Accounting Today: Creating the firm of the future, today, amid COVID

By: Steven Templeton and Robert Wells

The economic shock of the COVID-19 crisis has been greater than any previous crisis. Industry sectors have been forced to change. Some will never be the same. These impacts are being felt at home and in our businesses.

As accounting practice owners, the recent COVID-19 virus has demanded that many accounting firm partners and staff work from home. Firm leaders have discovered that what they originally thought was unthinkable, has made its way on the partner priority list. Remote workers are here to stay!

Similar to every crisis in the past, entrepreneurial leaders can embrace new opportunities that have risen from the ashes.

Automation and digital transformation

  • Firms can embrace intelligent automation such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence, transforming manual, tedious processes into automated processes. Automation, which can be completed remotely, improves efficiency, enhances employee sentiment and reduces errors.
  • Firms can expand their workforce into a 24/7/365 digital workforce with bots that, like digital workers, work alongside and augment their human co-workers.
  • Adopting “smart” optical character recognition and intelligent character recognition technologies can greatly accelerate a firm’s transition from manual paper-based processes to digital-data-centered business processes.

Embrace cloud-based technology

  • Regardless of what systems are being used, data is the new currency. Firms that embrace change will gain control over data and make better, more informed decisions.
  • Investing in systems and processes that unify data will reduce the need for multiple disparate technology systems.
  • Firms should consider using web-based business intelligence tools to visualize and monitor the firm’s performance measures on a current basis.
  • Keep the pulse of your customers by building out digital touchpoints with clients, prospects and referral sources.

Re-imagining offices and workspaces

  • Your workforce is now permanently or occasionally working from home, cutting commute time and increasing the time available to work beyond “normal” work hours.
  • Office space costs can be reduced by re-thinking the effective utilization of office space such as:
  • Establishing more collaborative huddle rooms;
  • Enlarged conference rooms for larger meetings or just those days when the entire firm may need to be present;
  • Downsizing and providing fewer individual workstations;
  • Implementing a hoteling concept, as having one office/workspace for each partner/staff is no longer a necessity.

Communication and collaboration 2.0

Beyond needing to physically meet periodically, firms are embracing newer tools to enhance communication and collaboration in real-time, such as:

  • Basic internet-based VoIP telephone systems that can be accessed anytime and from anywhere;
  • Meeting virtually from anywhere using audio and video communication tools that integrated with daily work communication tools (Office 365, G-suite) such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and WebEx.

Lastly, as business owners and partners, we need a renewed focus on our culture, our people and their capabilities. It is within our grasp to:

  • Build a culture of agility and adaptability to anticipate the next wave of crisis, environmental challenges and increased competition;
  • Prioritize the handful of the most tangible and critical business skills and commit to harmonizing them deep into the firm;
  • Look for the agile, technology-fluent, resilient leaders in the firm who can cut across silos to be champions for new digital transformation initiatives; and
  • Adopt agile project management to involve more team members in goal planning and encourage more transparency and collaboration across your firm.

To survive in this new economy, firm leaders must work with the speed and agility necessary to advance business transformation post-crisis. Leaders who enable teams that can embrace new ways of working and leverage technology will thrive in the post-COVID economy.

This article was published in Accounting Today on August 19, 2020.