The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted the auditing profession when, in the middle of the 2020 busy season, auditors at all levels were forced to work remotely. This disruption uniquely affected early-career auditors, specifically interns or staff auditors in their first or second year. Early-career auditors (ECAs) experience a steep learning and relationship-development curve in their initial professional years, which is traditionally overcome through in-person interactions with audit team members and clients. Learning and relationship development occurs differently in a remote environment.
Like it or not, remote work, at least at some level, is here to stay. Approximately three years after the pandemic began, audit firms continue to give ECAs the option to work at least part of the time remotely. Given that remote work persists, what are the challenges to ECAs’ remotely developing the relationships and experiences so critical to the on-the-job learning that builds ECAs into capable seniors, managers, and beyond?
We interviewed six experienced auditors — four employed by Big Four firms and two employed by top 10 firms (by revenue) — to understand how ECAs struggled, succeeded, adapted, and persisted in working fully remotely during the pandemic. We interviewed experienced auditors because we believe those who supervise and review ECAs’ work are in the best position to provide direct evidence of successes and failures. This is especially true because these particularly experienced auditors knew the performance of pre-pandemic ECAs as a point of reference. Note that our sample size is small and limited to large firm auditors, and therefore it is not representative of ECAs as a whole. We also received indirect information from ECA supervisors, not ECAs themselves. However, our interview data provides a preliminary window into this cohort of professionals beginning their careers at such a tumultuous time.
Our interviews provide some interesting insights into the challenges and positives of beginning an audit career remotely. It should interest firms as they continue to offer remote work opportunities for ECAs. This article provides an account of interviews conducted as part of a larger academic research project. All quotes are anonymous, except for firm size identifiers noted.
CHALLENGES EARLY-CAREER AUDITORS EXPERIENCE DUE TO REMOTE WORK
Assimilating into professional life can be quite challenging for ECAs in any circumstance. Several challenges unique to that experience emerged from our interviews when the process occurred in a fully remote setting during the pandemic. The following represents a summary of challenges we learned through our discussions with the supervisors of ECAs during this time.
Our interviewees indicated that ECAs reported feeling disconnected from the audit team, the firm, and the client when completing their work isolated from others. This disconnect and isolation can cause several challenges to the audit process, particularly learning and professional development. ECAs cannot see and sense an opening to ask questions when they are not in the same room as their supervisors. For example, they cannot observe when their supervisors are available and in a good mood or have just come back from a discussion with the client, both possible question-opening scenarios.
Because ECAs have not had sufficient opportunities to ask questions, they are likely to ask fewer questions. This can lead to a slower learning curve, increased time to complete audit tasks, and therefore lower audit efficiency. Fewer opportunities for questions for ECAs also impedes supervisors’ ability to know when ECAs are not making progress on their work and an intervention is needed, further increasing the inefficiency of the audit process.
Lower-quality coaching of ECAs
The decrease in “touchpoints” between experienced auditors and ECAs can result in lowerquality coaching of ECAs. Our interviewees noted that the timeliness of feedback can be suboptimal, and it is sometimes difficult to know when to step in and inquire about ECAs’ work status. Such a significant reduction of in-person interactions reduces ancillary learning for the ECA and coaching opportunities for the experienced auditors.
Delayed relationship-building skill development
The relationship skills that an ECA needs to develop with their fellow auditors and with clients can take longer to build in a remote environment. With less opportunity to build and strengthen those skills, ECAs may struggle when asked to lead engagements as seniors and/or communicate with their clients.
Not all communication is direct; much of what is missing in a remote environment can be described as unconscious assimilation of knowledge. Several of the auditors we spoke with referred to this as “osmosis”:
“The biggest thing that was lost … when I was a first year and an intern and all that back before pandemic, I learned so much from being in the audit room and around the in-charge and the manager. Things as simple as the controller for the company who walks in to talk to the manager about something.
“They have a 10-minute conversation about something that’s not on my plate, something more complex, goodwill or something like that. I learned so much from listening to these conversations almost through osmosis, like you hear things in the office and you start to understand how to connect the dots.” — Audit manager, top 10 firm
“You have that osmosis when you’re sitting in an audit room, you’re hearing the partner talk to the senior manager about X, Y, and Z. You might not know what they’re talking about, but you can familiarize with what’s going on, the thought process that these individuals have for certain topics that you don’t necessarily get that exposure to at all.” — Audit senior manager, Big Four firm
When relationship skill-building and ancillary learning experiences are missing from ECAs’ formative years in the profession, reduced professional identity, lower efficacy, and reduced audit knowledge can occur.
Transactional vs. relational communications
Our interviewees also noted that communication style changed during the pandemic. They referred to nonpandemic, in-person audit communication as being transactional, to accomplish an objective, and also relational, to improve or maintain the client relationship. During the pandemic, communication within the audit team and from auditors to clients was much more transactional (i.e., get on the call, ask the question, get off the call) and lacked the relational aspect.
