The sudden shutdown of the economy in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to rely more heavily on technology. Some companies fared better than others.

Many businesses that had been taking an informal approach to IT strategy discovered their systems weren’t as robust and scalable as they’d hoped. Some may have lost ground competitively as fires were put out and employees got back up to speed in an altered working environment.

To keep your approach to technology relevant, you’ve got to regularly reassess processes and assets. Doing so is even more important in the new normal. Here are six key questions to ask:

1. What are our users saying? Every successful IT strategy is built on a foundation of plentiful user feedback. Talk with (or survey) your employees about what’s happened over the last few months from a technology perspective. Find out what’s working, what isn’t and why.

2. Do we have information silos? Most companies today use multiple applications. If these solutions can’t “talk” to each other, you may suffer from information silos — when different people and teams keep data to themselves. Shifting to a more remote workforce may have worsened this problem or made it more obvious. If it’s happening, determine how to integrate critical systems.

3. Do we have a digital file-sharing policy? Businesses used to generate tremendous amounts of paperwork. Sharing documents electronically is much more common now but, without a formal approach to file sharing, things can still get lost or various versions of files can cause confusion. Implement (or improve) a digital file-sharing policy to better manage system access, network procedures and version control.

4. Has our technology become outdated? Along with being an incredible tragedy and ongoing problem, the pandemic is accelerating change. Technology that may have been at least passable before the crisis may now be falling far short of optimal functionality. Look closely at whether your business may need to upgrade hardware, software or platforms sooner than you previously anticipated.

5. Do employees need more training? You may have implemented IT changes over the past few months that employees haven’t fully understood or have adjusted to in problematic ways. Consider mandatory training and ongoing refresher sessions to ensure users are taking full advantage of available technology and following proper procedures.

6. Are your security protocols being followed? Changes made to facilitate working during the pandemic may have exposed your systems and data to threats from disgruntled employees, outside hackers and ever-present viruses. Make sure you have a closely followed policy for critical actions such as regularly changing passwords, removing inactive users and installing security updates.

Technology has played a critical role in enabling businesses to stay connected internally, communicate with customers and remain operational during the COVID-19 crisis. Our firm can help you assess your IT strategy in today’s economy and identify cost-effective process changes and budget-conscious asset upgrades.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting not only the way many businesses operate, but also how they assess productivity. How can you tell whether you’re getting enough done when so much has changed? There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but business owners should ask the question so you can adjust expectations and objectives accordingly.

Impact of remote work

Heading into the crisis, concerns about productivity were certainly on the minds of many in leadership positions. In March, research firm Gartner conducted a snap poll that found 76% of HR leaders reported their organizations’ managers were concerned about “productivity or engagement of their teams when remote.”

Many of these fears may well have been alleviated after a month or two. News provider USA Today collaborated with researchers YouGov and social media platform LinkedIn to conduct a poll in April that found 54% of respondents (professionals ages 18-74) said that working remotely has positively affected their productivity. They cited factors such as time saved by not having to commute and fewer distractions from co-workers.

The bottom line is that allowing — or, in recent months, requiring — employees to work remotely shouldn’t drastically alter your expectations of their productivity. Every employee must continue to fulfill his or her job duties and meet annual performance management objectives (as perhaps adjusted in light of the pandemic and altered economy).

However, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to accomplish markedly more just because he or she is no longer subject to a long commute and regular office hours. In fact, when assessing productivity, business owners should bear in mind the dual challenge of work-life balance while working remotely (childcare obligations, etc.) and the mental health component of living through a pandemic.

Solid metrics

If remote work isn’t a major concern for your company — either because your employees were already doing it, adapted to it readily or simply cannot work from home — there remain some tried-and-true ways to evaluate productivity. Metrics can be useful.

For example, one broad measurement of productivity is revenue per employee. To calculate it, you’ll need to check your financial statements to see how much revenue your business brought in during a defined period. Then, you divide that dollar figure by your total number of employees. The idea is that every worker should generally bring in enough revenue to rationalize his or her paycheck.

It’s not a “be all, end all” metric by any means, but revenue per employee can help accurately shape your understanding of productivity and cash flow. And, as mentioned, you’ll need to think about how this year’s economic conditions have altered your productivity needs and what employees can reasonably accomplish.

