The technology — and human — lessons of COVID-19

Hosted by Jeff Drew

The ninth annual JofA technology roundtable podcast was initially recorded in early March, just before the coronavirus pandemic started wreaking havoc on American lives and the economy. With the world at a dramatically different place than when we first recorded, the roundtable participants agreed to hold another call May 6 to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on accounting, accounting technology, and accountants themselves.

Participating in the episode are two of the top technology experts in the accounting space: Donny Shimamoto, CPA/CITP, CGMA, founder and managing director of IntrapriseTechKnowlogies LLC, and Amanda Wilkie, a consultant with Boomer Consulting. They are joined by small firm owner Nikki Winston, CPA, who leverages technology to provide accounting services and CPA Exam coaching through her firm, The Winston CPA Group.

In this episode you will learn:

  • What the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed about the ability of accounting firms and other businesses to quickly move to all employees having to work remotely.
  • Some of the challenges accountants have faced and the technologies that have been most helpful in meeting those challenges.
  • What is now acceptable on videoconferences that was taboo before COVID-19.
  • How the virtual working environment required during the pandemic has not just blurred but destroyed the line between your work identity and your home identity.
  • Ways to leverage technology to address the very human needs brought to the surface due to pandemic-related social and physical isolation.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Jeff Drew, a
JofA senior editor, at


Jeff Drew: Thank you all for reconvening. It’s the first time we’ve had to do a pandemic edition of the JofA tech roundtable. How are you guys doing? How has the pandemic affected you? How has your life changed?

Nikki Winston: For me the first couple weeks, school was on hold for my kids. We didn’t know what was going to happen, what they were going to do. And then suddenly it became, “OK, we’re going to do digital learning for the rest of the school year. The kids need to be on Zoom meetings at this time and this time and this time, and they have these assignments.”

It kind of created some pandemonium in my house because I’m looking at my calendar and now I'm looking at my kids’ calendar like, “Well, I have a call at one o'clock but my daughter has third grade social studies at 1:30 so how do I make all this work?” So I went from being the mom, the chef, the nurse, the maid, the therapist, the Band-Aid person to now I’m the teacher and the principal and the lunch lady and the custodian and tech support when the Google Classroom doesn’t work.

It took a couple of weeks for us to figure that out and get into a rhythm and then my son is like, “Mommy, I need my own Zoom account because when I log into my class, there’s a picture of you and it says ‘Nikki Winston, CPA,’ and I want my own.” So now having to deal with those sorts of things and still even with my calendar have to shuffle it around and move meetings around to say, “Hey, I know we have this standing meeting at one o’clock, but now I have to be on third grade social studies so let’s figure out a workaround or figure out if we can convert this meeting into an email and just take the action items from there. So for me it has caused some pivoting, some quick pivoting on all sides.

Donny Shimamoto: The challenges that I heard a lot from my team were very similar to what Nikki shared — whether they’re a working mom or working dad, they’ve got the kids at home and they’re dealing with those distractions. So, some of the things that we have to adjust was we had to get some additional, for example, hardware out to people. We have to make sure that they had better headsets that would do more noise canceling so that if the classroom was going on in the background that it didn’t get pulled into our calls. We had a little bit of that.

What I did was also challenge my team to say, “Well, we don’t want to just deliver the same experience to our clients, we want to actually deliver a better experience to our clients.” So as an example with some of the teaching that I do, I actually was just working this week on doing more video integration so that I could actually have the presentation on the screen with me — possibly like almost full body as if I was standing next to it presenting in person, along with additional information below that may be pointing them toward resources and things. And then we start to look at now, how do we do give a better richer virtual experience than just the typical webinar or the typical meeting, as we’re doing stuff.” And now we’re looking at, “How do we use virtual whiteboards or things to replicate some of the things we previously did in person?”

Amanda Wilkie: That’s exactly what we’re doing, Donny. We've been working on a virtual whiteboard tool where everyone can get in and collaborate. It mimics that in-person experience where we would facilitate people through an exercise. You can even have the large sticky notes the people would put on the wall; now they're just virtual.

So we knew the technology was out there. We just didn’t have that opportunity, that kind of down time to look at how can we how can we implement it. And now we’ve kind of been forced to do that, just like a lot of firms out there. A lot of firms already had remote work policies and they had some people, but there were some questions: “Can they really be that productive? Can we really support everyone working from home?” Guess what, you can if you really have to, and right now you really have to.

Drew: Which whiteboard application are you using?

Wilkie: We’re using a tool called Miro. It used to be called RealtimeBoard, but they rebranded sometime last year.

