The Paciolian Calendar: Accounting’s new year

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One of the more comforting aspects of the calendar is its seeming immutability — day follows day, month follows month, and season follows season in the same perpetual order that has held for what seems like forever, and we can regulate our activities accordingly, confident that everyone else will do the same.

And yet, calendars can change. They are almost entirely arbitrary structures, and can be bent to our individual needs. This should be particularly clear to that handful of professions that overlay their own sub-calendars on the main calendar — teachers, for instance, with their school year that crosses calendar years, their long summer breaks, and their semesters of varying length, should understand that calendars are mutable.

So should accountants.

However, the profession’s year — the Herculean efforts of the manic first quarter of non-stop tax madness, the generally slow summers, and then the several-month build-up to face tax season again — has been the norm for so long that it may seem a permanent structure, handed down from the mists of accounting’s past. It is, however, a fairly recent construction, and, perhaps more important, it looks very likely to change in the near future.

Leave aside the fact that that year is largely determined by the April 15 due date for federal taxes (it has only been that since 1955; prior to which it was in March), and let’s look instead at how it’s changing.

While no one expects tax season to stop being hectic, more and more practices are looking to make it less so, using technology, outsourcing and extensions to reduce the burden during February, March and April. The desire to make those months less painful for staff, coupled with the Internal Revenue Service’s decision a decade or so ago to concentrate all extensions on October 15, has created a “mini-tax season” in September and October that is a far more prominent part of accountants’ years than it used to be.

At the same time, while many firms are making a point of giving their staff regular time off in the summer — half-day Fridays, for instance, or closing the office every other Friday — they have also been working hard to keep them busy in the months after April 15. New service lines that can be offered at any point in the year are helping firms spread their revenue more evenly, and make the most of their staff’s previous downtime. As the profession streamlines and de-emphasizes its traditional compliance services, and moves more toward higher-value-added advisory services, this shift of more work to the summer months can only continue. After all, a true trusted advisor can’t leave a client question unanswered for weeks just because it’s tax time.

Overall, these changes will mean a work year that looks more like those of the average business, with the workload more rationally allocated across 52 weeks. There will still be heavier periods — but they will be less heavy than before (if only because newer generations won’t put up with that) — and there will still be slower periods, but they won’t be as slow.

Firms should embrace this newer, more “normal” calendar wholeheartedly; it will fight workload compression and burnout, enhance retention and staff engagement, offer better service to clients, and both boost revenue opportunities and spread cash flow out more evenly across the year.

It won’t even require buying new calendars — just thinking differently about the old ones.

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