Time-management tips that work

Here are five best practices to help you maximize productivity and reduce the stress of next tax season.

It’s never too early to start planning for tax season, right? Now that it’s back to business and you’re likely getting ready for a much-deserved break, it’s the perfect time to share some hard-won time-management/workflow techniques that will help you maximize productivity and improve the client experience year-round, with an eye to helping you reduce the stress of next tax season.

Partners at Toronto-based CPA firm Bennett Gold LLP start mapping out workflow for January, February, March and April — its peak season — as early as October.

"At that time, we’ll figure out how many students we will need to bring on and start recruiting," says partner Denham Patterson. The firm has made workflow and time management a collaborative effort and continues to refine and edit the process.

Here Patterson shares five best practices.

Be proactive. In January, send out an engagement letter to personal tax clients that includes a checklist of the information they will need to provide and a deadline for providing that information. "In my experience, people wait until Easter weekend to gather all their tax information and, depending on when that falls, it can clog up inflow," says Patterson. "We are trying to educate our clients about the process and also provide a date to aim for, with the understanding that if they miss that deadline, we will not be able to guarantee their return will be filed on time."

Institute weekly workflow update meetings. This should include the entire professional staff, managers and students. Go around the table and find out who’s doing what, what needs to be reassigned and identify any issues a partner or manager has to address.

For example, if a client isn’t providing the necessary information, a senior manager who has an established relationship with the client could call to encourage compliance. If you’ve expanded your workweek to Saturdays, as many firms do between February and April, then this is a good day to get caught up, as there are fewer interruptions.

Be efficient with queries. Encourage staff and students working on client files to gather all questions and concerns and schedule an end-of-day meeting with the person in charge of the file. This way all questions can be addressed at one time rather than creating several interruptions. The same rule applies when dealing with clients.

Build consistency into the process. If possible, try to assign the same person to a given file. If that individual is a student who needs training in all aspects of audit and review engagements, have the student take on a supervisory role with files he or she worked on in the previous year.

Implement a system to track workflow status. This can take the form of a paper status report that is readily available at workstations. The report should detail which files the individual is working on, the work completed, when they are due and what is outstanding. In this way, even if the person working on the file is out of the office, managers and partners can see the progress made.

There are now digital workflow apps that provide up-to-the-minute reports on all engagements on your computer.

When it comes to reviews and audits, Patterson recommends holding a planning meeting with the team working on the file to determine where the levels of complexity are and which areas to focus attention on. Potential problems should be flagged early. "It’s all about working efficiently so no time is wasted."