Pivoting Through the Pandemic: The Way Forward
As the pandemic progressed, accounting executives began to ask the tough questions: How long will it take for my firm, our clients or my company to rebound? What are some ways in which we will be operating differently? What’s the best way forward?
Accountants overcame many challenges last year and, in some cases, altered the way they work forever. Now accounting professionals everywhere face many decisions: Keep on operating like they have been or switch gears permanently and adapt to quicker, more efficient and more reliable technology, expanded customer service and flexible hours? What worked well during the pandemic and what will continue to work afterwards?
Adapting on the Fly
As Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D., managing partner at Hinge, a strategy, research, branding and marketing firm, explains, many clients discovered that they can easily work with their CPA firm remotely. “At the end of the day, these adjustments brought about improvements in how we recruited, operated and delivered our services,” he said. “As with many firms, we have learned that working from home offers flexibility that can help address talent shortages.”
Those who were able to adapt and initiate new offerings benefitted from the pandemic, he said. According to a June 2021 report conducted by the Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) and the Hinge Research Institute (accountingmarketing.org/publications/surveys/cpa-marketing-budgets), almost half of firms said the COVID-19 pandemic had an overall positive effect on them. “These developments have been a boon for many firms, with over 45 percent of firms reporting a net positive business impact from the crisis. They have garnered new opportunities and found ways to get further ahead of competitors,” explained Frederiksen.
Managers on the Move
When the pandemic shuttered offices, it also closed the gate on in-person training, onboarding and instructing. Managers had to be creative in working with staff, outlining plans and keeping on top of workloads. For CPAs, that meant Zoom calls, screen sharing and lots of chatting over Microsoft Teams and other products. As Christina White, CPA, MS, manager at Traphagen CPAs & Wealth Advisors, explains, “In person, I could easily follow up with my team members for status updates, scheduling or review throughout the day. When the stay-at-home order commenced, and we began to work on a fully remote basis, that effortless flow of communication was also abruptly shut down.”
Managers had to take a step back and evaluate the best method of working with staff and clients. White recognized early on that she needed to identify problems as they arose and implement changes to daily routines if working from home was going to be successful. “I quickly found that establishing more formal and scheduled one-on-one meetings with staff was necessary. This allowed us to have dedicated time for reviewing questions together, prioritizing tasks and even just to keep in contact and make sure that everyone was okay,” she said.
White immediately implemented weekly team scheduling meetings to monitor workflow, shifted projects around as needed and ensured that all deadlines and client needs would be met. Microsoft Teams and their chat tool was also used for more requent, informal contact, she said. “As the pandemic continued to change rapidly, it remained important to continue to monitor and evaluate these procedures, identify problems and implement adjustments as needed along the way. Maintaining effective communication all throughout helped my team to thrive during unprecedented times, and we continued to provide our clients with the highest possible level of service,” she added.
Other managers also understood the value of extra communication with staff and clients. “In a virtual environment, it is extremely easy to fly under the radar. It takes more effort to be visible to your staff; you really must make a concerted effort. By being visible and putting your best foot forward, you are also perceived as approachable,” says Nicole DeRosa, CPA, MAcc, senior tax manager at Wiss. “Effectively managing your staff, as well as the relationships with your staff, is key to a cohesive department and pleasant work environment — it is a win-win.”
Though DeRosa always maintained a hands-on approach to working with staff and clients, she had even more contact during the pandemic. “The teacher in me comes out, and demonstrating or showing a staff member something seems to go a lot further than simply giving an answer over a Teams chat,” she adds. “Pre-pandemic, I would always send ‘thought you might be interested in this’ emails as well as holiday cards, etc. During the pandemic and going forward, nothing has seemed to change except perhaps the frequency of the ‘thought you might be interested in this’ email being sent since the tax laws changed so drastically in a short period of time during the height of COVID.”
Those accounting professionals who used effective tools like video conferencing to connect with staff as well as clients and customers were ahead of the pack. As Ken Huffman, CPA, president of CPA to CPA, Inc., explains, “The inability to look directly into the other person’s eyes is certainly not ideal, but the ability to see the other person and not just hear a voice is a bonding step.” Video conferencing, he adds, provided the ability to schedule meetings faster and back-to-back as opposed to in-person. “Clients can simply click a few buttons to enter a meeting space — now that’s efficient!” While he said nothing can take the place of a face-to-face meeting accompanied by a firm handshake, video conferencing platforms have been “an innovative asset to the fabric of our business workings.”
While all businesses are decidedly altered from before the pandemic, accounting professionals everywhere are left to ponder how effectively their organization and their clients’ or customers’ business operated at that time and what could have been done differently. Accounting staff should expect their previous ways of doing business to be disrupted considerably.
Christina M. White
Christina M. White, CPA, MS, is a senior tax accountant at Traphagen Financial Group. She is a member of NJCPA's Emerging Leaders and State Taxation interest groups as well as the Student Programs & Scholarships Committee.
Ken Huffman, CPA, is president of CPA to CPA, Inc.
Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D., is the managing partner of Hinge. He is an author and frequent speaker on strategy, marketing and organizational management. He can be reached at 703-391-8870 x101.