Virtual 2.0 - Lessons Learned
Looking in the rearview mirror at the way CPAs and other accounting professionals conducted themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, one can see that they managed near-impossible feats.
Not only did CPAs digest new tax laws, understand federal guidance and initiate loan applications all in the blink of an eye — they also maintained, and in most cases, enhanced their customer-centric focus by handholding clients and organizations while doing everything virtually. At a longer glance, they didn’t just pivot away from old ways of functioning; CPAs and other accounting professionals reset, redirected and reconfigured what they could to deliver for their companies and clients. And, in the process, they transformed their role in the accounting profession — perhaps, forever.
Every accounting professional was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent implications, from interns and entry-level staff to managing partners and CFOs. As a 2021 AICPA blog reveals, those in business and industry were not immune to that transformation as more responsibilities were collectively heaped on them and they excelled in many new ones. According to the blog, “…CFOs and other finance professionals have moved out of their own realms during the pandemic to become more involved in a variety of other areas, such as supply chain and liquidity concerns.”
The same goes for accounting firms. CPAs and their staff learned it wasn’t enough to simply inform customers about new tax laws; to truly earn their “essential” status, they needed to help manage, direct and strategize side by side with those hair salon and pet shop owners more than ever before. As Martin McCarthy, CPA, CCIFP, managing partner of McCarthy & Company, PC, points out, the pandemic showed the need to be proactive and “get ahead of the curve.” His company’s decision to launch Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan consulting assisted in buoying clients as well as his own firm. “This has helped us to build deeper relationships with our clients while providing them with valuable services to keep their businesses going. It has also given us the opportunity to increase billable hours on many engagements, and our realization rate has increased by 4 percent.”
The pandemic also led accounting firms to start offering completely new services. James C. Bourke, CPA, CITP, CFF, CGMA, a partner and managing director of Withum’s advisory services practice and a keynote speaker at the NJCPA Virtual Convention in June, says the pandemic led his firm to launch cybersecurity consulting services to assist clients with concerns relating to the new remote work environment and to use tools like Microsoft Power BI to help those having data analysis and visualization challenges. “With this pandemic continuing to hang around, I encourage all practitioners to search for that silver lining and ask their clients about ways that they can help them outside of the traditional accounting and tax space,” says Bourke.
Salvatore Collemi, CPA, managing member and founder of Collemi Consulting & Advisory Services, LLC, recognized the added services clients were clamoring for at the height of the pandemic. Collemi, who already had virtual offerings in place and international customers before the pandemic, acknowledges that his “business was born in the virtual space.” Expanding on his current audit expertise and data analytics offerings, Collemi realized that CPA firms needed technical accounting and auditing consulting servicesnow more than ever. “I knew virtual was going to be the wave of the future, but I did not think it was going to come so rapidly,” he explains.
While most of Collemi’s business was already set up virtually, managing CPE training sessions did pose some challenges when having to convert from in-person to an all-remote format. “Physical CPE instructing got disrupted. We had to learn how to instruct differently and how to keep the audience fully engaged in the virtual realm. This was a new skill that instructors had to learn,” says Collemi. When he first started his business in 2016, he questioned whether technical consultants would be in demand thousands of miles away, but “now people are gravitating towards it as a new alternative,” he says.
Good communication — and a lot of it — also helped keep clients satisfied and businesses afloat during the chaos of last year. As McCarthy acknowledges, “We sent out hundreds of alerts on topics ranging from government stimulus programs, state mandates, HR issues, legislation, accounting and tax updates, as well as safety protocols. Our goal was to provide a myriad of information that we considered essential to get through the pandemic.”
Conducting almost everything virtually created both advantages and disadvantages when communicating with clients, vendors and other company executives. “The main challenges we have faced throughout this period are the reduction in face-to-face client meetings/correspondence and working on projects with those who’s in-office schedule does not follow your own. While going virtual with a flexible work schedule has its benefits, the loss of being in the same room with a client or colleague can never be replaced,” says Steven Budryk, CPA, MS, an accountant at Traphagen & Traphagen CPAs, LLC.
Training staff was also difficult. “One of the major challenges I have faced with going virtual and having hybrid work schedules was ‘on-the-job training,’” explains Nicole DeRosa, CPA, MAcc, senior tax manager at Wiss. “The days of walking over to a cube to show a staff member how to do something have been replaced with screen sharing and phone conversations. As an instructor, it was much easier to engage with those in a classroom setting compared to a virtual setting,” she said, noting that improvising to ensure staff are where they should be from a development perspective has become more important than ever. “Being that I am an old soul, I personally miss the face-to-face interaction when it comes to staff training.”
But with technology, video conferencing and a greater emphasis on phone calls, Budryk explains that virtual meetings came to be so effective, they were often preferred by clients — something that’s likely to last beyond the pandemic. “There have been multiple instances whereclients have virtually ‘walked away’ from meetings where they understood more clearly the information presented when compared to the ‘old way’ of meetings,” he says. “In previous meetings, oral communication reigned superior; now through virtual meetings, data and other reports become priority followed by a robust discussion.”
Similarly, lessons from going virtual did not fall on deaf ears. According to Marc Staut, shareholder and chief innovation and information officer at Boomer Consulting, Inc., and a keynote speaker at the NJCPA Virtual Convention in June, “Many of our clients have found that, contrary to their initial expectations, and with a little effort, they have been able to build closer relationships with their clients. The virtual interactions have simplified reaching out to connect more often, and the topics have been much more wide-ranging and truly advisory instead of transactional.”
