Setting your firm’s priorities amid the coronavirus crisis

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COVID-19 has thrust so much change on us recently and it keeps coming at an unprecedented pace. The most significant change is ensuring everyone’s safety and health, but in addition to changing our focus to health and wellness, we are also faced with shifting priorities in our firms, work and with our clients, too. Specifically, we must shift priorities in these four areas: services that clients need now, service delivery models, staffing shifts and the health and safety of your team and clients.

First, we should all take a deep breath. Practice deep breathing for a moment — a favorite yoga exercise of mine that will help you clear your mind and get centered about what to do next. Pausing for just two minutes to inhale and exhale deeply three times will empower you to proceed and navigate the ever-changing priorities in front of you. This will ensure you’re ready to uncover the most pressing priorities for your clients and team and help them navigate theirs, too.

Then, be careful about your desire to operate “business as usual” — getting tax returns out the door, audits completed, and consulting projects delivered. Because right now, it is more important to stop and understand what your clients need now and to deliver them support. The tax return may not be the most pressing deliverable for your client, because they’re more worried about business continuity and cash flow. They may need help today in obtaining a Small Business Administration loan, projecting cash flow, revising budgets, figuring out technology and how to work remotely or even scaling for those essential businesses that are scaling at an out-of-control pace. And your staff may need help adjusting their schedule to accommodate for kids and a spouse at home now, too, before they can reconfigure their work priorities and commit to deliverables in the queue.

Once you’ve centered yourself and resolved to shift your priorities, here are some suggestions for your new focus in the following four areas:

1. Client priorities and the services that will best help them now

  • Prioritizing client follow-up, starting with your A and B clients.
  • Understanding the SBA loans and CARE relief and identifying the clients who can benefit from these first; and developing a firm-wide approach to scale these services.
  • Updating your clients’ annual budgets, loans, insurance policies and more to reflect the changing market
  • Providing assistance related to cash flow management and non-essential cost reductions to remain viable during the crisis.
  • Helping clients who are “winning” due to the crisis, especially in essential industries like food distribution, health care, cleaning services and equipment, technology and others.
  • Brainstorming new products or services that companies can pivot to that are in dire need right now and will help them stay in business (e.g., making masks or providing delivery services).
  • Assisting clients with technology or remote capabilities to shift their workforce, service delivery, accounting and billing, and more to a “work from home” environment.
  • Providing new consulting services in the area of HR and remote work, DOL and other labor laws, adhering to loan covenants and more.
  • And, for some clients, completing their tax returns or audit if that is their priority today.

2. Potential service delivery model shifts that need to be made

  • Moving in-person audits to remote immediately — and teaching your clients how to work remotely to support this remote service delivery.
  • Facilitating tax meetings virtually.
  • Pivot consulting, coaching and planning meetings to telephone or video conference — don’t stop advising because we can’t do so in person right now.
  • Obtaining engagement letters and client documents digitally and implementing e-sign capabilities.
  • Billing electronically via Bill.com and accepting e-money via PayPal, Venmo or other digital applications.
  • Reducing paper as much as possible (which may mean deferring some client work until social distancing restrictions are lifted).

3. Shift staffing priorities

  • Ensuring a productive set up at home, which includes technology (allow them to bring it home from the office but manage getting it for them to ensure physical safety).
  • Understanding each team members’ unique set up and circumstances at home so you can be empathetic and help them balance their work commitments and new home commitments.
  • Setting expectations for working from home, including response time and accessibility expectations and communication vehicles (i.e. Teams, Zoom, Skype for Business) and put written work-from-home guidelines in place.
  • Deploying consultants or other team members that may be slower to other projects or engagements.
  • Shifting consultants and any dedicated business development professionals to reach out to A and B clients with consistent questions to ask and specific instructions for reporting back what they learned.
  • Defining new and changing timelines for client delivery and move away from managing hours to focusing more on specific deliverables expected, such as number of tax returns prepared, reviewed, and filed, audit components completed, or financial statements issued.
  • Having a plan in place if someone gets sick (or they need to take care of a family member that gets sick) and how to support them and reassign client work.

4. Continually monitor health priorities to ensure your team and clients stay safe and healthy

  • Move to remote work, which most firms have done for at least a portion of their team, but more may need to be done as states and cities put “stay at home” orders and close non-essential business; even though public accounting firms are considered essential, be sure you’re supporting team members who need to stop in the office are doing so safely and following CDC guidelines.
  • Practicing social distancing and increased hygiene practices is imperative, too — and non-negotiable.
  • Helping your team members prioritize their health and well-being with enough sleep, exercise, getting outside and eating healthy.
  • Reducing — and working toward eliminating — paper. For example, ask clients to take pictures of their documents and text them to you if they can’t find another electronic way to get them to you.
  • Keeping up social interactions via phone calls and video meetings versus communicating solely by email and instant messaging. Schedule virtual social hours, coffee breaks, lunches and games throughout the week to let people connect and let down their hair.

Understanding and navigating priorities requires strong communication too. Work to balance broad, general messages to your team and clients about the changes as they come out with one-on-one communication tailored to each unique situation. While there is broad messaging around the relief packages, extensions and other impacts to individuals and businesses, each client is expecting that you will help them navigate and determine their priorities. Your team is looking to you also to lead them through this time of uncertainty, too, to manage stress and fear and navigate work-from-home set up, new schedules, and client priorities. While you’ll have some firm-wide guidelines, help uncover each individual’s need.

Approach every conversation you have with your clients and team members by checking in first and asking how they are doing and what’s worrying them or what they are trying to solve. Then you can prioritize their opportunities, concerns and actions how you can support them.

Resist pretending that “business as usual” will work during these unprecedented times. Instead, approach your work with curiosity, compassion, faith and straight talk. Your clients and people will remember this when we get on the other side of this (and we will!).

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