Drew: Is that what you are using, Donny?

Shimamoto: We’re actually using the one … there’s one built into Teams. So there’s an add-in for Microsoft Teams.

Winston: Yeah, that, we use. I love Microsoft Teams.

Shimamoto: But you don’t have to have those as well like if you’re working with Zoom or any of the other ones. You can just do a screen share using like PowerPoint and give people, you know, remote control. And you can sort of mimic it. Think of it like, even if there’s someone that’s normally a facilitator, they’re the ones that are sharing their screen, and then you’re working with whatever tool you want to work with.

Wilkie: There are firms that implemented Microsoft Teams a year, 18 months, two years ago, but they didn’t really get that adoption that they were hoping to get. And now we’ve talked to firms who said we were going to implement Microsoft Teams, you know, in the summer, (or) in the fall, and we went ahead and did it. And the adoption is just through the roof. So the technology has been there, and I would say that the IT [information technology] teams and the IT leaders that really put their firm in a good position have either had that technology implemented or were very close to implementing some of these technologies, and they were ready. They were able to make that pivot kind of quickly.

Winston: Yeah. I have to say, especially with Microsoft Teams, is I’m learning about a lot of those little-known functions. For a minute I used it a lot just to communicate with my team from an instant message standpoint, but now it’s, “Oh, there's a whiteboard. Oh, we can share files here. Oh, you don’t even have to open Outlook; you can just open Teams, and it’ll drop you right into the meeting. So I think in light of trying to discover new technology solutions, it’s forcing us to delve deeper into the ones we already have, especially with a lot of companies really managing spend right now, trying to manage their cash flow and defer or pull back on anything that doesn’t need to be remitted right away, to say what do we have in house that we can already, that we can leverage right now to keep us going.

Drew: So, anything else in addition to Teams for you that’s kind of new, or that you had and any other new functionality?

Wilkie: Well, I think we saw a huge uptick in Zoom and firms using Zoom just because it’s so easy to use.

Shimamoto: I think one of the things to consider as people are looking at this, though, is some people, for example, may have gone to Zoom because it was free. Or any of the platforms because all platforms did a free offering and the question is, when that free offering ends, are you sticking with it? So then, for example, if you’re already on Office 365, you saw Zoom first and got Zoom deployed, do you now migrate back to Teams because Teams is part of your Office 365? I think that’s some of the things people need to think about.

And then the other one that I think a lot of people may not have thought about is really the security around not just Zoom — because Zoom has those but a lot of it, if you follow your best practices and locked stuff down, you wouldn’t have those issues — but the, “Am I looking at the security around working from home?” Are they using a corporate device or are they using up a bring-your-own device type of situation because they were already at home, so they didn’t want to have to come in and get their work computer? Or we only had desktops at the office and so now they’re on their own laptop and they’re in. Well, there’s additional security concerns that we would have because that home or personal device is not as locked down as that corporate device. And they’re also not behind the corporate firewall, and so things that may normally have been stopped by the corporate firewall are now not going to be stopped in the home environment. And if they’re VPN-ing in or they are doing other things that might create a network bridge, unknowingly it can introduce a lot of these security risks into the corporate environment.

Wilkie: Yeah, Donny, as we’ve talked to the IT leaders out there, the one thing that they have not really given any leeway on is the security side of things.

Shimamoto: I think a key thing you said, Amanda, though, is that you said IT leaders, and so the ones that I worry about are the small and midsize firms that don’t have that in-house IT leader that has good security mindset. Even a lot of the managed IT service providers don’t have that security person or don’t have that background, and they’re just like, “Well, let me just throw whatever the easiest thing was or the free thing was, over to the client.” Because we saw some of that and we were like, “No, no, no. Wait. Hold up. You don’t want to do that because this is going to have some security issues.” So I think just make sure with small and midsize firms that they’re actually talking to somebody with a security background to understand what they should be keeping or even if we continue to be locked down, or have to go back and lock down again, to make sure they’re not, you know, working in an insecure config.

Drew: So are there … like two or three things you can say are the biggest concerns you’ve seen or is that just getting too far in depth to properly cover on a podcast?

Shimamoto: The simple ones, and Amanda might add to this, the simple one is making sure that the other device — let’s say the personal device — is actually up to date on patches. And, two, that it also is up to date on an active anti-virus. Those are probably the biggest ones there.

