COVID, Adversity and Innovation

Marc Rosenberg, CPA / May 26, 2020

“Sometimes adversity is what you need to face in order to become successful.”  – Zig Ziglar

Our country has a long way to go before we fully adapt to a COVID-19 world and navigate compounding national issues.  But CPA firms are resilient and have made major strides in adapting to a new and challenging environment.  I took some time recently to jot down a few high-impact observations.  If you don’t see any mention of people working remotely and communicating via video conferencing, the reason is obvious – everyone’s doing it.

 

What have firms learned so far?

The pandemic is giving firms a reason to embrace change like never before. Why?  Because they have no choice.  Life at CPA firms as we knew it pre-pandemic will never return.  Normal is gone.  Get over it.  Firms’ attitudes must be to innovate and make changes today instead of waiting for miracles.

Here are a few high-impact things firms have learned so far; some firms are learning them rapidly while others are slow learners.

  1. Clients really appreciate their CPAs. Accountants have become lifesavers for their clients by helping them navigate the complexities of the government stimulus programs and generally providing advice, counsel and solace on survival.  This goodwill will play a huge role in the recovery of accounting firms.

 

  1. CPA firms are appreciating the importance of staff communications like never before. Staff communications have never been easy for CPA firms and were done inconsistently and somewhat poorly before the pandemic. And communication is much more difficult now because firms’ personnel are not all in the same office anymore.  Partners, in particular, need to be much more deliberate and planned about keeping in touch with staff, not only regarding their client work but their training, development and morale.  Partners must get resourceful and proficient at learning how to mentor people by looking at a video screen.

 

  1. Related to #2, many pundits who espoused remote work pre-pandemic gave short shrift to the inevitable, negative impact of supervisors spending less face time with staff, including the informal and hard-to-measure benefits of ad hoc rubbing of shoulders with co-workers in the office. Interestingly, as the huge impact of the pandemic on personnel’s work lives and their sanity (partners and staff alike) have become apparent, one of the biggest issues emerging is staff lamenting over the lack of interpersonal interaction.  The very people who demanded more remote work time now crave face-to face-time. This is especially problematic for younger staff, who need more attention and guidance than more experienced personnel. Do they need it all the time, every day? No. But would they benefit from some amount? Yes.

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Major challenges to CPA firms that still need to be conquered

Staff Performance.  Over the ten years or so prior to the pandemic, powerful changes evolved in how CPAs work.  Working remotely, unlimited PTO and flexible work hours changed the workplace forever – for the good.  But one change was not progressing well.  Many supervisors remained perplexed on how to evaluate and measure staff performance (let’s focus on partner performance another day).  Traditional measures relied heavily on billable hours, realization and butts in seats (supervisors satisfying themselves that staff were getting work done by visually seeing them at their desks, at work).  Quality of work performed has also been a common measure of performance, but CPAs have long done a fairly good job at measuring this (can you say “review notes?”).

Now and forever, part of the New Normal will be CPAs learning how to evaluate and measure performance by results, not hours or butts in seats.  This won’t be easy, but since CPAs will have no choice, they will adapt.  This transition won’t be smooth and mistakes will be made along the way.  But it will change and eventually, CPAs will get there.

 

Bringing in New Business.  For most CPAs, business development has always been highly stylized.  Those more proficient at bringing in business almost totally relied on face-to-face interaction such as taking prospects out to lunch, asking existing clients for referrals, meeting with referral sources such as lawyers and bankers, and playing golf.  All of that has changed now due to the pandemic and is unlikely to return to normal any time soon. Firms will have to figure out new ways to get business using different tactics. It’s time to find out what your prospects are doing virtually and meet them there. Set up a zoom meeting with a referral source and see how it goes, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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