Accounting's new normal: Balance, relationships and flexibility
The COVID-19 pandemic flipped our working world on its head. From work-life balance, to schools and daycares to social gatherings, almost no current business (or life) practice is the same as it was before. All industries have learned to adapt to keep their heads above water. Some have even thrived by quickly embracing work-remote models and new technologies. But as we slowly reopen our offices, what elements will we take away from these last few months, and which will we consider as survival mode only?
Until the pandemic, many small businesses were using programs and systems that required their accountant to be in-person and on-site to do tasks, including accounts payable and bank reconciliations. However, with the pandemic, financial professionals and small business owners were not able to access their offices. All that data, paper, check stock and more became completely inaccessible. Swift action was demanded to keep businesses’ lights on. The best course of action? Moving to the cloud. This leap was a forceful evolution of the industry for clients and accountants alike. The cloud seemed overwhelming and unsafe. Could you trust your data in the cloud? How could you really know the work was being done if you couldn’t see the accountants at work? Bills getting paid without cutting paper checks? Sounds scary and unreliable.
The cloud actually adds enormous benefits to the accounting industry, though it’s underutilized by many accounting professionals. In the cloud, information can be easily accessed by members of the team, no matter their location. This has become extremely important in the wake of the global pandemic that has transitioned most professionals to a remote workplace. The cloud offers secure virtual storage that is safe in case of fire, flood, theft or other disasters that would ruin physical records or hard drives. It is usually also backed up digitally, in case the main cloud fails. If there are mistakes, questions or concerns, it’s easy for the advisor or client to follow the digital "paper" trail and find and fix issues. (This also prevents fraud.) The cloud accounting software developers are constantly updating the features and user experiences, and many have intimate relationships with users and accounting partner firms that allow them to immediately develop and implement important changes, so you always have the most up-to-date experience — no buying disks or downloading new programs!
There were additional changes for all accountants. It was all-hands on to manage loan applications, develop cash flows and employee strategies — and this was all during tax season. This crisis opened up new processes to make the industry more efficient. It also helped accountants be more than number-crunchers. Navigating in uncharted waters, accountants became counselors, loan brokers, business coaches and friends to their clients, altering the definition of client relationships. It underscored how critical it is to have timely and correct bookkeeping. For example, when the Paycheck Protection Program loans started, it was a race for businesses to apply, and the funds went to those who had up-to-date records and projections at their fingertips. Clients were coming to their cloud-based accountants for counsel on whether or not they were eligible, what they could use their funds for and assistance with their applications.
We were working with more than 60 clients who were struggling with what to do about their PPP loans. One company had the challenge that they were still busy fulfilling orders from earlier this year. However, when the owner applied for the PPP, he needed only to show that uncertainty due to the shutdown could lead to financial distress. We counseled this client that because he was requesting the money in good faith, then it was appropriate to apply, since that is what the program was designed for at the time of his application.
These important conversations haven’t stopped. We not only talk about the clients’ businesses. Zooming truly broadcasts a person’s life, so we’ve gotten to know our clients’ kids, spouses and pets. They get to see me try to corral my teenagers, while still reviewing the client’s financial reports. This melting away of “professional” walls has made us more human to one another, and overall it strengthens our relationship. Before, we might have been too guarded to talk about struggles with our kids’ schooling or daycare woes, but the stay-at-home orders have been a great equalizer. We are now all in the same boat, managing our work and personal lives with full transparency to one another.
Having this well-rounded relationship brings clients and accountants closer as trusted allies and advisors. It allows us to be vulnerable with each other, which lends itself to giving a lot of grace when mistakes are made or deadlines missed (on either side). When we get through this crisis, the relationships we have with our clients will be stronger.
It is, of course, up to the company to create an environment that supports this evolution in the industry. Disruption is imminent in accounting, and tomorrow’s most successful companies are welcoming change today. Companies are fixing inefficiencies with cloud-based solutions. Some companies are even throwing out hourly billing and utilizing offshore bookkeeping teams to free up advisors to do more client-facing advisory work.
When the crisis is over, people will want to go to an office. We will start having coffees and lunches with clients again. We will visit their offices, meet their staff, and they may come to our office for a meeting. But overall, we need to continue what we have learned about business: tapping into technology and evolving our human connections. Even when things do revert to a “new normal,” I am hopeful that the trust and bonding that occurred during the COVID-19 crisis continues with our clients in the years to come.