More CPA firms were concerned with managing the consequences of workload compression than keeping staff and clients updated on the newest tax law changes according to the 2019 Post-Tax Season Firm Survey conducted by Right Networks, cloud hosting solution provider for tax and accounting professionals, in partnership with the CPA Firm Management Association (CPAFMA). Workload compression, particularly its impact on firm morale and quality control, was a top concern of 40 percent of CPA firms as they headed into the 2019 tax season, while one-third of CPA firms were most concerned about keeping accounting staff and clients updated on the implications of the newest tax law changes. The survey also revealed what most suspected: this tax season was a challenge. Fifty-five percent of respondents said this busy season was either substantially more difficult (23 percent) or slightly more difficult (22 percent) than previous ones.
“Entering tax season, firms were balancing workload compression with the education of staff and clients on the implications of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” said Roman Kepczyk, Director of Firm Strategy at Right Networks. “Add in late legislative updates on tax software and you can easily understand why most firms were in scramble mode from the very start of busy season.”
How Firms Prepared for Tax Season
With workload a top concern, many firms said the one change they made going into tax season that had the biggest impact was software improvements, with many firms utilizing digital signing and e-filing, going 100 percent paperless, and updating tax software. Seventy-five percent of firms increased staffing, and while the hiring of additional accountants was common, this year found many firms also increasing the number of administrative hires and interns to assist with non-tax related work.
Hiring new staff came with its own set of obstacles. “Fifty percent of firms said training new personnel on firm systems was a significant challenge, compared to just 22 percent that said training on new legislation was difficult,” said Kepczyk. “Given this, firms may now be more motivated to proactively train new hires and interns earlier in the year, before busy season, and provide more ‘just in time’ training throughout the first two months, which is an area where we have traditionally found firms lacking.”
When respondents were asked specifically about the benefits of having tax applications hosted in the cloud, the vast majority (72 percent) reaffirmed the convenience of anytime/anywhere access and 67 percent touted the secure environment provided. “Cloud providers like Right Networks have technical resources well beyond what most standalone firms could ever implement and maintain,” said Kepczyk. “As for remote access, it allows staff to work effectively outside of normal operating hours – and to work around their family activities, which we believe improves staff morale.”
Firms found that their efforts to move to new technologies and the cloud paid off, with 34 percent citing improved collaboration with their personnel and 20 percent citing improved collaboration with their clients. The enhanced collaboration may have also benefited total work hours. “Forty percent of CPAs said they worked ‘about the same’ while 45 percent said ‘substantially or slightly more’ which is not as big a difference as we might have expected, given the challenges this tax season presented,” said Kepczyk.
Improvements for 2020: People and Processes
The lack of in-depth training on applications, processes and equipment was the biggest regret of firms leading up to tax season, as noted by 39 percent of respondents. Staffing was viewed as essential for addressing significant bottlenecks before next tax season. Firms said they would hire more quality staff at the middle level, more experienced administrative staff, and more interns, and would also address bottlenecks at the review stage.
“Tax season is always the most stressful time of year for CPAs, and 2018 filings were expected to be the most complicated in recent memory. Yet it appears that a combination of increased staffing and use of cloud-hosted applications helped firms successfully meet the challenge,” said Kepczyk. “Looking to 2020, 40 percent of firms expect to implement more in-depth training, which should lay the groundwork for a productive and smooth tax season.”
This nationally representative survey was fielded to more than 3,500 members and prospective members of CPAFMA April 18 through April 30, 2019. The survey yielded responses from 162 firms. The margin of error was +/-8 %.