Wilkie: Nikki mentioned, you know, even your kids now are using some of your technology because they have to do remote learning or distance learning. Well, now you have people throughout the family who may be using a firm’s device, you know. And a lot of people are working from home, and they still like to print so you’ve got a lot of security holes that are out there. I think firms have to keep that in mind.

I think that you discover those things when people start asking to, you know, expense ink for home printers. You start asking, “Well, wait a second. What are you printing? And are you printing?” If you look at how they’re using their machines, you can uncover that you know we’ve got 4-year-olds who are doing Zoom meetings. Again, all of these are security risks. That 4-year-old’s probably pretty tech-savvy and may install something pretty quickly without you knowing.

Winston: Oh, yeah. I think that the big takeaway from this also is the fact that Zoom owned up to the fact that they experienced all of these security issues. And, Donnie, to your point speaking about the smaller and the midsize companies who may not have a chief technology officer or an official IT department, at least they have that commentary where they can say, “Oh well, we didn’t realize Zoom was even having security issues until they brought it to us.”

And so now as we are trying to figure out what next week or next month is going to look like as far as some type of normalcy, then at least we can say, “You know what, business might look a little different for Zoom if people are needing to revert to some type of remote working and integrate that into their permanent way of doing things, to say at least we know that that they are forthcoming, that they let us know what’s going on. And so even if we don’t, even if we haven’t invested in those additional IT resources, that we at least have something to go on with Zoom.

And I think that speaks volumes because again it’s going to be second-guessing and, you know, giving everybody the double take. Now in this new normal, do we really need this service or how should our business look? Especially from a business continuity standpoint, we’re seeing a lot of clients who didn’t realize that I should’ve taken some time early on and put a disaster recovery plan in place, or I should have identified what my critical business processes are so that if I’m used to cutting checks at my office, well maybe now I can work with my financial institution and maybe they have a solution in the background where they can do a bill-pay type of solution where you don’t have to be in the office. And so there’s definitely going to be a lot of technology and business-continuity type of conversations happening.

Wilkie: And Nikki, I love that you use both business continuity and disaster recovery there because we often think about disaster recovery, and losing an office or losing power to a natural disaster is a lot different than everyone has to stay at home, and do our people have enough equipment to be productive at home? Because stuff started flying off the shelves, and if you still have a lot of desktops in the office, you didn’t have laptops available to send home with people. So people are sitting, you know, on their couch with just a laptop trying to be productive.

Like you said, Nikki, now you’ve got multiple people trying to work in the house, do you have enough space? Are you comfortable? Can you be productive? Is everything ergonomic? Are you are risking your health and your well-being in the long run for the company? And I think I’m definitely getting into some of the nontech stuff, and I can go down this rabbit hole, but what is the firm’s responsibility in that situation versus the individual’s? And I think the hard truth is we’re never going back 100% the way that we were, so firms are going to have to look at long term. We’re still going to be working remotely, and now that the profession has proven that we can be productive and the mindset is changing, we have to think about how does this become part of our daily life long term.

Donny: I think, Amanda, you raise a really good point though because, even though we’re talking a lot about technology, there’s a really human element to a lot of what we're dealing with. And actually someone else has just interviewed me about the changes related to remote work, and I told him, you know, part of it is it’s not just that we can now meet, but it’s now how do we take some of what we did, like relationship building, from an in-person meeting, where whoever arrives early starts talking about how are your kids doing, you know, what’s going on. How do you stay in touch? Those little things that maybe the five minutes when the meeting starts, can we bring that into the Zoom?

So, in my firm, when we start a meeting, before everyone comes on, everyone’s talking about what’s going on, who did what, what did you do this weekend. I’ve seen other meetings where everyone comes on, and it’s quiet until the person says, “OK, we’re going to start.” I mean it’s so nonhuman.

Wilkie: I also think it’s interesting that one of the things that has changed is six months ago it was absolutely taboo for a kid or an animal, you know a pet, to be seen on a Zoom meeting. That was absolutely unprofessional. And now it’s like, “Hey, come on in here, Billy, meet the team.” And I think that’s one of the positive things that’s coming out of this is that we can now be so much more human and the technology is still keeping us connected as such.

Winston: Yeah, I’m so glad we got to this topic because there is no Amanda at the office and Amanda at home. It’s one person now. You can’t separate those into two different people now. And so I’ve seen cats, I’ve seen dogs. My kids have jumped into a couple of Zoom meetings. My daughter actually is studying economics and so she gave this like third grade version of economics to my accounting team, and so we had a chuckle about that and so it’s definitely a lot less a judgmental type of situation.