Careful calibration

When the subject of productivity arises, many business owners’ instinctive answer is “more, more, more!” Carefully calibrating your expectations and goals, however, can lead to more sustainable results. We can help you choose and calculate the right metrics and set realistic productivity objectives.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you operate a small business, or you’re starting a new one, you probably know you need to keep records of your income and expenses. In particular, you should carefully record your expenses in order to claim the full amount of the tax deductions to which you’re entitled. And you want to make sure you can defend the amounts reported on your tax returns if you’re ever audited by the IRS or state tax agencies.

Certain types of expenses, such as automobile, travel, meals and office-at-home expenses, require special attention because they’re subject to special recordkeeping requirements or limitations on deductibility.

It’s interesting to note that there’s not one way to keep business records. In its publication “Starting a Business and Keeping Records,” the IRS states: “Except in a few cases, the law does not require any specific kind of records. You can choose any recordkeeping system suited to your business that clearly shows your income and expenses.”

That being said, many taxpayers don’t make the grade when it comes to recordkeeping. Here are three court cases to illustrate some of the issues.

Case 1: Without records, the IRS can reconstruct your income

If a taxpayer is audited and doesn’t have good records, the IRS can perform a “bank-deposits analysis” to reconstruct income. It assumes that all money deposited in accounts during a given period is taxable income. That’s what happened in the case of the business owner of a coin shop and precious metals business. The owner didn’t agree with the amount of income the IRS attributed to him after it conducted a bank-deposits analysis.

But the U.S. Tax Court noted that if the taxpayer kept adequate records, “he could have avoided the bank-deposits analysis altogether.” Because he didn’t, the court found the bank analysis was appropriate and the owner underreported his business income for the year. (TC Memo 2020-4)

Case 2: Expenses must be business related

In another case, an independent insurance agent’s claims for a variety of business deductions were largely denied. The Tax Court found that he had documentation in the form of cancelled checks and credit card statements that showed expenses were paid. But there was no proof of a business purpose.

For example, he made utility payments for natural gas, electricity, water and sewer, but the records didn’t show whether the services were for his business or his home. (TC Memo 2020-25)

Case number 3: No records could mean no deductions

In this case, married taxpayers were partners in a travel agency and owners of a marketing company. The IRS denied their deductions involving auto expenses, gifts, meals and travel because of insufficient documentation. The couple produced no evidence about the business purpose of gifts they had given. In addition, their credit card statements and other information didn’t detail the time, place, and business relationship for meal expenses or indicate that travel was conducted for business purposes.

“The disallowed deductions in this case are directly attributable to (the taxpayer’s) failure to maintain adequate records,“ the court stated. (TC Memo 2020-7)

We can help

Contact us if you need assistance retaining adequate business records. Taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you keep records can protect your deductions and help make an audit much less painful.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Machine learning increasingly is being used to discover fraud schemes. With this type of artificial intelligence (AI), the technology learns or improves in accuracy through experience, rather than through additional programming. If you already use AI in your business, you’re probably somewhat familiar with how machine learning works. But here’s a quick overview of its application in fraud detection.

New approaches needed

More and more, businesses rely on digitization to deliver the goods and services their customers want. Unfortunately, digitization also makes it easier both for cybercriminals and stakeholders, such as employees, vendors and customers, to steal. Preventing fraud in the digital age requires new approaches.

Machine learning is one such approach. Traditional rules-based fraud detection software flags transactions — such as purchase orders of a certain type or over a certain amount — that are suspicious according to static rules. On the other hand, fraud detection software that includes machine learning uses large sets of historical data to “learn,” or create algorithms about the patterns associated with new fraud schemes, enabling it to detect fraud in the future.

Step by step

For a machine to learn, its users must follow certain procedures. After the software is enabled to capture historical transaction data — and the more data, the better — the company using it reviews the data to ensure it presents an accurate picture of transactions. The software then applies algorithms to identify potentially suspicious items. This process creates the first fraud detection model. The software analyzes the same set of data repeatedly and produces new models for the company to review. The company provides feedback on each model to help the software develop better algorithms.

Through this process, the model learns what constitutes fraud and the number of false positives should drop significantly. In the end, the company selects the most accurate fraud detection model to put into production. 

Getting started

If you have the technical capabilities, you may be able to develop a customized machine learning program for fraud detection in-house. We can help if you don’t. Contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Transferring a family business to the next generation requires a delicate balancing act. Estate and succession planning strategies aren’t always compatible, and family members often have conflicting interests. By starting early and planning carefully, however, it’s possible to resolve these conflicts and transfer the business in a tax-efficient manner.

