CPA firms found themselves, as all businesses had over the past year, facing the chaotic economic landscape created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Just as they have done in other crises, CPAs recognized, understood, and withstood the challenges of the past year. The profession has not just survived—many of its members are thriving in this new world, ready to face whatever 2021 brings.

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Some firms have been able to spot emerging opportunities for new client services, especially where these concern leveraging their knowledge base to pivot from compliance engagements (which were already in decline pre-pandemic due to the rise of automation and AI) to the growing field of advisory work. Many firms have succeeded in becoming vital resources for their clients by securing emergency funding such as Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Successful businesses are already looking to the future, and will need help from their CPAs on recovery, growth, and expansion. If CPAs are not proactive in providing this advice, if they are not thinking in broad strategic terms and stay too mired in micro-level details, if they are not meeting their need for high-level advice relevant to today’s economy—their clients and employers will find someone else who is.

The CPA firms that thrived over the past 12 months are those that understood the new opportunities created by the mass adoption of remote work. As COVID-19 shook loose our old notions of physical space as an imperative, firms realized they are no longer strictly bound by geography. With so much business now conducted online, it is plausible that a firm could hire a CPA geographically removed from its local community, accessing a broader talent pool. After all, talent can come from anywhere, as can client opportunities—the rise of virtual offices will mean that firms can cast a wider net for both. Having a broader strategic vision will, in turn, make a firm more attractive.

Acknowledging and working towards corporate social responsibility will also make the profession more appealing to its stakeholders. The past year has seen an increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion—catalyzed by the reaction to the murder of George Floyd—with normally staid businesses publicly committing to put their weight behind the larger project of social justice. Just as the rise of advisory services did not begin in 2020, the events of last year accelerated an already growing social justice movement within the profession. With young people increasingly seeking meaning and purpose alongside a paycheck, those firms that can resolve and act on long-standing cultural and social justice issues will be able to attract and retain staff and clients much better than those who do not.

I have also seen, over the past year, CPA firms increasingly recognizing people’s mental health needs. The old stigma that previously prevented many from raising the issue with their employer is fading away. With anxiety and depression on the rise, it has become impossible to deny the importance of mental health, or the impact it can have on our jobs. A related issue, work-life balance, has also found new significance, as everyone from the newly licensed CPA to the veteran partner has faced new situations that have demanded greater flexibility in their work hours. It is unlikely that prospective staff will suddenly stop expecting this condition in the future. The forced pandemic work experiment has also shown firms that client services did not suffer. In-person interactions will always be needed, but now we know that technology can provide an alternative.

Given that the number of candidates sitting for the CPA exam was already shrinking prior to the pandemic, and given the understanding that the current crisis will likely not reverse that trend, the ultimate winners in the marketplace will be those firms that are most able to meet the evolving needs of their clients and staff. The future belongs to those who seize it.

Joanne S. Barry, CAE. NYSSCPA Executive Director/CEO.