I had somebody on my team like, “I don’t want to turn my camera on because I haven’t had my hair done in four weeks.” Listen, nobody cares about that at this point. I mean everybody’s health and wellness is much more important than getting a haircut. And it’s not your hair that’s doing the job. So we do take a few minutes on every meeting just to say, “How are you?” Because I realize I’m working with people who some days they'll say, “Oh, I’m great. I went outside today.” There are some people who might be living alone or just really feeling the effects of this pandemic like, “I’m really emotionally struggling. I need to take a mental day and just really deal with everything that’s going on.”

And so again, this should be an eye-opener to the employers to say, as far as employee engagement and some things that they can do to keep those lines of communication open. And let people know. Don’t just go radio silent and turn off your camera because we don’t know how long this is going to last, and I’m more interested in seeing your faces and making sure you are OK as opposed to worrying about the last time you had a haircut. So we’re just getting to a point where a lot of those things that used to matter don’t really matter.

Shimamoto: Nikki, you raised a really important point. It comes down to the leader. The leader has to set the tone.

And then the other one that I think is important from what you said is to really enable the employee to have that connection. For example, what my firm did is we pushed out additional wellness resources. We we’re like, “Here’s additional resources. You may have not known that we have access to this, but here’s a wellness course that’s free for you to take. Here’s the way that you can get counseling if you’re running into things.” Communicating those things out and making them available. And just reminding people, “Hey, we’re here to help, and talk to us about this. Don’t send me an email. Let’s schedule a meeting and let’s talk about it if you're having a hard time.”

For example, one of my employees was having a hard time balancing out between her and her husband and watching the kids. And so we’re like, “Well, let's figure out what schedule actually works and let’s set expectations around that so I know that you’re going to work between 12 and 4 and then again between 8 and midnight that that happened to be what works for your schedule.” At least me as the leader, I now think that my expectation of when I can reach you … doesn’t have to be during work hours, quote “work hours.”

Wilkie: Yeah, that’s a good point, Donny, because in addition to changing the mindset around working remotely in productivity while working remotely, I think we’re going to see this as a catalyst for changing the way that we look at productivity. Does it have to be hours? Does it have to be 8 to 5? Or is it about what you can get done in the time that you have. Is that enough?

And bringing it back to kind of the technology piece, what technology do you need to be that productive and to illustrate and improve that productivity so that we understand the value that you’re bringing to the firm and the value that you’re bringing to the clients as well? So I think there’s a huge catalyst for a shift in the mindset but also a shift in the technology that supports that new mindset.

Shimamoto: We’ve seen a big uptick in firms, actually not just firms but business and industry as well, asking about workflow management and project management and task management software, which does allow you to then track what your teams are doing remotely and where they are in progress on things. And since Nikki had brought up before like there’s also Planner within Office 365 that’s a simple task manager. One of our teams just started using that because they were like, “Well, we don’t want to have the formal software, but this one helps us do it and it works on our laptop and it works on our phone.” And so they started just using Planner and Microsoft To Do because we get To Do with our Office 365.

Wilkie: To your other, earlier point, Donny, you’re using the tools that you have. You found a pain point and you found a tool that you have to solve that pain point. I’m sure you’re going to go back in the long run and ask yourself, “Is this really the tool that’s right for us? Do we need to invest in something that’s more robust?” But, yeah, we’re talking to firms, and if they still have paper in their processes, then they’re really, really hurting right now because they can’t get that paper from the client and they can’t move that paper around an office if no one’s in the office.

Winston: What I’m really thinking about is a lot of the state tax offices where I’m thinking about like sales tax and payroll taxes that are due. A lot of the returns, some of them still only accept paper returns. and we’re trying to send them emails. We call them and they have these automated messages that nobody’s in the office but send us an email so we’re still trying to CYA and say, “Hey, by the way, we postmarked our return for this date.” We don’t know who’s going to intercept it but just trying to deal with a lot of those offices who have these archaic ways of doing things and it’s really going to have them scratching their heads to figure out what are they going to do. Because they may have been able to sustain not being in the office and not sifting through the paper for a few weeks, but the longer this goes on the more that the paper mounds are going to build up for them and they’re going to have to pivot quickly. And it’s probably going to be a costly pivot at that.

Drew: We’re at the end of our time, believe it not. I am amazed at how much information the three of you were able to get through and how little I had to talk. So I’m sure listeners are very, very happy with both of those facts. I want to thank all of you for joining us today. Amanda Wilkie with Boomer Consulting, Donny Shimamoto with IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, and Nikki Winston with The Winston CPA Group, thank you so much and stay safe and stay healthy.