This process is a time of stress and long hours for employees, despite technological improvements.
Companies have long sought ways to streamline processes so that accountants can spend less time collecting numbers and more time analyzing them for the organization’s benefit. Many nimble organizations are finding those time savings in the month-end close.
Closing the books quickly gives them the opportunity to take corrective action as soon as possible. This results in efficiencies and, in turn, cost savings. It also frees up the accounting department to devote more time to providing management with better information.
Despite improvements in efficiency from modern accounting systems, the month-end close process still causes considerable stress. A recent survey by software provider FloQast reported that 88% of accounting and finance professionals were negatively impacted by the pressure to close quickly.
Obstacles preventing a faster close process abound. Among them are the complexity of accounting standards and tax regulations; difficulty obtaining information from outside the accounting department; and working across incompatible legacy software platforms. Understaffed accounting teams, meanwhile, face a lack of time to design and implement new processes.
If management is comfortable with estimates, closing can be done quickly, perhaps in hours or days. But emphasizing speed over accuracy can compromise integrity.
Increasing speed and accuracy puts pressure on employees who may already be stressed. In the FloQast survey, 82% of accounting and finance professionals reported a negative personal impact from the close process. Finding the right balance between speed, accuracy, and employees’ needs is key.
Here are some best practices to smooth the process:
Develop and document standard procedures
Having well-documented procedures and checklists — are vital for speed and accuracy.
The order of prescribed closing procedures can be moved forward or backward depending on when information is available.
Keep improving your processes
One process per month might be broken into steps to find ways to improve the accuracy of estimates and to save time. What do we want at the end? What could we do at the beginning to get us there?
Cross-train the critical steps
Documented standard procedures and cross-training mean there’s no holdup in the process if a key employee is out sick or if that employee leaves the company.
Spread out the work
Many routine journal entries can be prepared well in advance. Some accrual or impairment calculations can be started midperiod and fine-tuned at the end of the period. Once the process becomes routine, staff will know what information is necessary and they can start preparing in advance of the month end.
Frequent reconciliations of key accounts — such as cash — reduce the work needed to close the books.
Consider materiality for estimates
In calculating accruals and estimates, keep materiality in mind. Finding a simple method for estimating accruals can save time if there’s no material difference from the exact amount.
Communicate the importance of a speedy close to the entire organization
Getting information from those outside of accounting can often be the biggest impediment to a speedy close. So developing relationships outside the finance and accounting departments is critical.
Automate as much as possible
Data integrity and speed improve as manual processes such as spreadsheets are replaced with automation. While spreadsheets are a useful tool, they can be prone to errors and have no means to track changes made to them.
The best path to an accurate and efficient close is for companies to follow the practices recommended for their software systems. Look to the system to see if it will solve the problem rather than just developing yet another spreadsheet. The extra effort required to become familiar with the advanced reporting capabilities of the company’s software system and to learn how to create a report that provides the information will likely pay off in the long run.
With automation, manual data entry is no longer needed. Rather than eliminating data-entry positions, it is better to retrain these individuals to perform higher-level skills such as research or variance analysis. These higher-level skills lead to better job satisfaction, which is crucial in a tight job market.
While retraining can require considerable time and resources, this investment can pay off by retaining the knowledge of those employees in the organization.
Source: Journal of Accountancy, How organizations can streamline the month-end close, March 1, 2018
About the author
Liz Farr (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in Los Lunas, N.M. She also works part time as a tax manager at Pulakos CPAs in Albuquerque, N.M