The COVID-19 outbreak has drastically changed business operations for companies across the world, accounting firms included. Accounting leaders are not only being tasked with keeping their employees safe under extreme circumstances, but also keeping pace with client asks, changing deadlines, and tax laws.
While many accounting professionals may be grateful for the tax deadline extension, it does bring new challenges. Managers have the added pressure of maintaining profitability and budget at a time when parts of the economy are shut down. Accountants, many of whom are now working from home or in offices with reduced staff, are struggling with time management and productivity. For those with families who are now responsible for childcare and homeschooling, finding focused time to work is even harder. And, to top it off, there is even more work to be done due to re-budgeting or staffing constraints. Week by week, leaders are spending more time reassessing their budgets and plans because of ever-changing business needs.
So, what can accounting firm leaders do to support their teams during the elongated tax season to make sure they stay sane and productive?
Be Patient and Adaptable: The workday and the world are changing by the day. It’s impossible to predict what client asks or regulation changes may be around the corner. Teams should remember to have patience with themselves when plans change and to take things day by day. Not knowing all the answers is to be expected.
Take Care of Yourself: Adapting to a stressful situation can be hard on the brain, particularly coupled with the normal stresses of tax season. Burnout is still a risk, even for those working from home. Take time to unwind after work, take breaks during the day, and unplug fully when the day is over.
Make Time to Connect: Accountants aren’t just tasked with filling out tax forms. They’re also responsible for maintaining a relationship with their clients. With face-to-face interaction limited, accountants should utilize video calls and phone calls whenever possible. Choosing a phone call over an email can do wonders to keep teams connected to their clients and their work. And likewise, scheduling video happy hours or employee gatherings can keep team camaraderie high.
How to Tell if Someone Needs Extra Support
When physically separated from team members, it can be difficult to assess how staff members are feeling and whether they need extra support. Keeping an eye on the consistency of their habits can be a good way to gauge their mental state. Many people have maintained their usual working habits even after shifting to working from home. But if a high performer has begun ignoring emails or an early bird starts logging on later and later in the day, it may be time for a quick check-in.
Managers should go into these check-ins ready to listen. Don’t just assume people are suffering from anxiety or something similar. The power of suggestion can be very strong, and potentially detrimental, to someone who isn’t feeling their best. Sometimes, all someone needs is a friendly ear to listen to their problems or to be reminded that their work is noticed and valued. But if something larger is at play, managers can point their team in the direction of mental health resources, perhaps through the firm’s health insurance provider or as part of the company’s benefits package.
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Many managers made it a point to check in with their team at the onset of the quarantine; however, regular, staggered check-ins can be helpful as well. Everyone is experiencing this situation differently, and our feelings are constantly in flux. Some people may have struggled at the beginning, while others are beginning to struggle as time goes on. Staggering check-ins can help make sure all employees feel heard and supported when they need it most.
Monitor Communication Frequency
While increasing employee outreach is a frequent recommendation at this time, overcommunicating can feel suffocating, particularly if it’s not common practice. Each accounting firm will have different needs and expectations based on their individual culture and structure. But if there’s ever doubt, a quick email request for candid feedback or an anonymous survey can provide the clarity needed to understand how best to support your team.
It’s natural for accounting leaders to want their hard-working staff to be comfortable during this time, and one way to do that is by adjusting benefits packages.
If it wasn’t a benefit already, accounting firms should consider offering flexible working hours. Not only does this give employees the freedom to design their own schedule, it can also provide immense support to parents who need to manage childcare and homeschooling needs.
Companies may even encourage their staff to take mental health days or half-days of PTO in order to give their brain a break and return to work refreshed. Some are even providing access to mental health resources and home exercise apps, in addition to their regular wellness offerings.
If staff is now working from home, firms can provide a one-time stipend in order to set up a home office. Having a home setup that is optimized to an individual’s needs with the appropriate number of screens and their favorite mouse pad, rather than just setting up shop on the kitchen table, can do wonders for productivity.
Consider Alternative Staffing Solutions
Accounting firms across the board are facing different staffing challenges. Some may be forced to furlough staff, while others may need extra support. If the amount of work is overwhelming a firm’s current staff, this may be the time to explore adding interim consulting staff that can be brought on to support a certain project for a limited time or to offer guidance on a consulting basis. Consultant work is becoming particularly popular and can be the perfect short-term solution.
These times are unprecedented – there is no playbook for how leaders can best help their teams feel supported and productive. Tax season is stressful enough, but the changes brought on by the extended deadline can cause extra pressure that impacts productivity and mental health. But with their team’s safety in mind first and the firm’s productivity following behind it, accounting firms can weather this period.