Lessons from 2020 for accountants and SME clients

Content Summary

Derek Parker | December 2020

This article was current at the time of publication.

Dealing with disaster

January 2020 opened with bushfires raging on the eastern seaboard, followed by mass flooding in some areas. Communities, many public practitioners, and their small business clients were devastated.

However, as disasters go, the fires and floods were just a curtain-raiser. On 25 January, the first case of COVID-19 in Australia was confirmed in Melbourne.

There were early hopes Australia might dodge the COVID-19 bullet, but the number of cases grew, and businesses soon began to feel the brunt of it.

Trusted advisers to the fore

Predictably, many small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) rushed to their business advisers for advice. Practitioners were quick to realise the gravity of the unfolding crisis and worked to help clients with new financial arrangements and restructuring.

Governments in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere began to roll out a series of financial support measures for businesses (and many employees) and curtailed international travel.

Technology’s central role

The phrases "social distancing" and “working from home” soon became a part of the vernacular, and technology was key in helping facilitate these measures. Practitioners became familiar with Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack and other meeting and group communication technologies.

Practices that were already paperless or on that path coped well during the lockdown period, including an intensive tax time that came on the heels of the launch of the initial JobKeeper initiative. Plans were hatched to build strong and cohesive relations with clients, albeit at a distance. A good interactive website design became paramount to success.

Cash flow is king

With businesses suffering what was dubbed a “once-in-a-century” slowdown, cash flow was always on the business advisory agenda, becoming more vital than ever before.

Business valuations – particularly tough during an unprecedented year – were also a priority. However, the Australian Government’s early release superannuation scheme also gave practitioners pause for thought as some clients, however unwittingly, flouted eligibility rules.

Mental health key to business stability

Against a background of instability and stress, businesses looked to practitioners for help with everything from accessing government support to dealing with family tensions arising from the closure of schools and many people having to work from home, or losing jobs altogether.

Recognising the pressures accountants were subjected to, CPA Australia organised a webinar offering advice to accountants on strategies to maintain their mental health. A related initiative involves collaborating with Beyond Blue and Mental Health First Aid Australia to provide members with additional resources.

The importance of peer-to-peer support

To connect members, particularly during this difficult time, the community hub CPA Member Connect was launched. It was designed to provide a direct line for members to build local and global networks in a secure environment. It offers professional opportunities as well as support in connection with mental health issues.

For the first time, the Public Practice Conference was held as a virtual event and the most popular session was: “Technology Trends and Public Practice, and Firms of the Future: Engendering Hope in a Time of Chaos”. The overall event was rated a great success, with more than 700 participants.

Resilience is not just a buzzword

As the end of the year approaches and COVID-19 infection levels fall, most Australian governments are beginning to ease restrictions. There is a feeling that the corner might have been turned.

Despite the severity of the pandemic, businesses are firmly focusing on recovery, resilience, and continuity. The “new normal”, compared to pre-pandemic times, is likely to include more people working from home, increased online marketing and sales, and an accelerated move toward digitised operations.

Practitioners and clients can look at themselves and say that they have risen to the challenge of helping others through a time of crisis. If how one deals with adversity is a measure of character, then their true character has been revealed.