Is Doing More with Less the New Reality?

How to Keep Production High, Even with Fewer Employees

As we enter “the thick” of tax return season, the strains on CPAs’ and accounting firms’ productivity are never felt more painfully nor as imminently. Work mounts, deadlines loom, and somewhere in the back of our heads, we assure ourselves that “Next year will be different; we’re never doing this again so shorthanded.”

Today’s stressful reality should serve as a timely reminder to prepare for the busiest seasons, even when workload is lighter—a day that I can promise is somewhere over the horizon.

In fact, perhaps it is precisely during the “off season” that CPAs and accountants should focus on preparing for the next busy cycle that inevitably awaits. It is then when they will have more time and energy to focus working on the business, and not as much in the business, as they are today.

That’s when small but growing firms can focus on bolstering their human resources or effecting greater productivity into their businesses.

Or, perhaps, it will be necessary to do both.

Are Labor Shortages Here to Stay?

If you’ve recently experienced talent flight or had difficulty recruiting for open positions, you’re especially feeling the pinch right now. Once you can get your head above water, there will be time and bandwidth to implement some modern recruiting strategies to help you win the war for talent and counter The Great Resignation.

But what if, as many are predicting, this tight labor market is the new “normal” for the foreseeable future? More flight, more fickle employees, talent reprioritizing their lives and careers? Your team is also going through the stressors of tax season…might they also reconsider and reprioritize? Or what if you simply can’t recruit the talent you need because there are fewer applicants and willing workers?

The alternative to adding humanpower is increasing productivity of the resources you do have. For most CPAs, the workload will remain intact; the deadlines will remain in effect; but the supply of labor may run short. You need to at least maintain top-line revenue, if not increase it year over year. The only way to do that is controlling the things that you can control; and productivity is one of those things.

Now is not the time to lament the headwinds, but rather to discover and muster the tail winds that productivity gains can offer—modernizing technology and instilling more processes and systems so that your firm can actually produce more outputs, even with fewer human inputs.

Three Ways to Inject Greater Productivity (Almost) Immediately

Here are three ways growing firms can increase output productivity and endure the growing pains of a small firm that wants and needs to increase revenue:

1 – Create a Company Cadence

Small firms typically act and operate like the startup they were at their founding, rather than the complex organism a small business soon becomes. There are few documented processes and systems, there is little “rhyme or reason” to the company meeting structure, and both leadership and teammates live in a reactive world—responding to fires and immediacies rather than taking a strategic, measured approach to running the business.

You simply must have an operating system by which you run the company, so everyone is on the same page, rowing in the same direction, and working toward common goals and objectives—for the long term and big picture, not just short-term demands of time and attention.

Critical functions of the operating system we use—the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS)—include:

  • Quarterly strategic initiatives: Some call these “rocks,” others call them “WIGs and WAGs,” and others simply establish KPIs (key performance indicators). Whatever system you use, and whatever you call them, you need to retrain yourself and your employees to operate in a “12-week year.” Keep everyone thinking about their big goals in front of them, so it’s not so overbearing and overwhelming during 12-week stretches like tax season.
  • Weekly check-ins: Schedule and commit to weekly check-in meetings with each of your team members, and make these non-negotiables on your calendar. This enables you to build deeper professional relationships with your team. Not only does this serve to create stronger ties between you, your staff and the company, it also enables leadership to identify and solve issues quickly, before they fester and lead to either bigger problems for the entire company or the dreaded talent flight we keep reading about.
  • Keep a scorecard: EOS teaches us that, “Everyone should have a number.” No matter the person or the role, everyone needs to be assigned metrics that can be measured numerically. These numbers should be documented, recorded on paper, and evaluated weekly. A service rep should have a number of client touches per week; a sales rep should have a number of prospect touches per week; even the receptionist should have a number of rings before which a phone should be answered. Only then will you have a clear picture as to who’s performing well, who’s meeting company standards, and who needs to step it up. That clarity is extremely empowering for both the manager and the employee, as it removes all subjectivity and guesswork as to where productivity is (or isn’t) coming from.

2 – Embrace the Advancements in Technology

To use one illustrative, and perhaps most urgent, example: every firm should have a texting system in place for customer service and enhanced productivity. Think of the time and resources your doctor or dentist office is saving by not relying on a receptionist to place outgoing phone calls to confirm appointments everyday, as they used to. Those same gains in productivity are available to accounting firms as well. More than mere text messaging systems, modern technology now integrates with your entire production system. I know of CPAs that have systems that will automatically generate a text message to a client when it detects that a document or file is missing and is expected by the accountant. One simple system like this can save a firm hundreds of human-hours over the course of a year!

3 – Document Every Process in the House

Small firms tend to resist the notion of documenting each and every system and procedure that exists to run the company and serve the client, often saying things like, “It’s just a feel thing,” or, “Everyone has their own way,” or “It’s different every time.” But one of the biggest inhibitors to growth for small firms is the failure to systematize. Establishing a process and documenting that system achieves a number of productivity gains: It identifies, establishes and codifies efficiencies for all to follow; it finds and eliminates potential areas of productivity “waste;” and it protects against talent flight, labor shortages or even temporary resource deficiencies (extended leave, disability, vacations, etc.). If a process is clearly articulated and understood by all, another member of the team—whether a new hire or someone in another department—should be able to stand in, fill in and pitch in. 

I am one of those people who is inclined to believe that the talent shortages we are experiencing now are, in some ways, the new normal…at least for a while. The drivers seem more than cyclical this time around. A global pandemic has changed everything—both for individuals and the employers who rely on them for growth.

If you are keeping your head down and plowing through work right now, we wouldn’t blame you. But when you come out of the bunker, just recognize that the world has changed around you. That recognition—along with a plan to reorient your firm around greater productivity (even if it means doing so with fewer resources) is your best path forward to increasing top-line growth without sacrificing bottom-line gains that drive the firm forward.