Before the dramatic changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, most accountants recognized their industry was in the midst of a cultural shift as it moved towards new technology.
Regulatory changes and clients demand were primary drivers of the shift, of course, but the overall understanding was that these accounting industry trends and efficiencies could help firms increase their revenue. By the start of 2020, most tax, accounting, and audit firms were migrating to technologies — such as cloud platforms and robotic process automation — that automated much of their arduous manual work.
Then came the most life-changing period in modern times.
Challenge from all sides
There is no doubt the pandemic presented personal and professional challenges for most of the planet. For tax and accounting professionals, these challenges varied from having to work virtually to assisting clients who now needed services that weren’t part of the traditional portfolio of services previously offered. Indeed, at a panel discussion, The Changing Shape of Opportunity, held during a recent virtual event, tax and accounting business leaders spoke candidly about their top challenges and how their organizations navigated these waters in order to simply maintain operations.
Hear more from the panelists about “The Changing Shape of Opportunity” during Confidence for a Dynamic Future virtual event, now on-demand.
Topping this list of challenges, of course, was remote working. Of the accounting firms that participated in the discussion were in various positions when the need to pivot arrived; and how quickly and smoothly they were able to pivot depended on their technology and security infrastructures. For example, firms that allowed employees to work from home, including having laptops and access to a virtual private network (VPN), were able to transition more seamlessly. For others, the shift required more heavy-lifting to get staff up to speed.
Further, how clients were being served varied based on clients’ size and location, which presented another hurdle for those clients that had traditionally received service in person. Firms had to find ways to include videoconferencing and other remote methods of engagement to now provide these same services.
Another challenge brought by the pandemic: The quick passage and implementation of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the CARES Act, both of which had clients seeking advice and service. “I don’t think… we have ever experienced tax season alongside a massive piece of legislation implemented and acted upon immediately,” says Brittany Lanphier of Lanphier, LLP.
Panelists noted that these challenges, coming amid other accounting industry trends, were echoed by businesses across industries, leaving tax & accounting firm leaders to make decisions not only for themselves and employees, but for clients and other stakeholders as well.
Opportunities take shape
No one could have predicted the trials and tribulations resulting from the pandemic, however, as the weeks passed, tax and accounting professionals could see there were opportunities within the new normal. As some businesses were forced to shutter and others sought to take part in the new government response programs like the PPP, they now needed assistance and guidance from tax professionals.
Many firms quickly realized that technology was at the center of both the pandemic-related challenges and the opportunities it presented as well. How accounting firms utilized and leveraged their technology and innovative processes would go a long way in determining their success
For example, technology allowed some firms to streamline how they interacted with clients, using webinar platforms as an essential marketing tool and providing information to clients in a singular way. Ying Sa, founder of Community CPA, a multi-lingual accounting firm that services clients from nine countries, said her firm leveraged YouTube by creating videos with information about the stimulus package in nine languages. (Of course, anyone could view the videos and therefore became a lead-generator.)
The need for skills & reskilling
The panel also described how essential accounting skills no longer just includes spreadsheets and knowing the latest tax codes; and what use to be called traditional accounting skills have shifted to the need for a strong technological knowledge base. As firms incorporate cloud-based technologies that automate many processes for clients, having staff trained is a necessity. And as accounting firms pivoted to remote working during the pandemic, some team leaders saw the technological skills gap within their staff.
At Lanphier, management-level employees where better prepared to work remotely, while others had to be “caught up,” said Brittany Lanphier. And Alan Long, of Baldwin CPAs, said their firm regularly trained employees, which allowed them to readily move to remote work environments and seamlessly assist clients with their PPP and CARES Act needs.
Prior to the pandemic, about a 25% of U.S. employees worked from home; however, moving an entire workforce to this new way of doing business presented many challenges, including the new pressures on managers to ensure employees had the necessary technology to work and secure access to company files. Most importantly, managers themselves needed to figure out how to manage a fully remote staff.
For Community CPAs’ Ying Sa, her firm was in the midst of a five-year plan to moving staff to remote work prior to the pandemic when the crisis simply compressed this timeline. Initially, Sa said she felt she wasn’t skilled enough to manage a remote team. So, she sought to learn ways to improve her skills on managing a remote team, including finding ways to support her employees not only with work but personally as they coped with these dramatic life changes. This strategy paid off, and recent research has shown that employees look to managers for cues on how to handle crises.
After the pandemic, some are predicting that these changes in the accounting industry — especially around the increased use of technologies to work more efficiently and service clients remotely — is likely to continue, as is the remote working byproduct of a stronger emphasis on work/life balance.
For the tax & accounting industry, the pandemic and all its related changes is a prime opportunity to look at whether work really needs to be done in the old ways, or if it’s time to move forward into a new, tech-enabled work culture.