Preparers combat seasonal stresses
Busy season isn’t getting less busy. And with the impact of a later start, deadline switches, and tighter compliance requirements, the need to keep employees engaged and less prone to stress is paramount.
But it shouldn’t fill practitioners with dread, according to Roger Harris, president of Padgett Business Services. “If you’re a retailer, this is Christmas, if you’re a florist, this is Valentine’s Day. And if you’re a tax preparer, you’ve got your busy season. If you’re not busy during tax season, then you’re in the wrong business. You’ve got to learn how to manage it.”
“It’s inevitable that the stress gets to tax preparers, especially the Millennials,” said Dawn Brolin, CPA-in-Residence at The Neat Company and CEO of Powerful Accounting. “The work ethic and commitment necessary during tax season can be a shocker to young people. There’s no way to explain it to them or prepare them until they actually experience it. We just had a young Millennial leave in the middle of February. It was his third season with us, but he just decided it wasn’t for him. Luckily, I have an 18-year-old daughter who was able to step up and fill the position.”
And it’s not just younger preparers that find it harder to cope with busy season, Brolin noted: “Two new taxpayers came in last week whose preparer announced that he was finished. His clients are scrambling, looking for a preparer. We’re already overloaded but we’ll take them on and put them on extension. In the last month we’ve brought in at least 30 new clients from burned-out preparers.”
The switch in entity filing deadlines has put added pressure on staff, according to Brolin. “The deadline switch [from March to April for corporations, and from April to March for partnerships and S corporations] makes sense, but it places pressure to produce in six weeks what used to take several months. We put all entities on extension on February 1 so we wouldn’t run the risk of missing someone at the last minute. That relieved a lot of stress because of late filing penalties alone.”
“Tax season used to be three months long,” noted Chuck McCabe, president of Peoples Income Tax. “Now it’s only two months long. Forms come in later, e-filing begins later, and clients come in later. Fraudulent returns and the possibility of ID theft have added to the pressure. Clients are a little more stressed because they know their refunds will not be coming in as quickly as they have in the past. It affects us as preparers because we want what’s best for our clients.”
Firms address the need to build team relationships and reduce stress in varied ways. Norfolk, Va.-based Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer emphasizes engaging their employees to help keep their team productive and retain them for the long haul, according to employee engagement and recruiting manager Sarah Taylor.
To keep employees motivated during the March 15 deadline switch week, WEC held its first ever WEC Spirit Week.
“We kicked the week off on the Saturday prior to that date with a ‘Pajama Day’ to make working on a Saturday a little more enjoyable,” Taylor explained. “On Monday, we surprised our team with a ‘punny’ goodie bag and the next day celebrated ‘Pi Day’ with pizzas and pies. Later in the week we scheduled a BBQ luncheon, a ‘lunch and learn’ on healthy eating, and a surprise in-office happy hour that included adult beverages, trivia and games.”
“Our Spirit Week is just one of many engagement activities and perks provided to our employees,” Taylor noted. “We also provide in-house massages twice a week, during tax season; host semi-regular pop-up happy hours; facilitate a mentoring program aimed at the personal and professional development of all employees; throw parties to celebrate the end of tax season, the October 15 deadline and the holidays; and offer flexible hours and scheduling as well as five weeks of PTO and shortened summer work weeks to promote work-life balance.”
The firm also has a robust incentive program that rewards employees for performance, employee referrals, CPA licensure, and participation in social media, according to Taylor.
“We’re always looking to go bigger and better,” she said. “We’re in the process of working on a comprehensive work anniversary celebration package, which will allow employees to select a big-ticket item or experience of their choice when they reach a milestone anniversary.”
Among the rewards will be weekend getaways, week-long cruises, tickets to a Redskins game, “or any other pro sport of their choice.”
It is generally left up to the individual as to whether they work on a Saturday or not, according to Taylor: “We don’t have mandatory hours. How they plan their workload is up to them. Some come in at 5 or 6 a.m., others stay very late and some work both Saturdays and Sundays.”
