5 tips to get your accounting practice ready for anything in 2021
While businesses were forced to become “pandemic-proof" on the fly last year, unpredictability in 2021 is something to be expected. Here are the best ways to implement rock-solid contingency plans and ready your firm.
Luke Dodemaide | March 2021
New Zealand-based accounting firm Astute Mode director Prue McStay CPA is well-versed in the unprecedented.
During the summer of 2011 – a little under two years since starting at Astute Mode – her Christchurch offices had to deal with a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that tore through the heart of the city and threw the local economy into disarray.
“Back then we had people actually sneaking in at night to get their documents and servers out of the building because they had no way of operating their business,” McStay says.
“The city was closed down.”
In a bid to stay productive, Astute Mode had to get creative.
“We couldn’t go and get [masses of] equipment, but we could go and buy laptops and things,” she explains. “We could rent them out [for our employees], which is what we did.”
Crucially, Astute Mode’s data was available off-site, allowing McStay and her colleagues to avoid a complete shutdown.
“We were cloud-based even then,” she says. “We’ve been working like that for 10 years because we had to. Businesses are designed like that here because we’ve learned from our experiences.”
Accounting practice flexibility aids stability
With a turbulent and challenging 2020 in the rearview mirror, it only makes sense to become better prepared for the unpredictable nature of today’s workplace than previously.
“I think now that a little bit of time has passed, we’re able to measure results a bit better,” says Brent Szalay FCPA, managing director of Melbourne-based SEIVA.
Szalay won’t go so far as to call his firm’s handling of the recent difficult times “flawless”, but he did sidestep a lot of drama due to the firm’s online systems.
“We were fortunate enough to be paperless, so that was a great benefit and we moved pretty quickly in March  to remote working.”
While the shift to remote working was surprisingly seamless and required little instruction, the mental and emotional wellbeing [of employees] became a more delicate proposition and a key focus for management.
“Initially, we just wanted to make sure everyone was okay,” Szalay says, “but we purposely overcompensated our internal meetings by having daily catch-ups within small teams to make sure everyone was checking in.”
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As the lockdown wore on, Szalay sensed that these meetings were becoming exhausting for some workers.
“With what’s unfolded now, I feel like we can relax that a little bit,” he says.
“People are back in the office somewhat and we are rotating a couple of teams through, so there’s not so much micromanagement in that sense.”
Now, along with eradicating a relatively high degree of micromanagement, Szalay has happily ditched the tired notion of a fixed office address.
In both cases, he sees long-term benefits.
“We now have some of our team working from Sydney, some working from Merimbula, and all different places because we’ve got that system in place,” Szalay says.
“If that’s going to attract a better team member because they’ve got flexibility, then it’s a benefit to the firm.”
The benefits of trialling and transparency
In a bid to stay operating and afloat, proactive firms weren’t afraid to try new things and scrutinise the results.
Robert McDowall CPA, a partner at Brisbane-headquartered accounting firm Arabon, is a big believer in two-way communication with his employees as well as clients.
His approach to COVID-19 was inspired by witnessing how businesses in bushfire-prone areas prepared for the worst in the past.
“They put into place the bushfire response plan and fire drills twice a year,” McDowall says. “When there was a bushfire, they could [action] immediately and everyone knew what to do [without] any hesitation.”
Transparency was also a key in messaging colleagues and clients alike. “We said: ‘If this happens, here is what we will do. If another certain case happens, here is what we do’.”
Throughout a crisis, such as a global pandemic or regional bushfire, McDowall says it is important to recognise these as collective experiences and always be open to feedback with your procedures.
“Practise it and then practise it again,” McDowall says. “Make sure you keep an eye on how others are doing it so you can continually improve and refine your response.”
Fast 5: Tips for tough times
Use cloud technology
It must be conceded that the circumstances of last year vaulted cloud technology from luxury to necessity. “I think getting all your work remote and onto the cloud is a huge advantage,” says Szalay. “That should be a focus.”
Chart emotional wellbeing
While working from home can be empowering for employees, it can also lead to some anxieties – exacerbated by uncertain times.
“We created a check-in scale to see how colleagues were doing, which you could do via a chat,” McStay says.
“We needed that because when you’re in the office, you can see how people are doing.”
Take it offline when advisable
“Communications that were lost online were important [to our employees],” Szalay says. “Face-to-face interaction did lift us again and remind us that there isn’t just one way to communicate.”
A great place to start when testing your business’s ability to withstand rigour is by asking the enduring question: “What if?” This is where the best-laid plans are put into practice to uncover any shortcomings.
“Don’t always assume that your building is going to be accessible,” McStay warns.
Plan, practise and set up for success
“We had a plan, right back in the early days [of the pandemic] in February and early March,” McDowell says.
“CPA Australia actually had a lot of great resources that we reviewed as well. We made sure they matched with what our plan was.”