And, for some, updating technology ahead of the pandemic paid off in spades. “Although we were not prepared for the complete devastation that the pandemic brought upon our nation, as a firm, we were well prepared for adjusting to the new remote work environment,” said Bourke, having decided years ago to migrate Withum's systems to the cloud. “Although we dove into the cloud prior to the pandemic, I often say that it took a pandemic to get our team members to embrace the remote-work concept.”
Managing a remote workforce has come with its own hurdles, however, whether accounting professionals are at the bottom of the staffing ladder or are a managing partner or CFO. According to Kathleen Caminiti, Esq., New Jersey partner at Fisher Phillips and co-chair of the firm’s wage and hour practice, wage and hour compliance, employee engagement and retention — especially of women in the workplace — and employee relations are all issues that have to be dealt with before any kind of “normal” workforce return can happen.
Adds Caminiti, “Remote work has created even more challenges for working women, so employers must step up to help curb the long-term damage that has been done over the past year. Additionally, it has been widely reported that the pandemic has driven many women from the American workforce and has created challenges for employers in retaining this critical part of our workforce.”
For those looking to network or switch jobs, the prospects have also been bleak with only remote events or activities. Like others in the business world, accounting professionals were not able to keep up that in-person skillset of networking as opportunities slowed down immensely or completely stopped. Some outliers exist, for sure, but in general networking is not occurring at the pace it was prior to the pandemic, though most in the industry are hopeful some semblance can return eventually. With the exception of the occasional virtual happy hour or learn-to-cook class, for example, CPAs and accounting professionals have had difficulties in meeting new customers, clients and colleagues.
Interns perhaps more than any other group of individuals felt the impact of minimal networking during the past year. Since it was harder to obtain internships, as offices cut back on expenses, few had overly bright job prospects and crucial experience ahead of taking the CPA Exam. Nicole Garcia, an accountant at Traphagen & Traphagen CPAs, LLC, says she was lucky to have already interned at her firm two years prior to the pandemic, but the same cannot be said for many of her classmates. “I think the most damaging effect of the pandemic on accounting students is the limited opportunities within the industry at this moment and the difficulties associated with networking virtually.”
As she explains, the pandemic will limit candidates’ exposure to the profession prior to sitting for the Exam. “From what I have seen, students are not participating in onsite internships which I believe are essential to one’s success within the industry,” she said.
Some new hires, though, did get onboarded virtually, with some success. As Bourke notes, “We found that we were able to deploy a whole new class of new hires (in excess of 100) totally remotely.” This was done by shipping laptops via FedEx, he says, and training virtually.
CPAs and other accounting professionals had, and continue to have, many items on their plates during the pandemic, whether they work in public or private practice or work as part of a team determining corporate, governmental/nonprofit or academic budgets and policies for their organizations. But the most savvy professionals did not forget about their employees. Keeping staff motivated during these turbulent times has been top of mind for all kinds of businesses, particularly CPA firms.
Barry S. Kleiman, CPA, principal of Untracht Early LLC, made it a priority to keep his staff engaged during the pandemic. “In lieu of in-person office socialization, our firm held small group events, happy hours and a choose-a-Zoom-holiday-party activity, where employees were able to participate in and interact with a smaller group of their peers. In the spring, they also helped raise funds while getting healthy and supporting their favorite charities. “Our regular firm town halls are also an important part of staying connected and disseminating information, especially during these unusual times,” adds Kleiman.
As Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, president and CEO of American Institute of CPAs and an NJCPA Virtual Convention keynote, explains, “At the AICPA, we realized early in the pandemic that we needed to focus on our people and enhance the support mechanisms we already had in place. We’ve responded with all-employee webcasts where we discuss mental health, along with practical resources that we update frequently.” He added, “As part of our commitment, all staff took a mental health day in early November.”
Barry S. Kleiman
Barry S. Kleiman, CPA, is a principal at Untracht Early LLC. He is a member of the New Jersey Society of CPAs' Content Advisory Board and the State Taxation and Federal Taxation interest groups. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barry C. Melancon
Barry C. Melancon, CPA, CGMA, is the president and chief executive officer at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). As head of the largest body of CPAs in the world, Melancon is called upon to represent the Institute with state, national and international organizations and is sought after by key opinion leaders for his expertise. Under Melancon, the Institute has spearheaded a number of initiatives designed to benefit not only the profession, but also investors, business owners, lenders and the general public. These include audit quality centers; an Audit Committee Effectiveness Center; private company reporting standards; eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL); the computerized CPA Exam; and two consumer financial literacy education programs. Under Melancon’s leadership, the AICPA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) developed a joint venture to establish the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation to elevate management accounting globally.
James C. Bourke
James C. Bourke, CPA, CITP, CFF,CGMA, is a partner and the director of firm technology at WithumSmith+Brown. He has served as chair of the AICPA CITP Credential Committee and the AICPA Tech+ Conference. He has been named by Accounting Today as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting” and by CPA Practice Advisor as a “Top 25 Thought Leader in the Accounting Profession.” He is a past president of the New Jersey Society of CPAs.
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Marc is the chief innovation & information officer at Boomer Consulting, Inc. A firm believer that technology should be an enabler – something that’s approachable, aligned with and integral to the success of each firm, Marc is known for his ability to create and articulate corporate vision and move teams to embrace it. He is a regular speaker, author and panelist on technology in the accounting profession, cloud computing, mobile tecnology, leadership and vision.
Martin C. McCarthy
Martin C. McCarthy, CPA, CCIFP, is the managing partner of McCarthy & Company, a leader in construction accounting. He can reached at marty.mccarthy@MCC-CPAs.com.
Steven J. Budryk
Steven Budryk, CPA, MS, is a senior accountant at Traphagen CPAs & Wealth Advisors. He is a member of the NJCPA Emerging Leaders Interest Group and Student Programs & Scholarships Committee and can be reached at email@example.com.
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This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.