When the coronavirus pandemic led to stay-at-home orders that shuttered businesses, organizations across the country had to adapt quickly.
Employees began working from home and accelerated their use of videoconferencing. Technology was upgraded, and leaders reassured clients, customers, and vendors without seeing them face to face.
Accounting firms, known for brick-and-mortar offices and in-person client experiences, have encountered new challenges during the past several months. But experts say those challenges — and the lessons learned from them — could lead to major long-term changes in the accounting profession, from new office setups and remote audits to a migration to cloud-based technology systems.
Such changes, once considered radical, have already proved successful amid COVID-19, said Jim Bourke, CPA/CITP/CFF, CGMA, a partner and managing director of advisory services at Withum, which has 1,300 employees and 20 offices on the East Coast and in California.
“It really took a pandemic to, I believe, get the profession to embrace this remote-work concept,” Bourke said.
What about productivity?
Skeptics have argued that allowing employees to work remotely would hurt productivity. Bourke, whose firm was an early adopter of cloud computing, said Withum team members “got off to a slow start, but within a few weeks productivity levels actually exceeded our expectations.”
“It was a huge eye opener,” Bourke said. “I was really impressed and amazed at how our team members were able to be so productive in a remote work environment.”
That’s not to say the transition to 100% remote work went off without a hitch. At the firm’s offices, Bourke said, workers have two or three monitors and docking stations for their laptops. At home, many people didn’t have additional monitors. So the management team allowed staffers “to raid the offices” or get reimbursed for equipment purchases.
“We learned real quick that to be totally productive, we needed to try to replicate that office environment as much as possible,” Bourke said.
Les Nettleton, director of information technology at Bourgeois Bennett CPAs & Consultants, said working from home has had little impact on productivity at the 97-year-old firm, which has more than 80 professionals in Louisiana.
One of the biggest challenges, he said, was figuring out the best way for everyone to communicate.
“We hadn’t done that much with Zoom or [Microsoft] Teams or anything like that,” Nettleton said. “It was new to us.”
Embracing new technology
When staffers began working from home, Nettleton said, they started to use different videoconferencing tools. So he worked to get everyone on Zoom.
Now the firm has five or six Zoom meetings a day, Nettleton said, and meetings with clients also take place on the app.
Bourke said his firm used Teams before the pandemic, but many people didn’t embrace it. Once they were forced to work from home, he said, that changed quickly.
“They learned how to use Teams by fire,” Bourke explained.
While communication proved an early hurdle, Bourke and Nettleton said their firms were well prepared where it most mattered: the cloud.
Bourke said his firm began migrating to the cloud about 10 years ago and is now completely there.
His advice to other CPA firms, from sole practitioners to national firms: “You need to be 100% in the cloud. I say it, you think it’s obvious — it is so not obvious.”
One benefit of the cloud, Nettleton said, is that employees can access it from wherever. If a storm knocks out power at a worker’s home, that person can go to McDonald’s or Starbucks and continue working.
Learning from previous disasters
Nettleton, who lives in the New Orleans area and saw the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, knows a thing or two about how powerful storms can upend workflow.
Prior to Katrina, Bourgeois Bennett used both desktop computers and laptops.
When the storm flooded New Orleans and damaged the firm’s headquarters just outside the city, Nettleton said, Bourgeois Bennett decided to switch totally to laptops. That’s also when the firm started looking into the cloud.
“You have to be prepared to work remotely,” he said, whether it’s because of a hurricane or a global health pandemic.
It’s important for companies to consider employees’ mental health in times of disasters or crises, Nettleton said.
Three weeks after Katrina ravaged Louisiana, he said, the firm set up 6-foot tables as workstations. Management teams made sure that workers who had lost everything in the storm sat next to people who had not sustained major losses.
“That way we had a support system in place,” he said.
Nettleton hopes firms and companies will find ways to support workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, “making sure that people are OK.”
Bourke, who lives in New Jersey, also dealt with a natural disaster: Hurricane Sandy in 2012. About nine of the company’s offices in the Northeast closed for more than a week.
Working remotely wasn’t an option, he said, because there was no electricity and only sporadic cellphone service across a large area.
The coronavirus pandemic is different, he said, because technology has evolved. Now there is access to “lightning-fast internet access” for much more affordable prices.
“As for bandwidth, today we’ve got a firehose versus a garden hose back when the first disaster took place,” Bourke explained.
But internet connectivity is still a challenge for remote work. During an interview via Zoom, Bourke said his son was also in the house using an Xbox, his daughter was working on her online college courses, and his wife was watching Netflix.
“The bandwidth demands were unanticipated,” he said.
Bourke’s firm reopened its Orlando office in early June with safety measures aimed at keeping workers safe. They are required to wear masks and are subject to temperature checks. “Let’s just say they did not come back in droves,” Bourke said.
He continued: “They’re scared. They’re asking us, ‘Can we continue to work remote?’”
The answer is a definitive yes.
Bourke predicts accounting firms will have “leaner” offices moving forward, with conference rooms but fewer cubicles. “Will we always have a spot for everyone?” Bourke asked. “I think those days are over.”
The accounting profession will use the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink how it operates, Nettleton said. Companies must continue to reevaluate best practices.
“Those are the ones that are going to be successful moving forward,” he said.
The AICPA’s most comprehensive conference, ENGAGE 2020, is all digital. Sessions will be held July 20–24, covering topics including accounting and auditing, tax, technology, personal financial planning, and more. For more information, visit aicpaengage.com.
— Sarah Nagem is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.