Before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, change was evolving in accounting firms. CPA firms were already seeing a movement away from time-based billing, an increase in remote work, less compliance-focused accounting, and more advisory work. COVID-19 has accelerated changes already under way and forced many accounting firms to make dramatic changes in a short period of time, especially those offices stuck in the “dark ages” of paper.

In one day, most of our offices became obsolete, the eight-hour work day was turned on its head, and the way we communicate and share information with clients completely changed. Accountants are resilient, and quickly we learned to adapt and continue to run our businesses and serve our clients. We learned how to manage our team remotely, host a Zoom meeting, and get our work done.

No Going Backward

In my opinion, the key takeaway from all these changes in our operations is: there is no going backward. That’s a good thing. There is a lot to love about the option of working from home—it cuts down on commuting times, eliminates overhead, and gives your team members freedom to work when they want. Is it the right option for everyone? Personally, I prefer working in the office; however, giving people the option and freedom to work wherever they want, whenever they want, makes for more happy, loyal, and productive employees. COVID-19 has proved that a firm doesn’t stop when the physical office closes, so the profession should embrace that change going forward.

Another thing I have learned during the pandemic is that clients are just as adaptable as CPAs. The clients who we might have thought would never try a Zoom meeting figured out how to join one; they figured out how to upload documents securely, and sign a document electronically. I think in the past the profession has held itself back by using clients as an excuse or a crutch to deny that we can change something.

CPAs need to take this opportunity to accomplish what they have promised to deliver for a long time, but blamed the client when we could not do it. This includes going completely paperless—no more paper organizers or paper delivery of tax returns—and implementing contactless workflows and payments. Our firm is eliminating check payments and switching to completely credit card/Automated Clearing House (ACH) payment processing.

The biggest challenge going forward for firm leaders will be keeping team camaraderie and culture. As more people work remotely, how we communicate and stay in contact with our team will be of the utmost importance. Many companies stage weekly “touch bases” with their teams, having happy hours and other outside events, or hosting video calls to make sure people see each other’s faces. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for each firm, so leaders need to figure out what is best for their team members.

Until next year’s daunting busy season hits, CPAs must consider how their firm is going to take what it has learned from COVID-19 and turn it into permanent, positive change.

Jason L. Ackerman, CPA/CGMA, CFP is an accountant with Bernard N. Ackerman (BNA), CPAs, PA, in Rock Hill, S.C.