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A spur to change

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Change is difficult and annoying and expensive — and all too easy to put off. The arguments against maintaining the status quo are theoretical; the cost and efforts involved in upsetting it, on the other hand, are quantifiable, and usually daunting. And so, in the end, we often change less quickly and less thoroughly than we need to.

You might well imagine that this is leading up to a discussion of the U.S. response to the coronavirus — and in a sense, it is — but it’s actually much more about the accounting profession’s slow response to two major trends, and why it must take this chance to change more quickly.

The first trend is about remote work. Survey after survey shows that young accountants prefer the flexibility of working from wherever they have an internet connection, but firms have been excruciatingly slow to give them this ability. They treat it as a perk, instead of a major retention tool and business continuity tactic.

The fact is that the exigencies of social distancing and the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus are going to see more and more workplaces closed across the country, and those firms are that haven’t at least begun to roll out technologies and training and policies are going to find themselves struggling to rebuild workflows, maintain teams, and deliver what clients need.

There’s very little short-term advice I can offer to make up for lost time, other than to jump in with whatever ad hoc solutions you can make work, and to recommend near-constant communication. Make sure you and your teams are calling, emailing, Skyping, Slacking, texting and otherwise generally keeping in touch to a degree that seems excessive. In the end, it won’t be excessive — it likely won’t be enough. Long-term, though, I would tell you to let this crisis be a spur to creating a serious plan around remote work, so that you can create a more attractive workplace for young accountants, better serve clients and be ready for future disasters.

The other trend is around advisory work, which you can start working on right now. The need to shift focus from backward-looking compliance services to more proactive consultative services has been talked about a great deal over the past few years, but many accountants have struggled with how, exactly, to make that shift.

Here’s how: Start calling your business clients right now to discuss the challenges raised by the coronavirus. They’ll need help assessing cash flow and making smart projections, reviewing loan covenants, lining up bridge financing, talking to banks and lenders, figuring out staff loads and employee counts, handling disrupted supply chains and much, much more. Set up a short checklist of issues to go over with them, and then open the discussion to any other issues they may see, and how you can help.

Don’t worry about pricing for now — in fact, if you can make it clear in advance that this isn’t being billed for, all the better. This is a tremendous opportunity to change clients’ perception of you, and to change both how you present your services and your value to them, and how you view yourself and your firm.

There are, obviously, much more important things to worry about during the current crisis than creating a robust infrastructure for your staff to work remotely or becoming more consultative, but if you can come out the other side of coronavirus further along in either of those areas, it will at least be a silver lining to what promises to be a long and difficult time for all of us.

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