concludes.
And what about when those eyes do start burning while the IRS updates and client excuses won’t let up? Firms have long offered busy season perks—on-premises chefs, massages, childcare—but tax season veterans recommend actually stepping away from the workplace to recharge.
“For me, the best way to manage stress is to carve out time, even if only a few hours here and there, for things besides work,” Harlow says. “Have family dinners, go to a hockey game, follow your favorite college basketball team, work out when you can, have a date night with your significant other. And every once in a while, take an evening or weekend off. Many of us can get more work done in six days than in seven.”
Keller echoes this sentiment: “Find time in your day to take breaks. Schedule fun plans—especially with coworkers—to give you something to look forward to. This will help you recharge your batteries and clear your mind.”
Kinder notes that team camaraderie can lessen the stress and exhaustion of a long busy season. “In the past, we’ve held anything from happy hours and staff lunches to partner-prepared breakfasts and professional head and neck massages,” he says. “And when we can’t be together in an office, we look for other creative ways to build rapport, like virtual happy hours and online cooking parties.”
“Whether you’re in an office or working remotely, you need to find your stride,” Keller says. “That means finding a work setting and schedule that allows you to be as efficient and effective as possible. Tax season is a marathon and not a sprint, so find your stride to avoid burnout and stay productive.”
The upcoming busy season is bound to be challenging, but there’s still time to map out how to navigate it successfully. Ultimately, time is a tool if you use it correctly: In the short term you should use it to prepare for the coming busy season, and in the long term you should use it to keep perspective. After all, Kinder notes, “It’s important to remember that a busy tax season is a sign of a successful firm.”
Jeff Stimpson is a New York-based writer covering tax concerns for more than 20 years for various industry publications, including Accounting Today and Financial Advisor.