Ownership vs. management succession

One reason transferring a family business is such a challenge is the distinction between ownership and management succession. From an estate planning perspective, transferring assets to the younger generation as early as possible allows you to remove future appreciation from your estate, minimizing estate taxes. However, you may not be ready to hand over the reins of your business or you may feel that your children aren’t yet ready to take over.

There are several ways owners can transfer ownership without immediately giving up control, including:

  • Using a family limited partnership (FLP),
  • Transferring nonvoting stock, or
  • Establishing an employee stock ownership plan.

Another reason to separate ownership and management succession is to deal with family members who aren’t involved in the business. It’s not unusual for a family business owner to have substantially all of his or her wealth tied up in the business.

Providing heirs outside the business with nonvoting stock or other equity interests that don’t confer control can be an effective way to share the wealth with them while allowing those who work in the business to take over management.

Conflicting financial needs

Another challenge presented by family businesses is that the older and younger generations may have conflicting financial needs. Fortunately, strategies are available to generate cash flow for the owner while minimizing the burden on the next generation. They include:

An installment sale. This provides liquidity for the owner while improving the chances that the younger generation’s purchase can be funded by cash flows from the business. Plus, so long as the price and terms are comparable to arm’s-length transactions between unrelated parties, the sale shouldn’t trigger gift or estate taxes.

A grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT). By transferring business interests to a GRAT, the owner obtains a variety of gift and estate tax benefits (provided he or she survives the trust term) while enjoying a fixed income stream for a period of years. At the end of the term, the business is transferred to the owner’s children or other beneficiaries. GRATs are typically designed to be gift-tax-free.

An installment sale to an intentionally defective grantor trust (IDGT). Essentially a properly structured IDGT allows an owner to sell the business on a tax-advantaged basis while enjoying an income stream and retaining control during the trust term. Once the installment payments are complete, the business passes to the owner’s beneficiaries free of gift taxes.

Each family business is different, so it’s important to identify appropriate strategies in light of your objectives and resources. We’d be pleased to help.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Restaurants and entertainment venues have been hard hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. One of the tax breaks that President Trump has proposed to help them is an increase in the amount that can be deducted for business meals and entertainment.

It’s unclear whether Congress would go along with enhanced business meal and entertainment deductions. But in the meantime, let’s review the current rules.

Before the pandemic hit, many businesses spent money “wining and dining” current or potential customers, vendors and employees. The rules for deducting these expenses changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but you can still claim some valuable write-offs. And keep in mind that deductions are available for business meal takeout and delivery.

One of the biggest changes is that you can no longer deduct most business-related entertainment expenses. Beginning in 2018, the TCJA disallows deductions for entertainment expenses, including those for sports events, theater productions, golf outings and fishing trips.

50% meal deductions

Currently, you can deduct 50% of the cost of food and beverages for meals conducted with business associates. However, you need to follow three basic rules in order to prove that your expenses are business related:

  1. The expenses must be “ordinary and necessary” in carrying on your business. This means your food and beverage costs are customary and appropriate. They shouldn’t be lavish or extravagant.
  2. The expenses must be directly related or associated with your business. This means that you expect to receive a concrete business benefit from them. The principal purpose for the meal must be business. You can’t go out with a group of friends for the evening, discuss business with one of them for a few minutes, and then write off the check.
  3. You must be able to substantiate the expenses. There are requirements for proving that meal and beverage expenses qualify for a deduction. You must be able to establish the amount spent, the date and place where the meals took place, the business purpose and the business relationship of the people involved.

It’s a good idea to set up detailed recordkeeping procedures to keep track of business meal costs. That way, you can prove them and the business connection in the event of an IRS audit.

Other considerations

What if you spend money on food and beverages at an entertainment event? The IRS has clarified that taxpayers can still deduct 50% of food and drink expenses incurred at entertainment events, but only if business was conducted during the event or shortly before or after. The food-and-drink expenses should also be “stated separately from the cost of the entertainment on one or more bills, invoices or receipts,” according to the guidance.

