The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused companies across the world to temporarily close their doors in an effort to halt or slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus. Many offices, including CPA firms, are able to continue doing business, albeit in a reduced capacity, by having their employees work remotely while practicing social distancing or self-isolation. Not all CPA firms, however, were fully prepared for the onset of a crisis like this. The author’s firm has allowed remote work as a matter of course for some time, and this article lays out some of the steps firms can take to ensure that they are able to weather the crisis.
Enable working from home. Make sure that everyone can work remotely with the same exact setup they have now, or as close to it as possible. We provide our employees who work from home with monitors and other computer equipment that they need so they can work remotely whenever they want. If this is not feasible, applications like GoToMyPC can enable workers to remotely connect to their office desktops and perform all of their usual tasks as if they were in the office.
Encourage work from home as part of the firm culture. We have encouraged working from home for employees whenever they need to; thus, if the office has to close down due to a crisis, everyone is already prepared and used to working from home. While emergencies with the global scope of COVID-19 cannot be predicted, a variety of more localized emergencies, or even mundane disruptions like building repairs or pest control, may force single offices to close for a short time.
Close the office. With the extension of the federal tax filing deadline to July 15, 2020, the most pressing matter for most firms is to keep their team and clients safe. Create a Dropbox or other cloud server for clients to deliver necessary files electronically, or arrange specific drop-off times for items that must be delivered in person. Encourage electronic, secure delivery of documents. If something must be delivered by hand, take precautions to avoid or minimize the risk of spreading infection.
Anticipate a drop in productivity. This is understandable; normality goes by the wayside in a crisis. Children are at home and not at school; people are canceling trips, revising plans, and making sure their families are safe. The tax returns and work will still get done. Give your employees a break during this time; they will work harder later in return.
Focus on clients who are hurting. Everyone has clients now that are dealing with being shut down and need help under- standing how the laws being enacted to deal with this emergency will affect them specifically. Reach out proactively to see what clients need, and make a plan for how to meet those needs. As with employees, clients will remember who went the extra mile for them in these trying times.
Create a page on your website for COVID-19 updates. The situation is changing so fast that daily e-mail updates are not sufficient to keep people informed. We sent out one e-mail saying the office is closed and directing clients to a dedicated webpage for updates. We also turned on our out-of-office replies for all employees, with the same link to the update page in the autoreply message.
Maintain calm. CPA firms are in better shape than many other businesses to deal with a sudden economic downturn, which should help with employee morale. In turn, clients who come to the firm looking for information and reassurance will be relieved to find calm, collected accountants standing ready and able to help them.
Communicate the firm’s financial situation with employees. Some firms are going to struggle during this time, and this could mean layoffs or furloughs. It is critical to communicate to the team what is going on at the top, either good or bad. If employees don’t know, they will be more nervous than they already are.
Use the crisis as an opportunity to change. This pandemic has caught many people and organizations unprepared. While no one can turn back the clock and enact the necessary measures ahead of time, the ongoing management of, and eventual recovery from, the crisis will present an excellent opportunity to build stronger, more resilient systems. For firms that did not have the required infrastructure in place to fully cope with an extended period of remote work, now is the time to evaluate what was missing and see how they can learn from this and improve for the future. If a shutdown like this happened once, it can happen again. Getting prepared and defining the “new normal” going forward will ensure that when the next crisis comes, your firm is ready for it.
Jason L. Ackerman, CPA/CGMA, CFP, is an accountant with Bernard N. Ackerman (BNA) CPAs, PA, in Rock Hill, S.C.