Senior Product Marketing Manager FloQast
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How to Minimize the Pain of Accounting Team Turnover

Jun 7th 2018
Senior Product Marketing Manager FloQast
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I’ve had three jobs in my public accounting career and though they were at very different firms, the one thing I feared more than anything else was that one of my senior accountants would quit and I’d be left to pick up the pieces.

Why was I so afraid of losing one of my staff? Because so much effort had been invested in training each of my team members on the individual details of every client engagement, the unique processes around those engagements, and how to handle all of the various, delicate client relationships.

Transferring that knowledge is a big task, especially when you’re running a Client Accounting Services (CAS) team, also known as outsourced accounting, in which each employee may be responsible for dozens of engagements.  In short, turnover is a huge pain.

And with a looming global talent shortage, expect retention to become a bigger and bigger problem for small and medium sized teams, too. We can do our best to make our employees happy at work, but no matter what we do, the competitive labor market will make turnover inevitable.

Sometimes the best we can do is damage control. In that spirit, here are three ways to minimize the pain of accounting team turnover.

1. Build Slack Into Your Staffing Model

I blame the time sheet and hourly billing for many of the problems in public accounting today. When you view an employee as a bundle of 2,000 or so hours per year, it’s all too easy to load them up with billable hours to the point that they have no free time to do anything but billable work.

Why is this a bad thing? Because when your staff don’t have slack (no, not the team chat app, which we’ll talk about later) it’s a big problem when one of them leaves.

Nobody with experience will have capacity to take on the extra work. Which means someone who is already carrying a full load has to shoulder the burden, or the work gets offloaded too quickly to someone new who probably doesn’t know what he or she is doing yet. Not ideal.

Another problem with time sheets is that they incentivize your staff to avoid improving and documenting processes, which will be points #2 and #3 on this list. And if you can’t get your staff on board with the plan, it isn’t going to happen.

So, either get rid of your time sheets or at least adopt a model based on billable hours that requires your staff to only be 75 percent billable or about 6 hours per day of client work.

2. Standardize Your Workflow and Processes

A big reason that accounting team turnover is painful is that it takes time to learn the unique intricacies of all the processes in a particular job or client engagement. But what if there wasn’t so much to learn? What if your processes were mostly the same? It sure would be a lot easier to move staff around to different jobs on the team and swap in someone else when someone leaves or is on vacation.

On an outsourced accounting team, like the ones I’ve managed, the key to standardizing process is to use the same “tech stack” and associated workflows for every client. By tech stack, I mean the set of cloud applications we use to pay bills, run payroll, prepare financial statements and all the other aspects of running a CAS practice.

In my own outsourced accounting firm, we used one app to process all accounts payable for our clients. Every client was set up with the same AP approval workflow and processing schedule. The same was true for payroll — we only supported one processor. If the client wanted to use something else, that was fine but they’d be responsible for it.

Standardizing processes makes it easier to swap out staff for other team members. There’s not a lot that’s new to learn when switching clients or areas of responsibility.

The same is true for staff working in-house. There’s a lot that can be done to standardize processes in accounting departments.

For example, make sure that your staff are using the same templates for their reconciliations. You get a consistent, streamlined preparer process and everything is much easier to review when it follows the same format.

3. Document Everything and Keep it Organized

It’s amazing how much knowledge on accounting teams isn’t documented anywhere. Instead, it’s archived in the minds of our brilliant staff. And when they leave, they carry all that knowledge straight out the door. That’s why it’s essential to get your team to document everything they do in a shared close checklist that’s rolled forward and updated every month.

When it comes to review notes, it’s essential to get those out of email, where knowledge is siloed with just the individuals on the email thread chain. Instead, collaborate on review notes in a shared workspace where the whole team (and any newbies) can access the thread when needed.

There are a number of excellent collaboration tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams that are available for free to teams of all sizes that make excellent email replacements. I advise to get your documents out of that local network drive and into cloud storage.

Top cloud storage services such as Box, Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive are all affordable and secure. Rather than organizing documents into folders by staff person, set up a hierarchy of Entity > Year > Month > Account/Process. This way someone unfamiliar with the personnel (such as an auditor) can find what they need quickly.

Bringing it All Together

If your team is heavily involved in the monthly close, you also may want to consider close management software, which ties together all your checklists, review notes, and documents in one application.

Whatever technology you choose, make sure it’s consistent from client to client. Give your team the time to tighten up and document processes and you’ll be much better prepared the next time a key team member departs your firm.

Replies (6)

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By catcity13
Jun 8th 2018 19:45

These are excellent point Blake. Unfortunately, the trend I have seen is taking businesses in the opposite direction from your point #1. I recently worked for an organization where accounting staff were asked to complete a survey outlining their daily/weekly/monthly tasks. The implication was that employees who had "unaccounted for" time, aka slack or buffer time, were in need of more tasks. Buffer time or slack, is to be avoided at all costs in today's business mindset. It's a dehumanizing disgrace. I've warned my younger family members to avoid accounting and finance careers at all costs.

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Replying to catcity13:
Blake Oliver
By Blake Oliver
Jun 11th 2018 21:38

That's a terrible business practice! We can't look at accountants the same way we do factory workers. Knowledge work is fundamentally different, and that's why timesheet-based management systems fail so miserably.

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Replying to Blake Oliver:
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By catcity13
Jun 13th 2018 16:27

I agree Blake. I think part of this business practice stems from the fact that nowadays, accountants are increasingly performing tasks which will be completely automated in the future. For example, the finance department is quite often responsible for processing huge volumes of data. Accountants specialize in using tools like Access and Excel, and we automate as much as we can. In my experience, this leads to a scenario where the people performing such tasks are treated as if they are part human/part machine hybrids. The rise of "open office" concepts is also evidence of this trend.

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By JanetWaston
Jun 9th 2018 10:21

It’s great to come across a blog like this, fantastic read!

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By jackerman09
Jun 19th 2018 15:31

This is helpful, thanks! Can you share your tech stack with us? Sometimes the hardest part is picking a tech stack and getting started. There are so many options out there, paralysis by analysis is real!

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Replying to jackerman09:
Blake Oliver
By Blake Oliver
Jun 20th 2018 21:25

On my list for a future post. :)

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