Why accountants should embrace 'More with Less'

The COVID-19 pandemic sped the development of some hard trends that will change the view of our profession in the future.
By Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA

As I gaze into my crystal ball and view the future of accounting, I see a three-word phrase: More with Less.

What does More with Less mean for the accounting profession, and how is it connected to our future view? First and foremost, it does not mean fewer people. It means we will be doing more consulting and offering new services that rely on value or fixed pricing. That means we will have less dependence on compliance revenues and services based on chargeable hours.

That’s a good thing, because technology-powered automation is making time more of a restraint to our firms than the revenue-generating friend it was the last 100-plus years. It’s a new day in accounting, and More with Less is central to our future view. This article explains why accountants should consider it our rallying cry.

5 hard trends for accounting

Let’s start with five hard trends that we can look to for certainty. Daniel Burrus, in his book The Anticipatory Organization, defines hard trends as a future fact that will happen. We will use the following five hard trends to help us see with clarity why our mindsets might benefit from More with Less.

  1. The pandemic will end.

  2. All organizations/firms will be changed. We will either get stronger or weaker as a result of the pandemic. What we do now will have a significant impact on where we land. But we will not go back to the way we were before.

  3. Digital acceleration will continue. Almost instantly, our world became digital. Virtual meetings have filled our calendars. Much of our workforce has been working remotely. Remote learning has become the norm and will play a part in education and training from now on. AI and blockchain have seen bursts of activity, and telemedicine, which has struggled for years with incremental adoption, has become a fast-growing health care option. We are seeing online fitness classes and digital ticketing for sports and travel. The on button for digital acceleration has been pressed, and there’s no off button.

  4. We will be trying to recover from a financial crisis. As of this writing, a quarter of all small businesses are at risk, airlines are facing bankruptcy, and all industries are dealing with new realities.

  5. Regulations and related recovery dollars will play a big role in the future of business.

Accountants have opportunity to help recovery

The pandemic has provided our profession with what I believe are unprecedented opportunities to emerge stronger and become more relevant to our clients and the economy than we were before COVID-19. We are uniquely qualified with the skills, knowledge, and experience to help our clients and economy recover from the pandemic.

As CPAs, we have a trust factor and credibility that provides us a launching pad to lead our clients and our nation in this recovery. We speak the language, and we have the resources to do More with Less.

Consider these five examples. We can be:

1. More anticipatory, less reactionary

We have a unique opportunity to be anticipatory and identify the opportunities, challenges, and changing needs of our clients. Our ability to stay apprised of and interpret changing regulations for recovery allows us to anticipate the qualification for and use of recovery dollars for a wide range of businesses. Are we calling our clients with ideas and insights or reacting when they call us? We must anticipate their needs and be less reactionary.

How many clients were handicapped by the shelter-in-place orders and now need help moving their operations and applications to the cloud? We know the future is more cloud-based, with fewer stand-alone operations or applications. How many businesses have created new cybersecurity risks with their hastily assembled remote-working tools and applications?

We also know that to survive or thrive with new opportunities in this financial crisis, many businesses must adopt a new business model or significantly modify their present operations. We can provide more strategic planning, innovation, and creativity with less emphasis on historical trends. We can provide more “what’s possible” conversations and make fewer assumptions about business as usual.

With so many businesses in a financial crisis, we need more balance sheet management, more projected cash flows, more burn rate analysis, and less focus on the historical income statement — more simplicity with less complexity.

2. More open-minded with fewer assumptions

Surely this crisis has taught us the power of being open-minded and the anchoring caused by legacy assumptions. But why has it taken a pandemic to move our profession to being digital with lots of remote work and flexibility in what we do? I think it’s because, as long as we have other options, we choose the easier path of incremental change rather than being fully committed.

In his book Persuadable, Al Pittampalli defined being open-minded as the process of taking our beliefs and assumptions and testing them against new and possibly contrary information, thoughts, and ideas. Only when we are willing to test our beliefs and assumptions do we achieve the power of being open-minded. Considering the hard trends discussed earlier, what opportunities can we seize by being more open-minded and less reliant on our past beliefs and assumptions? I think those opportunities are vast and have the potential to propel our profession forward for years to come.

We can start by reassessing our priorities. Are we doing the right things, or are we stuck in our legacy mindset of “doing things right”? Our future will be brighter if we provide more clarity on priorities with less time spent trying to create certainty. The speed of this transformation makes it difficult to provide certainty, but we can be certain of the opportunities we can anticipate. The key is for us to have clarity so our team members know exactly what they should be focused on.

These first two new ways of being more will have accountants produce the following:

3. More relationships with less formality

During the pandemic, we have been invited into and experienced one another’s personal lives daily. We have seen each other’s children, pets, Zoom bombs, T-shirts and pj’s, wild hair, snack habits, living rooms, bedrooms, porches, and a host of other things on a very casual basis.

Our future workforce and client relationships will be less formal and more about the relationship itself. People will not let go of this experience.

As a result, the pandemic has flattened our organizational hierarchy, and team members and clients have more access to leadership than ever before. The most successful firms will continue this trend.

4. More collaboration with fewer team members physically present

Virtual meetings have brought more engagement from a wider span of our team members. Firms will benefit in the future from more virtual meetings and fewer meetings where everyone has to be physically present.

The pandemic provided flexibility on where, when, and how work is completed at a level we have never experienced before. Many team members will not give up this flexibility. Our future success depends on our ability to have more rotational team members and fewer team members who report to the office every day.

With a workforce that is going to be significantly more remote than before COVID-19, what are our opportunities for “hoteling” our office spaces (e.g., Airbnb and WeWork) or significantly downsizing those spaces? Are we considering more remote work with less office space?

5. More results/outcomes with less time

We have never been presented with more opportunity to bring significant value/worth to what we do for clients. With digital acceleration, automation has hit high gear with virtualization of many aspects of business operations. Our future is predicated on our ability to price our services based on worth of outcomes, results, insights, and overall risks with less focus on the value of our time.

As we anticipate more real-time reporting services for clients, we know our overall time incurred becomes less of a factor. We spent a year building a data analytics tool for restaurants that significantly affects their bottom line when they use it to make decisions. We price it on a monthly subscription because the worth of the tool manifests itself every month in operations whether we physically incur any time or not. Isn’t this a significant part of our future?

I hope we will seize this opportunity to convert more of our services and resources to high-value outcomes and results with less focus on completing low-value tasks.

Time now to prepare for future

What we do now will determine if we emerge from this pandemic stronger or weaker. Our challenge is to constantly reinvent and innovate how we serve changing client needs. The deck has been cleared in many respects, and we have the opportunity to learn and anticipate changing needs to grow our profession. Let’s have more urgency for clarity on opportunities with fewer excuses about lost business. Our future view really is about More with Less.

Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA, is the executive partner at HORNE LLP, where he leads the 600-employee firm’s strategic visioning for culture, growth, and client experience. Learn more at hornellp.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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