Pandemic resilience starts with compassion, accountants say

By Ken Tysiac

Sometimes the simplest values can help organizations succeed during challenging times.

Sheila Enriquez, CPA/CFF, managing partner and CEO of Briggs & Veselka in Houston, said a strong focus on compassion has helped her firm succeed during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I know it sounds soft, but it has served us well," she said Wednesday during a panel session at the AICPA fall Council meeting, which took place virtually. "It's really being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes."

In many cases, compassion has been the root of changes that panelists said have made a critical difference for organizations during the pandemic. While customers struggled, CPAs and their organizations reached out a helping hand.

Brian Dumbill, FCMA, CGMA, senior vice president and chief risk officer of Volvo Financial Services, said his company had to provide loan modifications to thousands of customers very quickly because the pandemic suddenly made them unable to pay.

Angelo Ho, CPA, CGMA, chief accounting officer of OceanFirst Bank, said the bank created a loan payment deferral program for customers.

Since branches have reopened, her bank's traffic patterns have shown that older customers from the Baby Boom generation are likely to want to do business in person rather than online or at the drive-through window. To those customers, the human connection may be more important than the bank transaction as they enjoy an opportunity to just say hello to their branch manager or teller.

Even as fintech grows in popularity, there is value in the brick-and-mortar that enables these personal and financial transactions.

"There is certainly opportunity for us to rethink what value our branches offer," Ho said.

Matt Snow, CPA, CEO of Dixon Hughes Goodman, said that immediately after the pandemic hit, his firm implemented a program that required partners and managing directors to get in touch with all their clients as quickly as possible and stay in touch with them as much as they could.

They asked clients about cash flow and new risks. And they asked something more basic.

"The purpose behind the calls was, 'How can I help you?' " Snow said.

Focus on employees

The emphasis on compassion extended to employees who were suddenly thrust into work-from-home arrangements.

Bill Pirolli, CPA/CFF/PFS, CGMA, the AICPA board vice chair who moderated the panel and is a partner at DiSanto Priest & Co., said his firm recognizes the challenges faced by work-from-home parents and pays close attention to their needs.

"They work all hours of the day and night while they fit in home schooling and everything else they need to do," he said. "We think they're under tremendous stress, so we try to support them."

Briggs & Veselka found that as the months of remote working dragged on, some employees were eager to get back to the office. The firm piloted a program that brought about 10% of the workforce back to the office.

Like a lot of business leaders, Enriquez believes that some sort of hybrid working arrangement will emerge for her firm post-pandemic, with some work remaining at home and some coming back to the office. But the decisions are being driven by the staff's desires.

"In many ways, our decision to pilot a program to return some of our associates to the office is really driven by what we're hearing from some of our people, that they're not feeling connected," Enriquez said.

Snow also is eyeing a hybrid model for DHG that's focused on employee learning and development and the principle of apprenticeship. He said some jobs may ultimately need to be full time in the office, while other people in jobs such as website management may be able to be fully remote.

But he believes many people in the accounting profession learn best while sitting together and watching how colleagues and mentors perform on the job and interact with clients. Snow doesn't believe that can be done most effectively in a completely virtual environment.

"As we come back, we're wanting to do that very carefully to be sure we're doing it in a way that is [best for] the future of the profession and where we want to go as a firm," he said.

Strategic changes

The biggest change on the finance team for Dumbill was the move toward gathering and analyzing data to inform strategic decisions that were being made on a daily or even hourly basis.

Volvo Financial Services had made an effort to recruit data analysts and data scientists before the pandemic, and that proved helpful.

"The demands on finance are changing quickly and have accelerated with the pandemic," Dumbill said. "…There are a lot of things happening. It's a really exciting time in finance, and challenging, of course."

Briggs & Veselka was hiring during the pandemic, and the work-from-home environment made onboarding difficult. The firm's human resources group is asking new hires how it can refine the onboarding process, and employees are serving as "buddies" to the new hires.

OceanFirst Bank has adopted virtual document signing technology to assist in the closing of loans and expedite other processes. And DHG is collecting important data from virtual customer learning sessions whose enrollment has ballooned from about 500 before the pandemic to 3,000 during the crisis.

Through it all, though, organizations have found that compassion is a key to their success. They hope caring for employees' well-being and mental health will persuade them to stay in their jobs and lead to improved retention. And they hope to inspire loyalty in their customers will persist long after the pandemic is over.

"I hope our customers remember," Ho said, "how we stepped up and helped them in a time of need."

Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is the JofA's editorial director.

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