Advice for firms thinking about reopening

These five steps can help CPAs prepare for returning to offices.
By Anita Dennis

A rise in COVID-19 cases in parts of the country has complicated many CPA firms’ decisions about whether to reopen their offices and allow employees to return. They must consider how to offer their services in a way that meets clients’ needs while protecting both clients and staff. Leaders at firms that are moving toward reopening share how they’re tackling the challenge, and the owner of an all-virtual firm shares his advice for maintaining relationships with clients from a distance.

Check in with your people. An office reopening won’t succeed if staff aren’t prepared for it. At Maryland-based Aronson LLC, an employee survey found that 60% felt they would not be ready to come back to the office immediately, even after stay-at-home orders were lifted, according to partner Lexy Kessler, CPA, CGMA. The 265-person firm has assured employees they wouldn’t have to come back for at least two weeks after any guidelines are rescinded.

The seven-employee Rigby Financial Group in New Orleans is taking a case-by-case approach to when people will return to the office, based on personal or health concerns as well as the local environment. “The future will depend on the number of new cases and deaths in our region,” said principal Eric Rigby, CPA/PFS. “We continue to monitor the statistics closely.” As part of their planning, firms can check resources such as this chart from The Council of State Governments for state executive orders and get updates from state and local news alerts and social media.

Develop reopening plans. Rigby’s firm plans to pay for all employees to be tested before returning to the office. Other protocols they’ll institute address temperature taking and oxygen-saturation tests, office and equipment sanitization, use of face masks, employee illnesses, and Zoom or conference room meeting procedures.

When its office opens, Kessler said that Aronson will stagger attendance, with one team working in the office Monday, Wednesday, and every other Friday and the other working Tuesday, Thursday, and the alternate Fridays. Walkways will be one-way, face masks will be required when not sitting at one’s desk, and there will be guidelines on kitchen use. Clients coming to the office for meetings and firm members going to client sites will be asked to complete questionnaires about their own health and safety, COVID-19 cases in their businesses, their exposure to them, and their quarantining procedures to screen for potential exposure or illness. “We did quite a bit of research on the questionnaire and leveraged published guidance and best practices,” Kessler said.

Get up to speed on clients’ needs. After helping clients through survival mode over the last several weeks, this is a good time for CPAs to step back and get a big-picture view of clients’ businesses. They may find that some have quietly been transformed because of the pandemic.

For example, many of Lance CPA Group’s craft brewery clients that were forced to shut down their taprooms in March quickly realized the value of selling beer for curbside or local delivery. “It allowed them to remain in business, and it offered higher margins,” said managing director Joshua Lance, CPA, CGMA. The 16-person virtual firm is now working with these clients to develop new business models that incorporate this new revenue area and has created a Slack group that allows taprooms within and outside the practice to ask questions and share ideas.

Whether clients were forced to shut down or not, business continuity is a big opportunity area for CPAs right now, Kessler said, as companies take stock and evaluate how well prepared they are for the next unexpected event. Clients will likely be seeking help, too, in reassessing wealth after the stock market’s recent roller coaster ride, she added.

Reconsider remote work. While some firm leaders in the past might have had doubts about allowing significant numbers of staff to work from home, firms have found themselves able to thrive entirely online. Clients have accepted the change since firms have remained able to deliver the services they needed, Kessler said. As a result, “our entire world has been catapulted to a new place,” she said, one where firms are operating and dealing with clients and staff in a different way. That creates an opportunity for firms to reconsider how and where their people work, she said.

Rethink how you build relationships. Since in-person meetings may be limited or curtailed for the foreseeable future, some firm leaders worry that their relationships with clients might suffer. “You can communicate what you need to know in an online meeting, but you miss all those conversations at happy hours or dinners,” Kessler said. “Accounting is a people business, and people will want to interact.”

Firms that do all or most of the work virtually do have to be more proactive when reaching out to clients, Lance said. That may mean, for example, that “if you’re doing monthly work for a client, have a video call with them when you deliver the work,” he said. His firm also holds online happy hours with clients and includes them in in-person retreats, a step that may also now need to become virtual. He recommended using client portals and workflow solutions to allow for exchange of information, and setting up a Slack channel for easier interaction. The process may include helping clients become comfortable with technologies that are new to them.

A lightbulb moment

In terms of strategic planning, Kessler said her firm had discovered what it’s capable of doing. “Decisions that we might have taken two months to consider in the past, we’ve now made in a weekend,” she said. “That gives us an ability to be more agile and pivot as needed. We’ve been able to see how quickly our people can respond.”

“For a lot of firms, this is a lightbulb moment,” Lance said. “It can encourage them to evaluate how they operate and not retreat to the way things were.”

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit the JofA’s coronavirus resources page. AICPA members can access a PCPS resource about safely managing your firm during COVID-19.

— Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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