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Excellence in a crisis: Lessons learned during Covid-19

The global pandemic forced accountancy firms out of their comfort zones and has led to new ways of working. Richard Hattersley highlights examples of excellence in the response to Covid-19

14th Jul 2020
Editor AccountingWEB
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Accountants have stepped up since the UK went into lockdown, demonstrating many pillars of the Accounting Excellence programme, such as client care, innovation and technology adoption.  

After working tirelessly for months, absorbing pages upon pages of government guidance, talking clients through worst-case scenarios, and applying for business support grants, accountants now have a chance to catch their breath as the UK gradually exits lockdown.

Indeed, no firm leaves lockdown the same as when they entered. Complete HQ’s Andy Sullivan perfectly sums up the lesson pretty much every accountancy firm has realised over the last several months:

“Businesses always need to be ready to adapt and overcome new challenges. Those that have stagnated over time have (and will continue to) really struggle.”

As more sectors begin to open again, accountants are now able to reflect on their crisis response and consider the lessons they’ve learned from the outbreak.

Remote working

The first challenge many firms wrestled with was adjusting to the mandatory working for home command.

For many, the full-time transition to remote working was business as usual. 2018 Accounting Excellence client service winner Sarah Sallis from the Accountancy Office has always been a big advocate of home working, so it wasn’t a big shift. That said, one staff member found it difficult to start with because she’d never done it before.  

Sallis now plans to work remotely on a weekly basis, and utilise the office space for face-to-face meetings as and when needed.

But not everyone had an easy ride. An AccountingWEB reader revealed how partners at their firm were pushing employees to return to the office in mid-June, despite successfully getting everyone to work from home. While AccountingWEB user Razertoo reported “having to constantly need to refer to files and papers that are stuck in my office, the VPN is annoyingly slow and I appear to be getting frustrated at every turn”.

Technology

Remote working forced many firms to get to grips with technology which they otherwise would not have experimented with. Using technology such as Zoom for client meetings was a lightbulb moment for Heather O’ Reilly from Jupp Castle.

“I could have saved so much time visiting clients in the past when virtual meetings work just as well,” she said.

Sullivan echoed this, saying clients use Zoom as “the first point for a meeting” which are generally “a better use of time for all involved”.  

Scholes Chartered Accountants also relied heavily on other communication channels like Zoom, Facebook and Linkedin to keep in contact with clients. But the biggest change lockdown encouraged was training clients to use the firm’s electronic portal. Employees have used the portal to share documents and approve accounts and tax returns for several years.

“More of our clients are now embracing the value of the portal and there is has been a noticeable increase in take-up since lockdown, which is helping to drive efficiencies for our practice too,” said Scholes Chartered Accountants director Ivan Houston.

Similarly, Jon Cooper, a director at Cooper Faure, noted how lockdown has inspired the firm to use appointment scheduling software. “It gives clients the option of a time that suits them but allows us to ring-fence these times.”  

Workload

While many accountants mastered home working and adopted technology with ease, nothing could have prepared them for the long hours and excessive workload brought about by keeping up with the latest government guidance.

As one attendee of AccountingWEB’s weekly Coronavirus Q&A put it, “It’s far worse than anything we have ever done before. We are used to stressful deadlines, heavy workload (January), but this feels like January on steroids without the added benefit of high fees at the end of it all.”

But through the heavy workload, Sarah Sallis was reminded of the importance of having a work-life balance. “It’s been the biggest challenge of my career and I’ve learnt that staffing and their job responsibilities need to be reviewed so that workloads are spread more evenly across the team.”

Cashflow forecasts

The uncertain times ahead increased the demand for advisory work and, as a result, this highlighted the need for cashflow forecasts. “Almost everybody I have spoken with during lockdown needed and wanted an element of cashflow advice,” practice owner Ria-Jaine Lincoln explained on AccountingWEB’s No Accounting for Taste podcast.

At the start of lockdown, Lincoln felt she was on autopilot, trying to generate all the information into something that would help her client base. She pored over business expenses and worked out a plan with each client, where she had to decide whether to contact suppliers, set up payment holidays, change direct debits et al. Everything was focused around cashflow.

“Everyone I'm dealing with is thinking about cashflow forecasts and people are starting to pay more attention to their financial figures,” she said. “I'm seeing a lot more interest in every row on the profit and loss statement – an interest that almost wasn't there before. You'd just send over the accounts and they'd review the tax that needs to be paid and that was as far as it went.”

Teamwork

However, the excessive workload instilled a sense of camaraderie among firms, as they battle through together. Warren Munson, the founder of Inspire Professional Services, saw his team step up to ensure clients’ needs were met.

“The lesson learned is that we can do this, we’re all in it together and everyone is doing what they can to provide support to businesses – and each other - at this critical time.”

In all these lessons brought about by the pandemic, firms have had to challenge the status quo. “Unfortunately, it has taken a global pandemic to do this,” said Jon Cooper. “But we hope that this message is remembered in the future.”

Next time we’ll explore the big issues for accountants in the next 3-6 months.

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