How accounting practice teams are changing in 2021
2020 changed the way many accounting practices manage staff and client contact. Here are some key takeaways from a year working from home.
Susan Muldowney | April 2021
When COVID-19 restrictions were introduced in the early months of last year, “business as usual” took on a whole new meaning. For Perth-based practice Aspen Corporate, this meant hitting the accelerator on operational changes that had been in the pipeline for years.
Some Aspen Corporate staff were already set up to work from home. Laptops had been slowly replacing desktop computers in the office and most business functions had been moved to the cloud.
“We knew that getting our accountants mobilised to work from home was going to be fairly simple,” says Aspen Corporate Director Bernadette Smith FCPA. “The biggest challenge was adjusting the role of our admin team, because a lot of their work – like scanning, for instance – can’t really be done from home.”
Aspen Corporate’s team of about 35 people included six administration staff before the pandemic, two have now been retrained to take on bookkeeping or client-facing roles.
“One person was working as an internal bookkeeper before COVID and she was retrained to do client-facing work,” Smith says.
“The other has been trained to pick up the slack when we need extra bookkeeping. Our graduate accountant was made redundant last year, but we’ve retained everyone else. We still needed our people, but we’ve just had to look at how we run the business better.”
Refining remote leadership
For many similar practices, the pandemic changed the way teams are structured and managed. However, remote working presented challenges for even the most tech-savvy.
While cloud-based technology and videoconferencing enabled teams to collaborate virtually, effective communication required more structure.
“At the start, we were probably having too many meetings,” Smith concedes. “We had to bring in some structure and ensure we got to the point quickly during Zoom calls.
“Overall, we think the remote working experience improved the connection between directors and our teams. Traditionally, they would come to us when they needed to. During COVID, we were checking in every day.”
Lisa Younger, Director of Perth-based consultancy Evolving Doors, which works with businesses to grow or improve their operations, says remote working presented valuable leadership lessons that will enhance long-term business success.
"Skills like communication and collaboration are more valued than ever.” Lisa Younger
“When you have any kind of a change in the market, it's important to be attuned to what your customer wants and you really have to look at your employees as part of that,” Younger says.
“If your employees aren't happy, that's going to reflect on how you can deliver services. Employees are your internal customer.”
Checking team sentiment
The disruption caused by COVID-19 led more practice leaders to consider how their team was feeling, as well as what they were doing, she maintains.
“If you dismiss the fact that people have enjoyed this [new-found] work-life balance, you’re going to have a very disgruntled workforce. You need to be having conversations with staff – ideally once a month – that go beyond operational matters. How are they doing and how can you improve their role? What are the micro-goals you can set together as well as bigger picture goals?”
Younger has no doubt this shift in leadership style is widespread and more workers are expecting it.
“I’m seeing a real change, particularly in the accounting industry,” she continues. “For so long, people have been promoted on technical merit. As a result, [their] soft skills are not necessarily highly developed. I think that is something that needs to completely flip, and I do see it changing. Skills like communication and collaboration are more valued than ever.”
Defining team values
With more teams out of necessity having to work apart, clearly defined values can also facilitate continued collaboration. Geelong-based Seamless SMSF principal Mike McHenry emphasises that values underpin culture and provide a reference point for how you do business.
“If everyone understands your values and they’re part of the induction process, it strips out any grey area,” McHenry says. “The expected behaviours become very clear – ask everyone to sign off on the values and then you’re all accountable to them.”
Training is key
McHenry adds that values support the overall mission of accounting practices and that training is required to support them.
“At Seamless SMSF, our mission is to be outstanding, and one of the values that support that is that we are precise,” he says. “The only way we can be precise is to have training.”
McHenry’s team is divided into three groups for training – juniors, intermediate, and seniors.
“If team members are learning about the rules around super contributions, for example, they learn it every day for two weeks. They are made aware that they will randomly take turns to present the topic to their peers each day in the second week.
“This ensures they ask questions in the first week of training, it makes visible the areas to re-address for that topic, builds empathy for the vulnerable colleague and builds public speaking confidence. The team members finish the fortnight as experts in that topic and the business is stronger as a result,” says McHenry.
With teams working remotely, processes also need to be documented clearly.
“Every task needs a clear, documented process behind it,” McHenry advises. “I recommend having two or three people who know how to do a specific function, but you still need to document every step of the process and test it.”
Most of the team at Aspen Corporate have returned to the office, but with snap lockdowns happening throughout Australia and New Zealand, Smith says ways of working have changed because of the COVID-19.
“People want flexibility, and they want to be able to work from home when they can,” she says. “I don't see that they can do that full-time with the kind of work we do, so we’ll look at things like a split week.
“I can also see us rolling out different hours down the track. Some people work really well in the morning, for example, so they might want to start at 6am and finish early. As long as the client’s needs are being met across the board, I can’t see why that couldn’t work.”
How to build a team in 2021
Create structure around a virtual team meeting
“Setting an agenda before a meeting means everyone’s time is used efficiently and you work smarter.” – Lisa Younger
Define what you stand for
“Values shape the way everyone in a business behaves, how they work with clients and how they work together.” – Mike McHenry
Ignore the value of training
“[Never] assume that everyone knows exactly how to do things. You need training around skills and training around processes.” – Mike McHenry
Micromanage your team
“There still needs to be checks and balances around deliverables and accountability, but if you have an accountant who can deliver something in five hours working from home that would take them eight hours in the office, allowing them to work at home once or twice a week is a smart business decision.” – Lisa Younger