Another related tax law change involves meals provided to employees on the business premises. Before the TCJA, these meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer were 100% deductible by the employer. Beginning in 2018, meals provided for the convenience of an employer in an on-premises cafeteria or elsewhere on the business property are only 50% deductible. After 2025, these meals won’t be deductible at all.

Plan ahead

As you can see, the treatment of meal and entertainment expenses became more complicated after the TCJA. It’s possible the deductions could increase substantially under a new stimulus law, if Congress passes one. We’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, we can answer any questions you may have concerning business meal and entertainment deductions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Economists will look back on 2020 as a year with a distinct before and after. In early March, most companies’ sales projections looked a certain way. Just a few weeks later, those projections had changed significantly — and not for the better.

Because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, businesses across a variety of industries are revising their sales compensation models. Nonprofit workforce researchers WorldatWork released a report in late April indicating that 36% of organizations had begun addressing sales compensation in light of the crisis, and another 49% were developing plans to do so.

If your company is considering changes to how it compensates sales staff in a drastically changed economy, here are three of the most common actions being implemented according to the survey:

1. Adjusting sales quotas. Of the organizations surveyed, 46% were adjusting their quotas to account for the pandemic’s impact. For many businesses, this means providing “quota relief” to salespeople who find themselves in a reluctant buying environment. Of course, any adjustment should be based on a realistic and detailed forecast of what your sales will likely look like for the current period and upcoming ones.

2. Modifying performance measures. The report indicates that 44% of organizations will modify how they measure the performance of their sales staffs. Whereas a sales quota is a time-bound target assigned to an individual, performance measures encompass much wider metrics.

For example, you might want to amend your average deal size to account for more conservative buying during the pandemic. This metric is typically calculated by dividing your total number of deals by the total dollar amount of those deals. Also look at conversion rate (or win rate), which measures what percentage of leads ultimately become customers. Scarcer leads will likely lead to a lower rate.

3. Lowering plan thresholds. Survey results showed 36% of organizations intend to lower the plan thresholds for their sales teams. From a compensation plan perspective, a threshold describes what performance level qualifies the employee for a specified payout. This includes a max threshold to identify outstanding sales performances during a given period.

The pandemic-triggered economic downturn serves as a prime, even extreme, example of the kinds of external, macroeconomic factors that can alter the effectiveness of a plan threshold. When looking into corrective action, it’s critical to go beyond the usual adjustments and conduct analyses specific to your company’s size, market and industry outlook.

Setting sales compensation has never been a particularly straightforward endeavor. Businesses often tweak their approaches over time or even implement completely new ways when competitively necessary — and this is during normal times. Our firm can help you assess your sales figures since the pandemic hit, forecast upcoming ones and design a compensation model that’s right for you.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Social media for business: Your time has come. That’s not to say it wasn’t important before but, during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, connecting with customers and prospects via a popular platform is essential to maintaining visibility, building goodwill and perhaps even generating a bit of revenue.

What’s challenging is that the social media strategy you deployed before the crisis may no longer be effective or appropriate. Now that businesses have had a couple of months to adjust, some best practices are emerging:

Review your approach. Assuming your company already has an active social media presence, take a measured, objective look at what you do and how you do it. Gather feedback from managers and key employees. If feasible, ask trusted customers if they feel your posts have been in tune with the times. While you recalibrate, don’t hesitate to slow down or even pause your social media efforts.

Look to help, not sell. The drastic economic slowdown has ratcheted up the pressure on everyone. When revenue starts falling off, it’s only natural to want to market aggressively and push sales as hard as possible.

But, on social media, this tactic generally doesn’t play well. Many people are dealing with job losses and financial hardship. They may view hard-sell tactics as insensitive or, worse yet, exploitive of the crisis. Create posts that offer positive messages of empathy and encouragement while also letting friends and followers know that you’re open for business.

Deliver consistency. Although you may need to tweak the content of your posts to avoid appearing out of touch, a national crisis probably isn’t the time to drastically change the look and style of your posts. Customers value brand consistency and may even draw comfort from seeing your business soldier on in a familiar fashion.

Engage with customers. Unlike traditional marketing, social media is designed to be interactive. So, seek out viable opportunities to increase engagement with those who follow your accounts. Many people are feeling isolated and would welcome conversation starters, coping tips, authentic replies to questions and gratitude for compliments.

As always, however, interaction with the public on social media can be fraught with danger. Choose discussion topics carefully, exercise restraint in dealing with criticism, and be on guard for “trolling” or conversations that could get into politics, religion or other sensitive topics.