An Accounting Today poll of 800 accountants and tax professionals taken at the end of 2016 found that 41 percent of firms require their staff to work on Saturdays during tax season. The number varies according to the size of the firm, with 33.4 percent of small firms requiring staff to work on Saturdays compared to 49.6 percent for midsized firms and 46.8 percent of large firms.
“Most of our people come in on Saturdays,” said Margaret Amsden, a shareholder and director of tax at Clayton & McKervey. “We have optional Saturdays. Our focus is that everyone is a professional and we all have personal commitments. Our focus is on meeting deadlines in a way that fits in with our schedule, so if that means working later during the week and less on Saturdays, that is totally acceptable.”
“While deadlines have always been a source of stress, more people are getting used to the idea of getting an extension,” Amsden observed. “That has reduced filing season stress, as has technology. There are so many more things that can be done paperlessly than you could do with a hard copy. There’s less urgency in meeting someone face-to-face just to get a piece of paper signed.”
The Michigan-based firm provides a concierge service to help make busy season less hectic for staff. “The concierge will look after your car, get it washed, take it to the repair shop, run to the dry cleaners or pick up groceries — anything within a reasonable distance,” she said. “We also bring in a masseuse for a half-hour massage for anyone who wants one. Appointments get filled up quickly. The masseuse takes as many as there are room for appointments.”
“And of course, we feed them very well,” Amsden added. “We do dinner one night a week, and breakfast and lunch on weekends. We have a health initiative now — we make healthy smoothies that everyone likes for breakfast. The point is to help people make it through a stressful time and not have to eat just potato chips — although we have those too!”
Then there are the intangibles, she said. “We walk around and talk to staff and make sure they understand that we’re in it with them and support them. I learned a long time ago that if you’re leading a team and everything is frazzled and out of control, it tends to permeate the entire team. So our leadership group works very hard to keep things calm and under control.”
“It works — I’m amazed at how everyone is still joking around and smiling and having a good time because of the feeling that everyone is in it together,” said Denise Asker, Clayton & McKervey’s director of marketing.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
A number of accountants in Powerful Accounting work remotely, from Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., Brolin noted. “We use Slack to communicate with each other,” she said. “It allows the remote workers to still feel that they’re part of the office. And we have a weekly meeting on GoToMeeting so everyone can hear each other’s voices and be updated on what’s going on.”
“It’s important for the team to have something to look forward to at the end of tax season,” Brolin said. When tax season is over, salary team members are rewarded with “no-day Fridays,” Brolin said. “We work Monday through Thursday for 10 hours a day and have three-day weekends the rest of the year. And we go on a charter cruise — last year to Block Island, and this year to Long Island.”
The firm does returns for clients around the country, Brolin indicated, some of whom she’s never met. For clients who come in in person, she tries to make it a fun experience. “We love to listen to their stories,” she said. “We offer them snacks and drinks, and send them home with a T-shirt. And whether they’re brand-new or have been with us for 18 years, everyone gets a hug.”
Padgett tells its office workers to stay organized and give themselves free time, Harris indicated. “We tell franchise owners to make themselves and their family a priority. When you give an extra hour to clients, you’re taking away from your family.”
Harris recommends giving clients a deadline for things the client needs to do. “If you set the rules, clients will try to comply, but if you leave it open-ended, it won’t be as important to them as it needs to be. Lock the door at a certain hour, and don’t let anyone stop by ‘just to drop something off,’” he said.
The staff at Peoples Tax get 15-minute breaks, which many use to walk outside and socialize with other members of the team. “Some use the break to go outside and smoke,” McCabe said. “We don’t encourage that, but most offices are smoke-free, and people who smoke get stressed out when they can’t smoke. It’s a personal issue, but it impacts the workplace. Others use the break to listen to music at their desks.”
“Just being able to help people together builds team spirit and helps to relieve stress,” observed Sheila Clark, director of operations at Peoples Income Tax. ”When they appreciate us for helping them deal with a situation that they couldn’t understand, it makes you feel good. And often we’re a sounding board for them — sometimes they don’t have anyone else to talk to and they really appreciate you being there for them.”
“As a team, we try to find something every day to laugh with or laugh about in our job,” she said. “Clients are often the best source for this.”