A recap on how Accountants boost practice profitability via the staff planner

Image of planner meeting

Costly planner meeting!

For 12 years my professional life was largely controlled by a single, colourful spreadsheet known as ‘the staff planner’. It mapped out where my colleagues and I should be, either in the office, with a client, training or on holiday and what we should be doing.

I can’t really imagine how our firm would have survived without this beast of a spreadsheet. We would surely have been a lot less productive and the extent of disagreement between client managers competing for the best resources might well have led to some degree of civil unrest.

I haven’t worked in a practice environment for about 3 years now and in that time have come across alternate methods to manage your staff. For example where the bulk of a team’s work is a monthly recurring task that is undertaken in your office you can simply monitor the % completion and the leave the team to ‘self organise’. This is where considerations such as ensuring the information is available, deciding on the order in which work is done and the team member best equipped to do it is fully delegated and staff are simply judged on achieving the end result.

Travelling to so many firms I’ve expected to land upon a ‘better’ way of working but instead have found that these alternate methods tend not to be competing with the staff planner but instead their use is made possible by subtly different business models; whilst fundamentally providing the same service different firms’ clients, client work and the practicalities around completing it can vary significantly.

It seems therefore that the staff planner is here to stay and as we embark upon the next phase of Glide Scheduler project I’ve set out the top 5 reasons why I believe the staff planner assumes such importance.

1) Off site client work:

As everything continue to march online it is easy to forget that for the majority of SMEs the preparation of the Year End accounts continues to involve a visit from at least one Accountant, potentially multiple. The date of this visit has to be agreed in advance and entered onto the staff planner. This is essentially to stop the following from happening:

  • Accidentally booking the same team member onto another job on the same date.
  • Perhaps more importantly to prevent another team from ‘stealing’ your resources.
  • The staff member deciding to book some holiday.

It also serves as a visual reminder that the job is upcoming which may remind those responsible to ensure planning work is completed in advance, both those tasks that are your responsibility and those that are completed by the client.

Of course these considerations are most apparent for off site work where a client is expecting someone to arrive at 9am, it’s rather damaging when they don’t show up; however, the same considerations apply to work completed in your office. If you have agreed it will be done on a certain date then it is in your interests to ensure it is done to avoid tricky conversations with your client thereafter.

2) Avoid idle time:

Accountants are expensive to employ and the profitability (or lack thereof) of a firm will always be heavily influenced by the utilisation of these resources. The last thing anyone wants is for a staff member to be doing nothing or to be allocated a task that could be completed be a less costly member of staff. These failures of planning can often be avoided with foresight and the staff planner plays a pivotal role here.

The very visual sight of a blank week is unmistakable and seen early enough can facilitate a client phone call to bring work forwards / move work backwards, or potentially can allow for your staff to be reassigned to a team/office with excess work, perhaps even a holiday can be conveniently booked!

3) Optimise use of skills:

This is a variation on the utilisation theme. Different resources may carry the same cost but have different values when assigned to different tasks. For example if one trainee costing £20 / hour can complete a set of Year End Accounts in 30 hours and another trainee costing £20 / hour can do the same job to the same quality in 21 hours, you would most probably opt for the latter of the two.

The division of labour into specialisations has been one of the biggest driving forces behind economic growth for centuries and the vast majority of Accounting firms will improve their profitability (and most probably quality control) if they proactively allocate tasks to staff members with specialist skills.

Pretty much any sector will benefit from specialisation, the more obvious ones that apply to many practices might be audits, solicitors, LLPs, charities etc; however, this could also be true of clients using a specific software tool or where a second language is prevalent. In the absence of a specific skill proving continuity of staff also tends to lead to a more optimal return as well as being a client friendly concept.

The staff planner is the tool that makes this possible. Staff with appropriate skills can only be allocated to the relevant tasks if they are not already booked elsewhere. Often these tasks are the first to be booked onto the planner.

4)  Capacity planning:

This is more of an area where I believe the staff planner should assist with the management of the practice but perhaps where Excel falls down. When it becomes simply impossible to fit all of the jobs onto the planner you know that you need to acquire more resources, either via outsourcing or an increased head count. Whilst the staff planner may provide the early warning sign that there is a capacity issue it is often the annual budget process that determines, by comparison of fees to wage bill, how many new recruits can be taken on.

I believe that this is an area where Glide Scheduler can contribute a lot more precise info to the difficult question of resource needs, capacity planning and recruitment.

5) Practicalities of running an office:

This was not too relevant in my own experience; however, thinking more of smaller teams I can imagine that the staff planner can assist with certain office practicalities. For example where there is a minimum number of people that need to be in the office for it to function (answering phones, opening doors etc) or a maximum number of people that can book holiday at the same time.

In conclusion…..

The staff planner was often a source of frustration and many an argument (the realisation you can’t go to Glastonbury or that you have once again been booked to go to the smelly onion factory triggering another dry clean bill!); however, without it we would have been an unorganised bunch, far less productive and less capable of delivering consistently high service level.

Phase 1 of our Glide Scheduler build was to replicate the basic functions of Excel (the ability to allocate time to staff on a planner etc) as well as some niceties on top (locking slots, linking to Glide jobs etc).

Phase 2 is where the synergy of having a combined workflow and scheduling tool should start to become more apparent. The 5 key benefits listed above clearly demonstrate a high level of value is delivered by the operation of the staff planner, the downside is the amount of time that can be consumed filling it in, I believe this is particularly true where different teams are using the same resources, creating a form of negotiation over who will work on which jobs. If you have a monthly meeting (say 3 hours) to fill out the planner at which let’s say 4 members of management attend (let’s assume a charge rate of £125 per hour) then this process is costing £18,000 a year in chargeable time.

In phase 2 we shall therefore be focused on helping to drive down this bill through automation…. more detail to follow in future blogs.

If you have not yet taken a look at the Scheduler please help yourself to a Glide system here, if you want to take an active role in the design and development of Scheduler please do get in touch or just call us on 01733 602 280, as ever we are really keen to involve you all in the design process.

Kind regards,

Ben

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