The preponderance of transactional conversations in a remote environment can delay relationship building and depth among team members and clients. This can have implications for the ECAs’ career development. Lower relationship capital with the client may affect an ECA’s ability to obtain audit evidence in the future, and lower relationship capital with co-workers may delay career progression in the firm. The following quote highlights the loss of personal communications in a virtual environment:
“You think of a natural audit room and environment, you start talking about something, then it spirals from that until it can go in any direction, but when you’re on a [Teams/Zoom] call, it doesn’t. It’s one direction. When you reach the finish point it’s, ‘OK, let’s go.’ Then you break, and you do your work. You lose that flow of … getting to know people.” — Audit senior manager, Big Four firm
Decreased supervisory effectiveness
An unexpected theme of our discussions was the impact of ECAs’ remote work on supervisory effectiveness. The interviewees mentioned challenges with knowing when staff was struggling or unproductive. In a physical audit room, among others, this is not difficult. Many spoke of knowing through observation when an ECA is struggling and should have questions. In a remote setting, this observational avenue is unavailable, as noted by an audit senior from a top 10 firm:
“One of the biggest things was not knowing when to reach out, not knowing how often to ask questions, not being able to interact with your senior, not being able to interact with managers and partners. It was a challenge from the senior level to know when staff had questions. We had so much stuff going on that you assign a first year work and you don’t hear from them for two hours. You’ve just been head down the whole time. You look up and you go, ‘Oh, no. It’s been two hours, they probably should have questions by now.’”
WAYS REMOTE WORK CAN IMPROVE EARLY-CAREER AUDITORS’ EXPERIENCE
Though our interviews highlighted several challenges to ECAs’ professional development in a remote setting, we also learned of some benefits to this environment, as noted below.
Opportunities to observe client meetings
The virtual environment can allow ECAs more opportunities to participate in client meetings. When they were working in person before the pandemic, ECAs typically did not attend meetings with client management led by experienced auditors for a variety of reasons. These reasons included a lack of experience, a perceived lack of relevance of the topic to the ECA, that it was an inefficient use of the ECA’s time, or simply that there was not enough physical space for the ECA to attend meetings that were deemed unessential to their tasks. We found that ECAs had the opportunity to attend more client meetings in the virtual environment in a “listen-only mode,” as noted by a Big Four audit manager:
“What the virtual environment allowed us and afforded us was allowing them to attend more client meetings. You’re not trying to find a space that fits everyone from both the firm side or the client side to be in that office or that conference room. They were able to join virtually. Not necessarily participate as much, but hear what is being discussed, seeing how certain executives interact with client executives or vice versa … they were able to learn through observation. They would always be eager … eager and proactive in asking, ‘Hey, why did you interact in this way, or why did [you do] that? … Or hey, I noticed it was getting tense in there, and you did that. Is that something you learn over time? Is that something you had been told?’ Items like that. They were afforded that opportunity, which is great.”
This gives ECAs a development opportunity when they observe higher-level discussions and negotiations and allows for knowledge accumulation that was previously unavailable.
Higher engagement in community and affinity groups
Connecting audit professionals to others in the firm and the profession can occur outside of the audit room. One byproduct of the pandemic appears to be the ability for ECAs to participate in community and affinity groups organized by the firm or community. Before the pandemic, participation was difficult, likely due to the distance from the client location to the event. Having an ECA leave the field during the day (or evening) to participate in such events was likely not supported fully by audit leadership, with the typical budget and deadline pressure accompanying an audit. ECAs can more easily participate in those activities remotely due to ease of access.
HOW TO IMPROVE THE REMOTE WORK EXPERIENCE FOR EARLY-CAREER AUDITORS
Post-pandemic, the use of remote work persists. Firms have modified their practices to accommodate ECAs’ working remotely, whether a few days each week or full time. So, how can accounting firms overcome the challenges we identified in a remote work environment? Here are a few suggestions based on what we learned:
- When working in person, intentionally encourage relationship development within the audit team and with the client. Consider planning for audit team meals or meals with the client to help recapture some of the lost relationship-development time from hybrid work.
- When working remotely, be aware of the productivity pace of others. Schedule midday and/or end-of-the-day touchpoints via videoconferencing to ensure problems are identified and solved quickly.
- Consider using “virtual audit rooms,” where the audit team spends the day working remotely together.
- Allow ECAs to join virtual client or audit team meetings to facilitate learning and to connect virtually with others they may relate to.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR REMOTE WORK?
It will be interesting to see the long-term effects of audits in a virtual environment. Will remote work result in suboptimal audit outcomes? Will the lack of relationship development among audit teams negatively affect turnover? While it may be expected that ECAs want a hybrid arrangement for personal/professional life flexibility, our auditor interviewees observed that ECAs wanted to return to the office in the pandemic’s later stages:
“The [second-year associates] are saying, ‘We want to be back some.’ The [first-year associates] are saying, ‘We’d love to meet new people and be there.’ The seniors are saying, ‘Yeah, we see the benefit of coming into the office a couple days a week,’ but then nothing’s happening.” — Audit senior, top 10 firm
Still, despite the sentiment, all of those we interviewed indicated they would use a hybrid work schedule in the future. Time will tell us the answers to these questions, but one thing is sure: The pandemic quickly created significant changes to the profession, and, for the moment, those changes are here to stay. It is the firms’ responsibility to overcome the challenges that come with these changes.
About the authors
Brian K. Hasson, CPA, DBA, CIA, is an assistant professor; Pennie L. Bagley, CPA, Ph.D., is a professor; and C. Kevin Eller, Ph.D., is an associate professor, all in the Department of Accounting at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.
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“What Everyone Can Do to Strengthen the Next Generation of CPAs,” JofA, Sept. 2022
“Tips for Managing Remote Workers,” JofA, June 30, 2022
“A Needed Push Into Remote Auditing,” JofA, May 26, 2022