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Cost-Effective Staffing for Uncertain Times

Many firms are becoming more interested in flexible staffing because of the uncertain business environment. Learn ways to develop or fine-tune contingent staffing plans.

March 23, 2009
Sponsored by Robert Half Finance & Accounting

Accounting firms are not strangers to the concept of flexible staffing. Many are accustomed to adding temporary staff or increasing the work hours of part-time employees during tax season and other busy periods, then reverting to a steadier schedule at other times of the year. But even if CPA firms are ahead of the curve when it comes to cost-effective staffing, it’s never easy to determine the appropriate level and mix of resources.

The current recession is also making the task of predicting staffing needs more difficult, as many clients’ long-established business patterns are disrupted in various ways as a result of the downturn. Yet, having adequate resources in place from one month or quarter to the next is essential for accounting firms needing to sustain service levels, maximize profits, protect the jobs of core staff and respond to fluctuating demand — all while being careful not to overstaff and inflate costs unnecessarily.

Whether your firm has used a flexible staffing approach in the past or is becoming more interested in this option because of the uncertain business environment, the following suggestions can help you develop or fine-tune a contingent staffing plan.

Analyze Workload Trends

Achieving staffing flexibility requires a big-picture view of short- and long-term needs. Rather than automatically following assumptions and procedures that have worked well in the past, your firm may need to seek a more creative approach to managing its resources.

Begin by reviewing your business cycles and demand patterns. Examine your activities on a monthly, quarterly or even day-to-day basis, whichever time frame makes the most sense for your firm. The goal is to ensure you have the information you need to adequately prepare for recurring activity spikes while factoring in a margin of error for unanticipated projects.

Some months, such as those that coincide with tax filings, will obviously be busier than others. Consider how many hours of work are needed to complete the various activities your firm normally carries out. Which tasks need to be addressed at predictable times? How many staff hours do these duties consume on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis? You’ll also need to consider any resource needs you may have for other, less predictable services your firm provides and for special initiatives.

Looking back over the previous year, where did workload peaks occur? Combine this data with any new or strategic responsibilities you know your team must tackle and chart the results on a monthly grid to make your aggregate workload easier to visualize. Although nothing is entirely predictable, especially in the current business environment, your firm’s past workload trends should provide some insights that will help you determine desirable staffing levels and scenarios going forward.

Translate Demand Into Needs

Once you have a sense of your anticipated workload for different periods of the year, evaluate whether you have the internal resources needed to effectively serve clients and meet business goals.

In addition to trying to quantify the actual hours of work that will be required and the number of hours that existing staff can realistically work, try to assess the personal impact of peak workload periods on employees and clients. Does your staff find tax season and other busy periods to be manageable, or do they seem close to the breaking point? Do mistakes or oversights occur with increasing frequency? Is it difficult for clients to schedule appointments or get a response from your staff members? Have client complaints increased?

Review Your Options

If it looks as though your workload needs will exceed your supply of available resources, you’ll need a plan to accommodate these peaks as well as any additional initiatives you may not be able to anticipate. While you may be able to redeploy your core team to help you manage through some shortfalls, this cannot always offset the effects of significant spikes in client demand.

Work that is likely to be ongoing may justify hiring full-time staff when budgets allow. Demand that is cyclical or unpredictable, however, is often best handled by highly skilled interim professionals. This approach can be an effective way to bridge the gap when you’re faced with peak workload periods, unanticipated projects or the sudden loss of key employees. By forging a relationship with a staffing company that specializes in the accounting field, you can access just the right professionals precisely when you need them.

The ability to make a portion of your fixed personnel costs variable enables you to keep customer service levels high, maintain market share and, ultimately, gain a competitive advantage. According to the Staffing Industry Analysts’ 2008 Staffing Buyers Survey, the use of contingent workers (agency temps, contractors, etc.) typically saves companies 17 percent of their total expense base. Firms surveyed cited business volatility and seasonal “fill-in” as common reasons for using a flexible staffing model.

By reviewing workload requirements and staffing options regularly, CPA firms can better predict and plan for fluctuating resource needs before the demands on staff become burdensome or client service begins to suffer. Supplementing internal staff with highly skilled interim professionals provides firms with maximum flexibility to react to changing business conditions while improving their ability to manage labor costs — both important advantages in uncertain times.

Founded in 1948, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a division of Robert Half International, is one of the world’s first and largest specialized financial recruitment service. The company has more than 360 locations throughout North America, South America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalffinance.com.