Co-founder Mazuma
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Tax season looms as Covid burden continues

As the threat of January 2021 approaches and the strain of an ongoing pandemic continues, Lucy Cohen lays out her plans to take down the upcoming tax season of doom.

21st Sep 2020
Co-founder Mazuma
Columnist
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Concrete word TAX TIME uppercase with plaster texture with a clock and wooden blocks. Write the tax year.
istock_1001Love_aweb

Shhhh. Don’t say it. If we don’t say the word then maybe it won’t know we’re here…

January.

Gah! Alright, I said it. 

It seems monumentally unfair, but the tax return deadline is starting to creep up on us again despite spending most of 2020 battling a pandemic and the associated fallout.

Never one to miss an opportunity to make my own life easier, this January things are going to be different – and yes, I know that many of us say that every year, but I really mean it this time.

The thing is, I’m all out of patience. Like most of you reading this, 2020 has been a year of stress, uncertainty and going above and beyond for our clients. As Accountants we have shouldered the burden of additional compliance on our clients’ behalf, we have given out free advice, and we have acted as a sounding board, therapist, friend and teammate to clients and colleagues.

Every January we face the same problems: demanding clients, staff sickness and fee grumbles.

So after the events of 2020, I’m setting out my “no exceptions” stall so that after what has been an incredibly challenging year, we don’t start 2021 with burnout. (I’ll probably be writing about how effective this was in February 2021 – watch this space.)

Offending clients

Every year we tell clients the absolute latest date we can get their work completed, but it doesn’t stop the repeat offenders from, well, being repeat offenders. The problem is that we have been too good to them in previous years. 

Despite warning that if they bring their work in late that we won’t do it, sure enough, lunchtime on 31 January rolls around and we’re booking in work from existing clients and then, fatally, getting it done for them by the end of the day. 

Of course, the clients are grateful. But we’re left tired and stressed.

The naughty list

So this year, when we say we won’t be doing the work, we mean it. We have 14 years worth of data that we can use to identify patterns in behaviour and this year we’re taking a deep dive into it. The plan is to put the leg work in now. I’m making a list of who is naughty and nice. And then I’m double-checking it.

Naughty clients will be contacted early, and repeatedly, in various different forms of communication to tell them what to expect. Then the choice is theirs as to when they submit the last bits of information we need. 

Most importantly we’ll be sticking to our guns and not doing work that falls outside the schedule. Everyone has already had a tough enough year, I don’t want them to start the next year in a bad space.

Covid means no walk-ins

The current situation with lockdowns and home working actually provides us with a good narrative to justify our firmer stance. It will be impossible to waltz into our office on deadline day because, well, there won’t be anybody there.

Having moved to home working in March, where people have now found their groove, we’re not planning on bringing people back into the office unless they particularly want to. Our team feels safe at home, so we’re working with them to build an office-home balance that works for them. 

With that in mind, why would we bring them back to the office only to be faced with additional stress and a dark and gloomy January commute? 

Fees, fees, fees

A few years ago we started increasing the prices of our tax services for new and annual-only clients, the closer to the deadline we got. This year, we’re bringing the rises in earlier than previously, the price increases will be steeper, and we’ll be capping numbers sooner than in prior years.

There are always a few grumbles about the fact that the prices have gone up. But we communicate the timelines clearly and frequently. Again, this year will be about holding our nerve. 

To a certain extent, it feels like if we bend this year, if we don’t stick to the plan, then all the hard work, stress and sacrifice for our clients will have been heartbreakingly one-sided. Without meaning to sound petulant, we bent over backwards to help them out this year, all we’re asking is for a bit of compliance with our (very reasonable) timescales.

As always, it’s the minority that cause problems each year, but yet who seem to take up the majority of the stress bandwidth in the office. This time instead of enabling it, we’re being strict. Ultimately, if they don’t want to play ball then we’re probably not the right firm for them any more.

Stress, mental health and absent staff

This year we have seen, for obvious reasons, a marked increase in staff absences due to stress and mental health. Historically, those absences, combined with seasonal coughs and colds, have given us real problems in terms of staffing an already busy month. 

Of course, no one can help if they are ill. Yet the knock-on effect on other staff is huge – adding to their already busy schedules as they cover other work. Realistically, most businesses can deal with the expected amount of absences, but few are equipped to deal with almost half the office off sick in one go (yes we’ve had that happen in the past).

