In this guest article, accountant and thought-leader Jane Aylwin shares her thoughts on the recent ‘Impact of COVID-19: State of accountants’ report released by SmartVault.

During April 2020, SmartVault surveyed accountants, bookkeepers and tax professionals across the globe to help gauge the impact that COVID-19 is having on the profession. The aim of the survey was to better understand current challenges for accounting professionals, their outlook on the post- COVID-19 future and to gather useful advice for the global accounting community. Accounting professionals, the backbone of small businesses across the world, must find ways to continue operations and support their clients who need them now more than ever.

Whilst I won’t go into the details of the report (you can download a copy for free here) the results are overwhelmingly in support of a transition to a more flexible and agile way of working, and the truth is that firms who are already working in this way will be well placed to not only weather the storm, but also maximise the opportunities that arise from it. Both in ways of supporting clients in a superior way and in creating new and profitable services.

These successful firms are comfortable with technology, with the use of apps to enhance each piece of software, and with the idea of building their own ‘tech-stack’ to create the perfect solution (or near as possible to perfect anyway!) for their business. For the firms that already have this in place, working from home is only a change in location, not a requirement to learn a completely new set of skills in order to do the job well.

Their team will be used to using this technology. But perhaps most importantly, their clients will be used to this technology and way of working.

If firms are struggling simply to get the infrastructure for working remotely in place, how can they possibly cope with the demand for up-to-the-minute information to be dissected, summarised and communicated to clients. You must get working properly as a firm before you can provide the support required to your clients.

It is not enough to fully comprehend the information that is relevant to us – we must also understand and translate all of that information for our clients. Most firms will have a wide-range of clients from many different industries and of many different trading entities – which makes dissecting information in a timely manner even more difficult.

Understandably our clients are looking to us to help, and we have little information – legislation is being written after the announcements have been made and there is huge uncertainty over the small print.

HMRC advisors are giving out conflicting and contradictory information, systems are not ready, and instructions have not been written because the mechanics of delivering on the promises are not known or understood by those who are making them.

COVID-19 will change the way a huge number of businesses, that don’t actually rely on physical footfall to generate revenue, operate. Accountants will not go unaffected. My belief is that we will see a remarkable shift towards remote and flexible working, to online and digital collaboration with clients and in the services that clients see as valuable.  

Businesses will be looking for advisors who can not only continue to provide an unbroken service but who can also provide real-time information for decision making. This includes strategic advice on cash and profitability modelling, recommending tools to assist with planning and the ability to respond in emergencies.

To do this, we know firms should be investing in the technology to create the perfect ‘tech-stack’ for their own individual workflow. But more than that, any firm who fails to learn from this and enable remote working, virtual support and agile, proactive collaboration with their clients is unlikely to thrive in the ‘new normal’ that we will eventually reach once the immediate measures are relaxed.

A true believer in the awesome power of data, a huge advocate of the ‘accounting revolution’ and an excitable supporter of cloud technology, Jane Aylwin is passionate about entrepreneurial small businesses and the role accountants and bookkeepers have to play in the business world. She was in practice until only recently, selling her bookkeeping business to take a senior role at a London accounting firm. Jane has co-written a book, ‘How to Build a Successful Bookkeeping Business’, delivered presentations at the ICB Conference, the AAT Conference and, for the last four years, has been a speaker at Accountex.