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Surviving the Busy Season

Accounting firms get creative to keep employees going

Susan Daily, administrative assistant (left), and Bryan Chandler, managing shareholder (right), relieve the stress of the season with a round of Wii, while co-workers look on.

Susan Daily, administrative assistant (left), and Bryan Chandler, managing shareholder (right), relieve the stress of the season with a round of Wii, while co-workers look on.

Photo by Caroline Baird Summers

Each year, from early January until April 15, CPAs and their staffs work feverishly to complete client tax returns and meet government deadlines. They affectionately call it “the busy season.” And while so much work must be done, many firms have found that extra efforts are necessary to keep employees motivated and performing well.

While the American Institute of CPAs has lobbied Congress to allow more flexibility in filing deadlines, the efforts have been unsuccessful. “As long as the government mandates [the current deadlines], there will always be extra HR resources required during the busy season,” says Marty Abroms, of Abroms & Associates in Florence.

“So much work is compressed into such a short amount of time, and stress with employees is inevitable,” says John Shank, shareholder at Birmingham-based Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith (BMSS). “We try to manage our hours, but, until we get legislative relief, a majority of corporate and individual tax returns are due by April 15th.

This requires long hours to get all the work completed by deadlines. Long hours at work, away from your family, working under tight deadlines and working with people’s pocketbooks leads to a high-stress environment.”

Here are some of the ways Alabama accounting firms deal with the stress.

Free Food

At BMSS, much of the firm’s effort to boost employee morale during tax season is centered on food, Shank says.

“We are here long hours, so having some down-time while still at the office is helpful,” he says. “We’ve had themed celebrations for Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day to provide a welcome relief. One year, we had everyone take a break during the day and come down to our training room, where they were surprised by an ice cream sundae party. The shareholders of the firm served all the employees.”

At Tuscaloosa-based JamisonMoneyFarmer (JMF), the kitchen is stocked with “tax snacks” of every kind, from healthy varieties to honey buns and candy, says Amy Echols, marketing director. In addition, at least once a week, JMF caters in a full meal for lunch.

Warren Averett Kimbrough and Marino, based in Birmingham, brings in dinner on late-working nights and offers “lunch box,” a program paid for by employees though payroll deduction, which delivers lunch to the office five days a week. In addition, “we traditionally always bring in local favorite foods, Dairy Queen blizzards and Smoothies, a couple of afternoons, as well as ice cream late at night,” says Sara Wilson, recruiting director at Warren Averett.

A few firms, including JMF and Abroms, also have clients who send over catered meals or goodie baskets.

Workable Systems

Food isn’t the only thing that makes it easier to work long hours. Planning ahead and working smart also helps. “Busy season is more like a marathon than a sprint, so we try to pace ourselves and handle in advance some of the smaller items that don’t hinge on something else,” says Paige Turner, partner at Abroms & Associates. “For example, if an annual report will be due April 1, we try to get those prepared in January, so we aren’t worried about it right in the middle of working on a larger project.”

"Busy season is more like a marathon than a sprint, so we try to pace ourselves."
-Paige Turner, Abroms & Associates

At Hartmann, Blackmon & Kilgore (HBK), based in Fairhope, the firm works to make sure employees have the best tools and resources available to make their jobs easier. “We have made significant investments in technology and a paperless document management system to help make the workflow efficient,” says Melissa Thomas, HBK’s director of tax services. “In addition, we have worked with outside consultants to re-engineer our tax preparation process and streamlined it to make information easily trackable, so employees don’t have to waste time hunting down documents. We train our employees to ‘get it out the door.’ We find having an efficient process helps reduce their stress levels and their workload.”

At JMF, recruiters work hard before the season to interview and hire interns from the University of Alabama to work during tax season. Having those extra hands on deck makes a big difference in spreading out the firm’s workload.

Fun and Relaxation

Hartmann, Blackmon & Kilgore, based in Fairhope, is one of several firms in the state that brings in a massage therapist to help relieve stress.

Photo by Dan Anderson

Many firms also find ways to make work fun, even in the midst of the stressful busy season. For instance, several firms bring in massage therapists to help relieve employees’ stress levels.

HBK has recently created a “fun committee” of members from all its offices. “This committee is tasked with coming up with great ways to show appreciation to our employees, whether it be an office-wide event, contest or a reward for a great job,” Thomas says.

Warren Averett hosts an annual March Madness basketball bracket contest and a busy season weight loss contest.

Each year, JMF hosts Friday Wii games during the lunch hour. “The entire firm is divided into teams and each Friday, one representative from each will compete in tennis, bowling and even dancing,” Echols says. “Needless to say, there is a big dose of laughter to be had for participants and observers.”

Work-Life Balance

Several firms try to make it easier for staff to manage the balance between work and the rest of their lives. At JMF, when the office is open on Saturdays during tax season, the firm provides babysitting services on location. “The training room is turned into a play room for the children of employees who are working,” Echols says.

BMSS also provides Saturday childcare and breakfast. Also, parents can bring their children to work in an emergency on other days. “We often see children and spouses drop in the office,” Shank says. “This also provides our employees the chance to meet their co-workers’ families and develop personal relationships with them.”

BMSS also encourages employees to attend family or children’s functions that occur during the day, such as field trips, or to leave early if needed to attend children’s ball practices. “We believe if we treat everyone as professionals and hire the correct people, the work will be done on time and correctly,” Shank says.

Regardless of how well a firm may plan for the busy season, “every office will have something unexpected occur,” says Abroms’ Turner. “One year, it’s an early labor for a pregnancy with an expected delivery date of April 16th; another year, it’s the chicken pox for a staff member aged 32.” Dealing with those unexpected events, and working through them to meet deadlines, is what builds a stronger team, Turner says.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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