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Tax return season transformed

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While the pandemic and subsequent shift to homeworking have changed the way many accounting firms approach tax return season, this transformation has both pros and cons for practices and their employees.

12th Dec 2022
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For many accountants, the last couple of years has changed working life to an almost unbelievable degree, often for the better, and that is demonstrable as we enter “that time of year”.

Older readers have witnessed an unbelievable transformation in the preparation of tax returns from the days when clients delivered their records, sometimes comprising little more than handwritten notes and jumbled receipts from suppliers, in brown paper parcels, which were miraculously converted into paper tax returns by diligent members of staff.

Everything built to a crescendo on deadline day when a junior member of staff was entrusted with a mighty envelope filled with tax returns that they would take to the local tax office, ideally obtaining a stamped receipt from a weary officer.

Computerisation has changed all of that. Clients are now generally able to deliver all of the input data electronically and we then use magical software to convert this into a form that can be submitted directly to HMRC at midnight on deadline day. Sadly, some clients still seem to believe that we are unable to submit anything before that critical moment.

Pandemic shift: pros and cons

Arguably, as big a change has resulted from the pandemic, now that so many members of staff are willing and able to spend much of their working week operating from a home office. This has pros and cons.

From a purely bottom-line perspective, some accountants might see one advantage in being able to pass on energy costs to employees, since an empty office does not need heating or lighting. Some smaller practices may have even given up on the office concept completely.

When we are trying to get maximum productivity from every member of staff, the fact that many could gain an average of say two hours a day by avoiding commuting is a wonderful bonus.

In addition, the congenial atmosphere and pleasure of being in a home environment, combined with the ability to work whatever hours suit, will encourage a significant proportion to work harder and also reduce the inevitable stress that comes as we approach the deadline.

On the other side of the coin, some may be tempted to work too hard and drive themselves into a sickbed.

Sickness very much remains a relevant factor in another way, even though the media likes to present Covid-19 as a thing of the past.

With approximately one million Britons currently still suffering, there has to be a significant risk that if employees commute into the office on a daily basis, they could fall ill, scuppering our best-laid plans to get every tax return completed with a couple of weeks to spare.

Another of the disadvantages of having a group of employees working at a distance at a critical time is the inability to monitor both quality and output.

While many will thrive and be fully motivated in the comfort of their own home, some could choose to take life easy and it is vital to prevent this from happening. In addition, it is harder to spot someone who is struggling, if you are not sitting near them or walking past their desk several times a day.

In the past, it sometimes made sense to send someone home early, so that they were able to recharge their batteries and get back to full efficiency. The alternative could be a nervous breakdown, poor-quality work that might lead to financial loss or merely slowly grinding to a halt.

Beyond the inevitable technological malfunctions at the worst possible time, the most likely problems in the new era are most likely to affect more junior members of staff, who need both moral support from colleagues and technical advice on a regular basis.

While, in principle, this can be delivered at long range, we all know that trying to find someone who is theoretically available online is not quite the same as asking the person next to you to help or walking across an open-plan space.

It may take time but, in the long run, these new developments will almost prove to be a boon, improving efficiency, cutting costs and making everybody happy.

Before that, we have to endure the long slog of December and January, urging clients to send in missing records, persuading staff that they can get one more return done before Christmas and making HMRC accept a super-spreader Covid event is a reasonable excuse for late filing.

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