If you ask any tax return preparer, the 2020 filing season was one for the record books. The last time I remember such impactful tax law changes so close to the end of the year was the Tax Relief Act of 2010, which resulted in a late start to filing season, forms not being released in software until February, and no one receiving their Master Tax Guide until Valentines Day. Sound familiar?
A late start to filing season always puts extra pressure on accountants. As if the condensed time with which we have to complete all our returns was not challenging enough, shaving off an extra week or two can throw a big wrench in a finely tuned processing system. Combined with the fact that most of us still have PTSD from last year when it seemed that we were caught in busy season stress for literally all of 2020, everyone’s morale needs a serious jump start.
Here are three critical, proactive considerations to help you and your team have a smooth and successful filing season this year despite the current environment:
- Prepare – not to sound facetious but there is a lot we can be doing to hit the ground running and not feel like we are living in a stress vice for the next couple of months. My experience has taught me that smaller firms may miss the little things they are actually in control of and can be working on now. Make sure your software is in place, and your firm understands how to use it. Training seems daunting and an easy place to save time once you start to get overwhelmed but do not give in to the temptation to skip it. Try to use live return data, even to proforma a prior year return, and documents to ensure everyone understands how to most efficiently use the software you have in place, including what the firm file structure is (i.e., where files should be saved and how work papers should be prepared). The best firms I worked for never missed an opportunity to develop their staff, no matter the workload.
- Digging into more technical preparation tactics, if your firm controls the preparation of 1099s, W-2s, and financial statements for clients, those are all items that can be finished and prepared well before the February 12th opening of the IRS e-file. Start preparing returns and work papers now. Having that data to enter can seriously improve your team’s training because you can course-correct where needed before trying to live file returns simultaneously. If you have the documents to substantially complete some of your returns, start sending out open items lists to clients, reviewing prepared returns, and even collecting 8879 signatures on the first few files ready to be released. Do not think of the February date as the starting line when the gun already went off.
- Healthy humans are efficient humans – accountants are among the most unhealthy professions on the planet. I remember catching up on doctor appointments every year at the end of tax season, only to hear that my blood pressure was higher yet again. Your team will take their lead from you, so make sure you manage your stress to the best of your ability if you want them to stay calm and focused. It is easy when under pressure to develop unhealthy habits like skipping breaks, not taking time for exercise, grab and go unhealthy food, and skipping sleep to get work done. The best thing you can do for your firm’s productivity is to create an environment where these so-called hacks are not encouraged. The real hacks encourage your team to make their self-care a top priority during times of high stress. Walk breaks can be encouraged, or schedule a yoga instructor to come in and lead a class for 30 minutes once a week. I have watched many firms buy bagels, pizza, and gallons of soda for their teams to try to make them feel loved and appreciated during the busy season. I remember carb crashing every afternoon and following it with three afternoon coffees until I drank 6-7 cups a day. Consider getting your team hydration bottles or if they work remotely, get them a gift card to their favorite take out and schedule a zoom lunch to connect. The best way to make your team feel appreciated is to make sure they know you care about them as humans and not as little tax return robots.
- Have a contingency plan – Filing extensions for every client probably is not the most efficient contingency plan. It does not always make for the happiest clients, and now you and your staff are prepping returns during summer vacations and back to school. If you are not able to expand your team, consider an outsourcing option or experienced contractors who can come in as needed. Whatever you choose to do, get those plans in place and onboarded now so you have an understanding of how your overflow will be managed once things start to get busier. Having a contingency plan will not make your stress disappear, but it can take just enough pressure off you and your team to make number 2 in this list a lot easier to achieve.
- Get a good handle on the CARES Act – this applies to your team and your clients. While we still have relatively little guidance on what will be required for these forms, we know certain information will be required. Update client organizer questions to include questions about their stimulus payments, PPP/EIDL loans, and payroll tax credits. Preemptively getting this information while collecting the rest of the return data will help eliminate back and forth with clients throughout the preparation process. Consider highlighting unemployment income documentation on your organizers to clients this year as well. Many taxpayers who may not have had this income in the past could forget to include these 1099s when sending over their tax return preparation.
- Pick your end-of-season prize now – What end-of-season prize, you ask? Having something to look forward to is basic human psychology to keep yourself, and your staff motivated. If you are picking something for the whole team, make sure you know what motivates them the most. End-of-season bonuses, virtual parties, or extra time off can all help give your staff something to look forward to as a thank you for their hard work. Pre-pandemic, I always booked a vacation in January for right after April 15th, and it kept me going through the stress because I knew on the other side was a week in the Caribbean. Absent travel, still consider ways you and your team can escape from the office for something incredibly restorative when the season is over.