Social media was once a brave new world for businesses to navigate. For the time being, it may be the only world in which many companies can interact directly with a large number of customers and prospects. Manage your message carefully. We can help you assess the costs and results of your marketing efforts, including on social media, and devise sensible strategies.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS has issued guidance clarifying that certain deductions aren’t allowed if a business has received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. Specifically, an expense isn’t deductible if both:

  • The payment of the expense results in forgiveness of a loan made under the PPP, and
  • The income associated with the forgiveness is excluded from gross income under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

PPP basics

The CARES Act allows a recipient of a PPP loan to use the proceeds to pay payroll costs, certain employee healthcare benefits, mortgage interest, rent, utilities and interest on other existing debt obligations.

A recipient of a covered loan can receive forgiveness of the loan in an amount equal to the sum of payments made for the following expenses during the 8-week “covered period” beginning on the loan’s origination date: 1) payroll costs, 2) interest on any covered mortgage obligation, 3) payment on any covered rent, and 4) covered utility payments.

The law provides that any forgiven loan amount “shall be excluded from gross income.”

Deductible expenses

So the question arises: If you pay for the above expenses with PPP funds, can you then deduct the expenses on your tax return?

The tax code generally provides for a deduction for all ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on a trade or business. Covered rent obligations, covered utility payments, and payroll costs consisting of wages and benefits paid to employees comprise typical trade or business expenses for which a deduction generally is appropriate. The tax code also provides a deduction for certain interest paid or accrued during the taxable year on indebtedness, including interest paid or incurred on a mortgage obligation of a trade or business.

No double tax benefit

In IRS Notice 2020-32, the IRS clarifies that no deduction is allowed for an expense that is otherwise deductible if payment of the expense results in forgiveness of a covered loan pursuant to the CARES Act and the income associated with the forgiveness is excluded from gross income under the law. The Notice states that “this treatment prevents a double tax benefit.”

More possibly to come

Two members of Congress say they’re opposed to the IRS stand on this issue. Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and his counterpart in the House, Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard E. Neal (D-MA), oppose the tax treatment. Neal said it doesn’t follow congressional intent and that he’ll seek legislation to make certain expenses deductible. Stay tuned.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Thanks to affordable technology, more and more companies have been allowing employees to work remotely in recent years. It’s become feasible to procure laptops, set up security protocols, use cloud servers and rely on employees’ home Wi-Fi connections to create functional virtual workspaces. In turn, many of these businesses have lowered overhead costs such as office rent and utilities.

Of course, with the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many companies have had to mandate that any employees who can work from home do so. As a result, virtual team building has become more important than ever.

Ensure consistency of processes and expectations

When employees work from home, many of the processes they use to complete tasks and fulfill duties may change slightly — or even drastically — to fit the technology used to execute them. This can cause confusion and lead to mistakes or conflicts that affect employee morale.

Make sure every virtual team develops and follows processes that produce results consistent with those generated on your physical premises. Doing so may require a concerted effort that slows productivity temporarily while everyone gets on the same page.

Meanwhile, reinforce with workers that your expectations of them are the same whether they work on-site or remotely. They shouldn’t feel as if they must work extra hard from home to “prove themselves,” but they do need to demonstrate that they’re getting things done.

Hold regular meetings — and “irregular” ones

Among the biggest challenges for work-from-home employees is feeling disconnected from their fellow team members. Brief, regularly scheduled Web-based meetings are a good way to address this dilemma. These gatherings allow everyone to see or hear one another (or both) and provide employees with the opportunity to voice concerns and contribute ideas.

If a given team is relatively new at working remotely, or you just want to bring any group of employees closer together, you could also hold special meetings specifically geared toward team building. There’s a wide variety of icebreakers, games and activities that teams can use to learn more about each other and to gain comfort in communicating.

For example, you can invite participants to share stories and photos of their pets, hold trivia contests or even sing karaoke. Just be sure to tailor such team-building efforts to your company’s culture and be wary of pushing remote workers too far out of their comfort zones.

Find a way

Whether your business has had employees working remotely for years or just recently had to ask workers to stay home because of COVID-19, there are plenty of ways to help them communicate better and enhance their performance as a team. We offer assistance in measuring productivity and making smart investments in the right team-building technology.

© 2020 Covenant CPA