No progress without a pandemic?

Accounting

Ask anyone in the know how the accounting profession has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic so far and you’ll hear, in tones that range from bemused to downright triumphant, that it’s done extraordinarily well — miraculously well, in fact.

Firms managed to transition to remote work almost overnight. They cemented their status as essential interlocutors between civilians and the labyrinthine requirements of legislators and regulators, and proved themselves invaluable to the ongoing survival of millions of businesses, guiding them through the crisis in countless phone and Zoom calls. And they put a premium on the health and well-being of their staff like never before.

All of that is true, and to the profession’s credit. Accountants can take pride in the way they’ve handled the pandemic, and in the enormous strides they’ve made in going virtual, demonstrating their personal involvement with their clients, and looking after their staff.

The question is, did it have to take a deadly pandemic to spur this kind of progress — and will it take something similar to make similar progress in the future?

The technology for remote work has been in place for years, as has the desire on the part of staff to be able to work from anywhere at any time. It shouldn’t have taken the fear of close-quarters contagion to turn it into a reality. Similarly, many accountants have made the regular and frequent contact they’ve had with clients since last March a point of pride — as if that was only possible, let alone desirable, in an emergency. And while it’s been great that firm leaders and managers have been getting to know staff better than they ever thought possible before the pandemic, a little of that personal interest might have gone a long way to mitigating the staff crunch that has plagued the profession for over a decade.

Bing Guan/Bloomberg

The point here isn’t to denigrate the profession’s manifest accomplishments over the course of this crisis, or to deny firms credit for their clear-sightedness, dedication and sheer hard work in getting themselves, their clients and their employees through what we hope is the worst of the coronavirus pandemic — far from it. But accounting can’t count on a crisis every time it needs to change, and it can’t put off until the next one all the improvements it needs to make now.

Even as they maintain the flexible workplaces they’ve created, maintain high levels of communication with clients, and deepen their commitment to their employees, firms need to accelerate their move to advisory services; embrace a host of new technologies, from artificial intelligence and automation to blockchain and analytical tools; make serious strides on diversity, equity and inclusion; leverage the boundaryless environment that remote work makes possible to serve clients and recruit staff from all over the country (and possibly the world); and much more.

Who knows? If accountants start working on all those before the next crisis hits, they may do even better than they did this time — and that would really be something!

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