January tends to be the busiest time of year for most accounting firms – the 31st January deadline for self-assessment returns certainly casts a long shadow.
Despite the best efforts of accountants to front-load work in advance, this often tends to have limited results due to all too familiar instances of having to chase for outstanding data and clarify transactions from clients.
To better manage this hectic time of year, accountants should leverage technology tools to automate tasks and gain visibility on the status of jobs. Additionally, firms will need to ensure staff don’t suffer from burnout by setting clear boundaries around working hours and communications etiquette expectations.
Check out our top tips for surviving tax season! But just before you do, it’s worth noting that – shortly before publication – HMRC announced it will be waiving late penalties on late tax returns for one month. That’s certainly good news, but be cautious when communicating this to your clients as it may make them less responsive to data requests.
1. Automate your bookkeeping with cloud accounting software
The quickest productivity win to completing tax filings is to use core cloud accounting software, such as Xero, Quickbooks and Sage Business Cloud.
These platforms are powered by bank feeds that can automatically code transactions to specific accounts.
You can save even more time by implementing add-on receipt scanning tools, including Autoentry, Dext and Datamolino. These tools capture and categorise receipt data, which is then pulled into core accounting software and can be posted with a click of a button.
2. Automate payment runs and payroll
Resource during January can often be tight – but it can be fine-tuned, enabling you to focus on self-assessment by adopting payroll and payables services for limited company clients.
Tools such as Modulr’s Payments Dashboard allow for payment runs and monthly payrolls to be completed in a fraction of time than if they were undertaken manually, without data needing to be re-entered or downloaded and uploaded to multiple systems.
Instead, the Dashboard creates a centralised workflow incorporating these payment-related tasks so that data can flow seamlessly from accounting software, with payments being made accurately via the Faster Payments network. Furthermore, this gives accountants close to real-time visibility on their clients' books by being able to instantly reconcile bank payments from transactions that clear in just a few seconds.
So, although your self-assessment clients won’t require these services, they’ll certainly appreciate you having more time to focus on what they do need!
3. Assign tasks and gain visibility on jobs completion with practice management tools
Managers can gain visibility on the status of jobs and give staff more autonomy by assigning tasks using practice management software.
Tools like Senta, Pixie, AccountancyManager and Capium have powerful and easy to use task management capabilities and connect to the leading accounting software providers, as well as HMRC and Companies House. This means they can generate visibility on statutory deadlines and whether they have been fulfilled by staff. Template workflows for self-assessment, alongside other assignments, can be set up and standardised, making it possible for less experienced employees to help complete them. More senior team members can also track where they are in the process and can step in if jobs are not progressing as expected.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the relatively recent shift to working remotely means that managing jobs digitally has quickly become essential rather than nice-to-have.
4. Use connected self-assessment software
So much time can be saved on filing self-assessment returns by using bookkeeping software that also has the functionality to complete tax filings or connects directly to tax filing software.
This reduces the need to re-enter or export transactions and, in most instances, will replicate the mapping of accounts so that the work needed to complete self-assessment is minimal.
5. Get your clients to e-sign accounts
Incorporating e-signatures for signing off self-assessment speeds up the finalisation of accounts and gives firms more flexibility to meet filing deadlines.
E-signing can take place on the go on mobile devices, and avoids the cost and bottlenecks of sending out accounts for signature in the mail. And, no matter how good your time management is, it also allows for accounts to be signed at short notice if necessary.
Most of the main accounting platforms and tax filing software companies have inbuilt e-signing functionalities, but the stand-alone solutions worth bearing in mind include Hellosign and Docusign.
6. Set boundaries for staff
To maintain quality standards, establish a positive culture and retain staff, it's important to set boundaries related to delivery and communications.
This has become even more important during remote working when managers and practices have less physical interactions with team members, so it's harder to keep an eye on their well-being.
Expectations around responses to virtual teams tools (such as Slack and Teams) should be set, so they are only responded to during core working hours. Employees should also be encouraged to turn their notifications off outside of these hours.
Senior team members should lead by example when incorporating these restrictions to give junior employees more confidence.
Tax season is a team effort, and it’s important to make sure your team’s wellbeing is prioritised. Once tax season is done for another year, you could celebrate the milestone of passing 31 January together by putting on a celebration for staff members face to face, or treating them to a delivery of cupcakes or small hampers.