September 29, 2020

What CPA Firms Learned Surviving COVID-19 Tax Season

The pandemic remains a real and active threat to public health, the vitality of businesses of all sizes, and the strength of the U.S. economy. However, now that we are some seven or eight months into the pandemic, individuals, families, communities, business owners, industries and governments are starting to gain the space to reflect a bit on what they’ve learned navigating the COVID-19 crisis.

CPA firms that have survived and even thrived during the pandemic have learned invaluable lessons about their staff, operations and infrastructure that can positively shape their future performance. These precious insights were painful and hard won, for sure, but in many cases this forced change has accelerated innovation and progress at CPA firms across the country. Where once the CPA industry lagged other sectors in tech adoption and innovation, now at a minimum the CPA ecosystem has gained ground and perhaps even advanced beyond other industries.

Call it a forced course correction or a change induced by survival instinct … call it what you will. When CPA firms look back on COVID-19 and how it sparked new ways of thinking and broke down resistance to new approaches, many will see that out of the terrible experiences of the pandemic many positives actually emerged.

So, what did CPA firms of all sizes from the Big 5 firms to “mom-and-pop” firms learn during the pandemic crisis? Let’s take a look at four key learnings CPA firms gleaned from navigating the pandemic.

Remote Work Actually Works

While there was ample skepticism at first, and a short transition period to get used to a new mode of operation, most employees adapted quickly to telework, discovering new work-life benefits as they settled into this new world. Eliminating the commute, adding work-life flexibility, reducing weekly expenses, as well as allowing time to exercise, go for a walk and other activities, have created happier, more productive CPA firm employees.

Happier employees are more productive and likely to stay put. While no hard data has yet been reported about actual productivity levels across industries, the general, anecdotal evidence suggests that productivity levels have remained stable at worst.

The bottom line is this: Remote work is the new normal. Many CPA firms survived and even had very successful tax seasons working in 100% remote work environments. Thus, even the most traditional CPA leadership teams are more open to remote work and are even encouraging it, as the combination of more productive employees and reduced operating costs and capital expenditures is irresistible.

Like the stigma that remote work would cause reduced productivity and laxity, the CPA industry also, by and large, believed that adopting new technologies was too painful and disruptive. But that, too, has now changed.

Migration and Tech Integration Is Not as Scary as They Thought

Before the pandemic, the cloud, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other newer software and technologies were slowly being adopted by a wider swath of CPA firms. Still, as a whole, the industry was resistant to change and slow to adapt.

For many CPA firms, they would rather stick to what they knew — in-office servers, limited remote work, manual IT monitoring, updating and patching, and Excel spreadsheets saved on alienated, individual staff member desktops. The thought of taking all of their data, software and hardware and migrating it to a new system called “the cloud” seemed like a terrible headache fraught with danger.

COVID-19 forced the adoption of leading-edge software, technology and processes because of the need for a 100% remote work environment. CPA firms no longer had a choice in many cases, and had to rapidly transition to a totally new way of doing business.

And guess what?

While the transition was by no means a walk in the park, it also wasn’t as painful (generally speaking) as CPA firms thought, and a whole new world suddenly opened up, where data was backed up offsite in multiple locations, teams could access important documents from anywhere at anytime and work on these documents simultaneously, security was armed with AI and automation and updates and patches occurred without the fear of human error.

Doing work became more efficient, client and company data was safer than ever before and the threat of downtime and disruption was drastically reduced.

This is not to say there weren’t migration and integration problems anywhere. Rather, this is to say that the folklore specter of integration and the migration boogeyman were both banished by the pandemic, and that’s good for the future of CPA firms.

Technology and the Cloud Are Essential Business Tools

This key takeaway is very simple. CPA firms had been trending in the right direction when it came to new tech adoption and the integration of the cloud, AI and other automation. However, this more progressive approach had not reached deep adoption levels within the industry.

For example, at one time the cloud was seen as something futuristic and, to some, intimidating and fear-inducing. Then, the Big 5 and other firms started moving to cloud adoption and other tech-savvy approaches. Now, COVID-19 has blown the lid off for the CPA industry, making the cloud, AI, automation and remote work IT ecosystems essential tools for business.

Not nice-to-have tools, but absolutely essential tools. That is a huge paradigm shift and bodes well for the industry's post-pandemic future.

If You Can Survive or Thrive in a Pandemic Tax Season, Your Firm Can Do Anything (But Not Without the Right Technology)

CPA firms that survived or even thrived during the pandemic tax season showed true grit, resolve, innovative thinking and remarkable dedication to helping their clients make sense of a wild tax year while also protecting their financial interests.

Kudos to the CPA teams that made this happen.

But it’s important to remember this: It was your people and newly adopted technologies and new ways of thinking and working enabled by this technology that made surviving the pandemic tax season possible.

When people, technology and software work together seamlessly, anything is possible, including making it through a 100-year pandemic and the most turbulent economic period since 2008 and even the Great Depression.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but when we are, Cetrom will still be there to support its CPA clients with expert IT advice, tech know-how, deep cybersecurity expertise and a collaborative spirit.

We’re in this together now. And we’ll be in this together in the days ahead.

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