Boomer’s Blueprint: The benefits of a pandemic
The year 2020 will go down as one of interruption, disruption and innovation. Your mindset determines whether this is good or bad. I choose to focus on the benefits, although I must admit I am a realist, and it has taken some adjusting to focus only on the positives. There are more positives as we move through the pandemic. I believe we will be more future-ready as a profession due to the accelerated transformation.
Transformation is exponential change, not incremental. Exponential change is best explained as something that shows 10X potential or resulting change. I choose to focus on areas that most people in the accounting profession have already identified as challenges or obstacles prior to the pandemic:
- Digital workflow;
- Knowledge transfer;
- Travel (time and expense);
- More productive meetings; and,
Over the past 20 years, we’ve assisted larger firms in developing technology and practice management strategy, including talent, processes and growth. Many of these items have been on firms’ priority lists for several years, while others have become apparent more recently. A good example is leveraging a virtual workforce. Within 48 hours, during the busiest time of the year, firms became virtual. Some firms had plans, technology and people already in place. For them, the sudden pandemic was less disruptive than for those who had perhaps thought about a virtual workforce, but due to personal preference or procrastination hadn’t acted or adequately prepared.
As of late summer, most CPAs will agree that things will be different going forward, and we are still establishing the new normal on a daily basis. With this said, let’s explore some of those exponential changes in more detail.
1. Digital workflow. It’s impossible to leverage technology and other resources with paper in the processes. Most firms say they are paperless. In reality, there is less paper, but many still utilize paper in their processes. To compete and leverage a remote workforce, it is imperative to focus on standardizing and digitizing their processes, which means eliminating paper. Three areas that firms have seen exponential improvement in are:
- Billing and collections;
- Tax return preparation, including the aggregation of data and delivery of the final products; and,
- Audit processes.
These are examples of processes that have improved. Still, there are many more that can be automated utilizing digital workflow, artificial intelligence and machine learning (e.g., digital signatures, proposal writing and audit work papers and analytics).
2. Knowledge transfer. With the large number of retiring professionals and the need to train younger employees, knowledge transfer has been on many firms’ strategic plans. Some partners have developed solutions to capture knowledge. Yet few have leveraged technology to its potential due to the lack of standard processes and training. Most CPAs have been exposed to video conferencing during the past few months, but surprisingly few are utilizing this technology to its potential. Good examples are virtual client and team meetings. Accountants aren’t aware of Zoom’s polling, breakout sessions, transcripts and recording features. Two examples besides Zoom are Miro (a virtual whiteboard with sticky notes) and VirBELA (virtual offices and conferences with exhibit halls).
3. Travel. Travel is more obvious, yet worthy of mention due to the improved results for firms, employees and clients. For years I have heard partners discuss travel time and whether it was chargeable, built into billing rates or just part of the job. I believe travel has changed forever, as we are now in both virtual and physical worlds. Some refer to the virtual world as “Cloudlandia.” The most visible benefits have been the time and dollars saved. The less obvious benefits have been increased learning, better work/life integration and more capacity.
Many still talk about their preference for a physical world. I admit that feeling creeps in, but the further we get into Cloudlandia, the faster I come back to the reality that things will be different in the “new normal.” That “new normal” is being defined each day. Our profession is being impacted minimally compared to other professions and industries. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, insurance, medical and retail are just a few. I feel gratitude.
4. Meetings. Everyone has an opinion about meetings: too many, not enough, and meetings that are unproductive. The virtual world can produce more productive and shorter meetings, but it takes planning, preparation and experience. On a personal note, our team has evolved over the years from all being office-based to a hybrid model, and finally, a virtual environment that started approximately five years ago.
Efficient and effective meetings are cultural and require planning. We utilize two primary tools: Zoom video conferencing and collaborative Box Notes for agendas, minutes and related document links. The most important thing about collaborative notes is to have a standard agenda template that participants get accustomed to and can quickly review online if unable to attend the meeting.
Cadence and frequency are also important. Like most large firms, it is impossible for everyone to attend regularly scheduled meetings due to consulting, community and training engagements. Our system and processes allow those who are unable to participate to quickly review the information and remain informed. Videos have also become more prevalent.
Here are a few tips on how to accelerate acceptance within your organization:
- Use video conferencing for all of your internal calls and meetings. This will get your people comfortable and familiar with the technology involved.
- Don’t have meetings without an agenda and defined purpose.
- Supplement meetings with tools like Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook.
- Place different people in the leader’s role and allow them to conduct the meeting. This is great training and leadership development experience.
- Start and end on time. Seek input from those who are new and who are less outspoken.
5. Innovation. Innovation should be a part of your culture. Innovation means coming up with something new or a big idea. Unfortunately, innovation does not happen just by saying, “We are an innovative firm.” Innovation requires hindsight, insight and foresight. The pandemic forced firms to make big changes to workflow, client services and many processes that have improved the client experience, added increased value, and advanced the firm into the digital and virtual world.
With this said, innovation occurs when there is a process in place to foster innovation. This requires time and resources, as well as a method for evaluating and funding priority ideas. Some firms have trouble with the concept of failing fast and moving on to the next priority, but this mindset is necessary for innovation.
Many firms are comfortable playing the role of letting others innovate and then adopting what they believe to be best practices into their firms. I believe a combination of both serves most firms best. Exponential change has been forced upon most firms and their clients. The majority of firms have responded remarkably and lived up to their title of “most trusted business advisor.” Keep up the good work and continue to focus on the benefits coming from this period of exponential change. Remember, the solutions you develop for your firm have the potential to add value to your clients in the areas of leadership, talent, technology, processes and growth.
Think — plan — grow!