Covid-19: How Your Firm Can Respond

Marc Rosenberg, CPA / Mar 16, 2020

As we navigate these unprecedented times, we at Rosenberg-Rampe Press are thinking of partners and staff at CPA firms throughout the world.  Your top priority must be the health and safety of your team members and your clients. 

For the first time in most of our lives, an international health crisis has the makings of a science-fiction scenario becoming reality.  As I write this on March 15, the situation puts us in uncharted territory and experts tell us will get continue to worse before it gets better. The optimist in me says this too shall pass, but I also feel that the world will learn from this crisis in ways that will last forever.

A cultural shift that will permanently change our lives

Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore was interviewed on television recently.  He was the joint task force commander for Hurricane Katrina.  When asked if we’re doing all that we need to do, he responded: “We need to optimize virtual work.  There will be a cultural shift in America that will permanently change our lives.  We will finally see that we don’t have to drive crosstown to sit in front of a computer.”

How CPA Firms Can Respond

Obvious tactic #1 – remote work. I have long felt the trend towards remote work has dire consequences because it isolates people and weakens their ability to function face-to-face, always the best form of communication.  But now, perhaps it’s time for myself and others to “get over it.”  Our physical health is more important than any form of communication.  Important related points:

  • Hand-in-hand with remote working is flexible scheduling. This needs to become the new normal.  CPA firm partners and managers must become experts at evaluating performance based on work results, not hours worked.
  • Many of our clients have been conscientious objectors when it comes to using client portals and video conferencing (for years, I’ve been shocked and disturbed at how few CPA firm partners fail to regularly use video conferencing). We, as CPAs, have enabled this behavior.  This needs to stop – now!  After CPAs get training on this, they need to train clients how to communicate digitally.
  • Firms need to ramp up their use of digital appointment setting on their websites.
  • Read our blog from last week about managing remote workers.

Obvious tactic #2 – dramatically reduce meetings and gatherings of “large” numbers of people. The warning we’ve all seen repeatedly is to eliminate flying and attendance at conferences for the near term.  For CPA firms, here are two related considerations:

  • Partner meetings and retreats should be done via video conferencing.
  • Client visits to our offices should be replaced by virtual communications wherever possible.

Disaster recovery plan. For years, this has been a leading candidate for the Most Important Process that Nobody Does award …until now.  CPAs need to treat the coronavirus crisis as the disaster that it truly is and create a written disaster plan that can be quickly put into use for this and future catastrophes.  This plan should not be written today and buried on a shelf.  It must have continuing action steps such as rigorous training of our personnel and clients and focus groups of firm personnel to get their ideas for managing future crises.

Accountability measures. I sincerely hope that the enormous scale of this virus crisis causes firms to hold their partners and staff accountable for compliance with the firm’s disaster policy.  These include:

  • Grounds for dismissal need to include violation of the firm’s written virus safety program. If the partners don’t follow the policy, you can bet that the staff won’t.
  • Many firms have a factor in their partner compensation system for partners being good corporate citizens – complying with the firm’s policies and procedures. Firms need to revisit this to ensure that all partners are proactively complying with virus safety provisions and setting an example for all personnel.

Partner buyout plans may need to be revisited for the impact of the virus. Death and disability provisions will need to be revisited regarding the relaxing of vesting provisions for older partners who, God forbid, contract the virus.

Business development and marketing. Consistent with the tactic of more electronic communication and less face-to-face, CPA firms will have to figure out ways to bring in business with less reliance on face-to-face meetings with prospects and referral sources.

Put more things in writing. Everyone, not just CPAs, is leery of putting an excessive amount of energy into written policies, procedures and processes for fear of being perceived as heavy-handed.  People simply don’t like reading these things.  But with the reduction in face-to-face interaction, it may be prudent to ramp up the number of written instructions to ensure that work processes are crystal clear.

Now more than ever, clients and team members are watching your actions and reactions as a leader, and your approach to this complex situation can bring the comfort and benefit of knowing that you have their best interests at heart. We wish you the best in weathering this storm.  Continue to take care of yourselves.

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