This year, we’re scheduled to hit January with more staff than usual. Increased absences throughout the year mean that we have accelerated some of our recruitment plans. It’s a gamble – potentially a cash-burning one. 

Hopefully, with more hands on deck as we hit the busy season, the likelihood of stress-based absences will decrease and so our tolerable capacity increases, covering the cost but not providing any extra stress. 

We’ve also reduced the size of the teams, changing the way they work. Accountability is, in the most part, to your individual team. Working in smaller teams increases communication and provides more detailed knowledge of client work patterns. And if you’re not in, your team are the people who will have to plan how to cover your absence.

Homeworking reduces number of absences

Of course, no one is really “in” the office, physically, any more. Granted, we have all been holed up in our homes for months on end, but the surprising upshot of that is that absences due to physical illnesses have decreased in the company. 

Maybe it’s not all that surprising, but in allowing staff to continue remote working, we’ll hopefully stop the annual office bug that sweeps through from September to January. 

I’m also fiercely aware of the impact of a potential 14-day quarantine on my staff if one of them was to test positive for Covid-19 (not to mention, how scary it would be for that member of staff). In fact, that exact scenario made us move to home working three weeks before the official lockdown was announced. 

We all work on one floor, with one main entrance point in the building. If one person got sick, we’d have had to have closed the office immediately with no time to prepare. So we’re proceeding with caution in order to keep as much continuity and structure as possible. 

I personally feel that a return to the office, only to be forced back home again with little notice, would be very disruptive to the workforce as well as to morale. So we’re not going to do it.

Keeping the boat steady

January in 2021 will be all about trying to keep the sailing as smooth as possible. We’re trying to do the hard work now so that come January, we shouldn’t be faced with any surprises. Then again, this is 2020, so anything could happen!

How will you be handling January this time around?

Replies (6)

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blue sheep
By NH
21st Sep 2020 20:26

Pretty much the same, we contacted repeat offenders last month and said due to potential lockdowns if you come to us in January there is a good chance it wont get done.
I used to really care about a 100% record, but this year I really don't, provided they have been told as they have been many times before, it really is not our concern, the other 95% do what we ask

Thanks (1)
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By Nickg
22nd Sep 2020 10:07

Only a dream, but due to the extra work we accountants have had to do for the government, it would be nice if they could do the decent thing and allow any tax return submitted by the 31 March 2021 to avoid any penalties.

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Replying to Nickg:
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By meadowsaw227
22nd Sep 2020 10:18

Sounds great in theory, but as soon as the clients know of the revised deadline the "bad" ones will go right up to the new "wire".
If HMRC move the deadline then they should dramatically increase the penalties for late filers.
Most of my clients think the vat deadline is the month end after the vat period end , same for payments etc etc , if you tell them a later date they will work to that.

Thanks (3)
Replying to meadowsaw227:
By CazzyT
22nd Sep 2020 11:42

Exactly!
The clients that have clocked the 3 month CH extension are a pain, not appreciating/ caring that the accounts are still required for tax return - with no extension to that deadline.

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By meadowsaw227
22nd Sep 2020 10:21

I charge the same fee for tax returns irrespective of when they are filed.
We know the 31st Jan is the deadline so if required January is for tax returns.
Never seem to do a lot of accounts work in that month anyway.

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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
22nd Sep 2020 18:21

This subject comes up every year as Lucy says

Usually its about Christmas time for example -
"At this time of the year, you are guaranteed to find the same old questions and articles highlighting the pain of the January deadline."

https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/practice/practice-strategy/should-accoun...

I'm going to say this... but we've all tried to keep to our 'I mean it' stance but invariably it doesnt work.

I have a good nag at my clients about now and then on a monthly basis but the same old same old always ignore me and so I (usually) give in because they have been longstanding clients and always pay ontime.

But Lucy is so right when she says this year needs to be different because of the reasons she gives (staff etc etc)

However, many of my clients have been hit hard by coronavirus and are worried about the future. Many are in the entertainment industry so havent worked since lockdown began.
So I'm going to try a different tactic this year.

I'm going to say that by getting their accounts in early I will be able to help them plan so that they come through the other side of the impending recession intact ie "get your accounts in early so you know what you are up against and can plan accordingly."

And CazzyT - you are so so right!

Thanks (1)