Taking stock of your firm: What has changed and will change

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Following various telemeetings with members of BKR International over the past few weeks, we have heard about the trials and triumphs of life and accounting practice management amidst the specter of COVID-19.

Foremost, firm leaders mobilized their teams to meet stay-at-home or shelter-in-place requirements and still serve their clients. They also accelerated communication on relief funding, tax extensions and business transactions already in play. Whether they set up online resource centers or jumped on hours of phone and video calls, clients have already taken note of that service.

Lessons were learned, sometimes with excitement and sometimes with pain, but leaders say they are taking stock of what they can change and what they will keep doing. This early analysis may reveal a faster shift in how public accounting and advisory works from now on.

Culture is everything

Gillian Siemelink has been a marketing specialist at Briggs & Veselka Co. LLP in Houston for a little more than two years. With friends in other industries laid off or furloughed, it makes her appreciate the regular updates she gets from the managing partner about how the firm is doing financially. But the firm also reminds employees about resources for virtual health counseling and self-care while everyone works remotely.

“We actually have an associate activities committee, and they got to work in mid-March planning hundreds of ideas for us to stay connected socially,” she said. “We have had weird costume competitions, cocktail tutorials and donations to nonprofits. I myself have helped to lead weekly virtual workouts. One was a country dance theme, but I didn’t do very well with that!”

The committee makes sure that employees interact with each other at different times through the week for more than work — just as they would in the office.

“Things change a lot when you’re not seeing people you normally do, and these activities have definitely helped to keep up morale. It’s made us watch out for each other’s wellbeing,” Siemelink added.

How accounting firms treat their teams during a crisis says a lot about the kind of culture they are — and how successful they will be with recruitment in the future, Siemelink adds. “Throughout this time, I have felt empowered to be a leader,” she said. “I really respect how they have handled things.”

Remote is here to stay

While many accounting firms had remote work or work-at-home policies and options, none of them were as widespread in practice as they are now. For example, Moore Beauston & Woodham LLP CPAs in Charleston, South Carolina, has four offices. Historically, they conducted weekly management calls and firm-wide teleconferences. That groundwork helped the firm transition and “not miss a beat” when moving to remote work, said John Beauston, a CPA and managing partner.

The firm is gearing up to transition faster from desktop computers to laptops in the coming months. “We have a very secure environment for remote work, and we were already scheduled in the next 24 months to move to laptops. But we pushed up our deadline,” Beauston said. “We want our teams to be able to pack up laptops and have their big monitors already at home to plug in and go.”

Beauston added that they have also learned about remote management. While some people easily adapt to new conditions, others appreciate more calls and collaboration to manage their work and meet deadlines. “We have a workflow system, too, but much of our work in recent weeks has involved video and conference calls. Clients have appreciated having access to a staff person, but also the manager and partner simultaneously to answer questions quickly.”

At DS+B CPAs and Business Advisors in Minneapolis, the executive leadership team is actively reaching out to employees personally each week, said managing partner Sean Boland. “That means that each employee hears from all four of us as a social call to check in. On the work side, our managers are doing more supervision of staff and training than they would when in the office. So we have stayed pretty connected,” Boland said.

Business is a partnership

Beauston and other firm leaders recognize that some clients will continue to prefer in-person options. While as many as 60 percent of Moore Beauston & Woodham clients are now using cloud-based e-delivery of documents for e-signatures and payments, many still want the option to drop off or pick up documents at the office. “They can still pick up or drop off information right now without interacting with the staff too much. It’s still personal, and they appreciate that,” Beauston said.

With a proactive focus on their clients, Boland agrees that this effort will sustain industry growth while leaders adapt marketing and business development priorities for the rest of the year. Naturally, his firm is also in touch with area banks to support loan questions and client reconciliation. “We will definitely explore new services based on what we’ve learned in the past few months,” he said.

Beauston said his firm has also experienced an uptick in communication with referral sources to elevate the quality of information going to their clients either on their website or via webinars. They are in talks with those referral sources on emerging areas of business needs. “We have made a conscious decision to help our clients survive and still be our clients six months from now. Our time commitment with that will impact billable percentages, no doubt, so we are exploring new future profit centers now.”

Now that firms have experienced it fully, Beauston expects that remote work and the technology to serve clients conveniently will be a permanent mode of working for the industry…not only for logistics, but also some quality of life. “I have been practicing for 30-plus years, and with the extended [tax] deadlines this is the first spring in Charleston I could really take in and enjoy. I have seen some great sunsets.”

Siemelink at Briggs & Veselka says that each niche group in her firm is looking at client needs now and what they will need in the future. Business development and marketing teams are collaborating closely on webinars, articles and replacements for canceled trade shows to reach out and share their knowledge.

“I think we’ll be experts on SBA program consulting after this experience,” she said, only half jokingly. “We’re all working to figure out what life and business look like from here.”

Taking care of people and partnering through new forms of communication are central to how accounting firms are taking stock of their practices right now, and really, that focus should continue no matter what comes next.

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Coronavirus Practice management