Navigating MTD changes and stress with technology

Navigating MTD changes and stress with technology

The upcoming MTD rollouts open up avenues for accountancy firms to update their technology, but these technological changes may place undue stress on accountants.

Navigating MTD changes and stress with technology

HMRC’s “Making Tax Digital” initiative puts digitalisation first and aims to make the process accessible for all, but may be creating new sources of stress for accountants. 

Since many clients will need their accountants to submit their VAT returns, some firms are capitalising on these changes and revamping their accounting technology in anticipation of the next MTD rollout in 2021.

With these greater levels of connectivity comes an increased pressure on accountants to be ready for anything, ramping up stress levels across the board. At a time where accountants are already facing heightened levels of stress, these MTD-based changes can either create an automation-based saviour or throw accountants’ work-life balance into disarray.  

Adjusting to the digital learning curve 

It is important to remember that as MTD rolls out, clients will be helpless to understand the nuances and changes to the system. Some aspects, like VAT returns, will become solely the accountant’s jobmeaning accountants need to know exactly what to do, when to do it, and what information they need in a digital format from the client. 

Reflecting on this stressful situationBrian Palmer, tax policy adviser for the Association of Accounting Technicians, noted that the call volumes to HMRC’s MTD helpline have steadily decreased throughout the year whilst accountants have become more comfortable with the process. 

“Inevitably, at the outset, there is more work,” Palmer said, “but usually, like most learning curves, once you’ve gone over the learning curve and it becomes business as usual, all that falls away again.” 

As accountants become more familiar with MTD and digitisation, the expectations of clients have changed, as well. A survey by Plum Consulting has found that 75% of clients who received their documents digitally returned them within 24 hours, with 50% of clients returning them within two hours. 

This highlights a client propensity for digital-first action and immediate feedback, particularly as the world becomes digital-first. 

Is MTD to blame for tech stress? 

As MTD deadlines come and go, Palmer believes that this change has not been, and will not be, a major cause of stress within the industry. 

“Really, it’s no longer about MTD, and it hasn’t really been about MTD for the past couple of years,” Palmer explained. “It’s coming back to accountants changing the way they operate, so taking advantage of the increased computing power and functionality that comes in with cloud-based software, particularly. 

However, with that increased computing power comes the expectation that an accountant will be consistently reachable, much like personal technology is today. 

For instance, when a client can easily check their bank account at any time of the day, they may want the same service when checking on their tax information or returns, thus leading to the intersection of technology and service. 

This demand may also be on the rise as more accountants are being asked to become trade masters. A whopping 93% of SMEs want their accountants to also be a source for business advice across areas like strategy and market development, according to a report by the International Federation of Accountants. 

Accountants appear to be adjusting to these expectations, tooAn AICPA study found that CPAs “overwhelmingly believe” that, looking to the future, they have to enhance their value to clients by providing a wider range of services, such as advisory information. 

Technology can feed into these services, particularly with real-time feedback and data. If accountants are now constantly accessible and able to provide business advice, for example, a client may be more prone to go to one person for everything, whenever needed. 

The MTD rollout is one of the first steps in creating a digital-first tax environment, providing firms with the opportunity to fully join the 21st century. While this business digitisation brings many benefits, it comes with its own set of drawbacks. A client’s desire for an ‘always-on’ accountant may be strong, but impractical in the real world. 

Setting healthy client-accountant boundaries 

Burnout has become a common problem in companies of all sizes, particularly due to the feeling of having too much to do, too often. After all, an accountant who is answering emails at ten o’clock at night may be making their clients happy, but can also create a terrible work-life balance. 

Indeed, in a recent CABA study, only two percent of accountants reported to be unaffected by stress—while nearly half of accountants are close to their self-reported breaking point. 

While stress is unavoidable, CABA recommends that accountants set hard boundaries between their work and home life. Whether that means leaving one’s work phone at work or not replying to emails past office hours, self-limiting these actions can keep stress out of the home,  

Palmer explained that these actions have always been recommended, going back to when mobile phones became commonplace, but that accountants need to have confidence in setting boundaries. 

“Really, it’s about managing your client,” Palmer said. “If you get a contact from a client at midnight, just don’t respond. Respond within the hours that work for you and are appropriate to your relationship.” 

However, not every client respects boundaries, particularly when time zones are involvedFor firms in these situations who are looking to provide better work-life balance to their accountants, automation may provide a solution. 

Since robots can work around the clock, some tasks that would otherwise be tasked to a human can be instead delegated to software. Likewise, for clients who require around-the-clock management, software can alert accountants to potential problems when the arise, thus minimising the need for constant human oversight. 

While digitisation can be a help, much like setting boundaries, it is dependent on what firms do with the technology availableAs the MTD rollouts continue and evolve, accountants need to decide whether additional technology and hard boundaries can offset any additional stress. 

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