[IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]For accountants, “crunch time” comes around every year, from February to April and then again from June to September.

As deadlines loom, stress spikes. The work week becomes the work month or, in fact, months. More than any other single factor, long hours and the resulting burnout often drive people out of tax accounting. Are eight-day weeks inevitable at certain times of the year?  Is there a better way?

Yes is the answer to both questions. So long as the U.S. tax code remains some 72,536 pages long, not to mention the spiraling complexity of foreign tax codes that global companies must confront, 60-, 70-, and even 80- hour work weeks are not likely to end.

At the same time, steps can be taken to ease the pain of the inevitable backlogs in early spring and late summer. It is time to put more of our practical intelligence to work to find solutions to the malady of overwork and burnout.

Today, virtually every company relies to some degree on temporary workers in peak season. However, paying more attention to how that hiring happens can make a big difference, and the process should focus as much on when to staff up as with whom. By the month prior to busy season, temporary support should be in-house, up-to-speed on processes and procedures, software, and all the other details of working for your company. Leaving too little time for the learning curves of your contingent staff will only cost lost time later on. 

In order to ensure that the right team is in place as financial statements begin to be released and the pace of work begins to accelerate, hiring for the year should begin, in fact, the year before. For permanent staff, that should be mid-April, as soon as the filing deadline has passed, and for temporary workers, the search should begin by mid-October.

It’s imperative to also know who to hire. Discovering in March that your contract accountant is not equipped to complete an international return could be a recipe for disaster. Companies should know what they need upfront, or work with a staffing partner who can help ask the right questions to match skills to predictable demands, because a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring rarely works.

With a team in place, the next critical step is obtaining the coin of the tax accountancy realm —information. And the best way to avoid a backlog in the preparation process is to build in time to develop or obtain that data. If you are an accounting firm, incentivize your clients with discounts to provide materials before a certain date. If you’re filing for your company, make it a priority to collaborate with your audit team early – assess what caused backlogs the previous year, and make sure the same issues don’t cause delays again and again.

Managing peak season successfully is also about what happens throughout the rest of the year. Smart leaders know the value of sustaining their best people by treating them well—all the time. Every employee who stays for one more crunch time is one less learning curve to draw. The chance to work from home a few days a week, for example, particularly in slow season, is flexibility that generates loyalty. Time off during slow seasons also boosts productivity when it counts most. A generous vacation policy—and truly encouraging employees to take their down time—will help ensure that batteries are fully charged. Off- peak season can also be a chance to plan team building off-sites, including volunteer work in the local community, which can generate good vibes that ripple all year long.

Planning for tax season is not an exact science. There is no rule book. Amid the unpredictability of the peak season, things will fly around the room, but the intensity of work and staff morale will depend, in sum, on three fundamentals:

• When to hire temporary staff is as important as whom to hire. Have the team in place well before the New Year.

• Who you hire does matter. Match skills to expected challenges.

• Information is indispensable. Take action early to ensure that your teams have what they need to get the work done. 

In accounting, sooner or later there will be a lot of balls in the air. Whether a company fields them frantically—or with finesse—depends on embracing a higher level of planning.

Cory Baker and Myles McGorman are executive recruiters with Accounting Principals.

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