Accountancy in 2020: Learnings for the future

Last year, Silverfin hosted a series of online breakfasts with accountants across the UK to discuss how they were approaching this challenging year.

COVID-19 has impacted firms across every industry and at the financial frontline of this were accountants and bookkeepers. They are working tirelessly to help businesses cope in the midst of uncertainty whilst adapting to new, remote ways of working.

Here at Silverfin, we had the privilege to catch up with over 150 accountants in more than 20 events last year and hear how they’ve approached one of the most challenging periods in memory.

Our main takeaways from these conversations are captured in this report and address:

1. Helping customers manage the pressures of COVID-19.
2. Maintaining and managing long-term change within their firm despite this.
3. Integrating technology to achieve success.

Not only do our breakfast attendees’ observations summarise the profound impact 2020 has had on the profession, but they also provide a blueprint for how firms should approach the future.

2020 may be over but the lessons that we have all learnt will impact the accounting profession for years to come.

Helping customers manage the pressure of COVID-19

The pandemic has clearly wreaked havoc on the world’s economies with the UK unemployment rate reaching record levels. Accountants have spent much of their time trying to manage these pressures and more generally advising companies on how to overcome this once-in-a-lifetime situation.

The accounting role has reached a turning point in this new operating environment. Clients want accountants that can offer them real insights and practical support with liquidity and cash flow planning. How can businesses survive during lockdowns with their doors shut to customers whilst rent and utility costs remain? Even the strongest of businesses have had to rethink their operating model due to the pressures of having significant periods of little or no income.

Fortunately, accountants and bookkeepers have been by their side to help them. They’ve provided their clients with detailed cash flow forecasts. They’ve modelled best and worst-case scenarios, given critical advice on ensuring their cash flow suffers minimal disruption, and helped businesses unearth key cash sources that need to be protected going forward.
Planning for liquidity and cash flow

Technology has enabled this level of service as accountants were able to help clients identify contraction trigger events — in other words, events which would have a profound impact on their businesses’ cash flow and liquidity. This level of service has allowed them to protect their cash flow as much as possible, while also giving business owners the confidence they know if (and how) they could survive this period.

Coping with the rapid shift to remote working

In 2020, accountants have had to provide their services almost entirely virtually and ensure that quality didn’t suffer as a result. This new normal of remote working revealed exactly where firms are on their digital journey. During these breakfasts, attendees had the opportunity to discuss exactly what issues they were experiencing with remote working and shared how they were using technology to increase collaboration and communication. Naturally, the less tech-savvy had the biggest shift to make in devising a remote working strategy that works for both the practice and client.

The converse was true for digitally mature firms who found a ‘quick virtual meeting’ to be much less onerous than the traditional face-to-face meeting but not always when the frequency has increased ten-fold. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that flexibility is key. Our discussions suggest that the best firms will grant their employees the freedom to work from where they feel suits them (and their clients) best and sort out the management culture accordingly.

Developing new skills and providing training

Besides changes to where accountants are working, we found that COVID-19 meant gaining knowledge on new topics and training on new skills. Many of the accountants we spoke to have had to restructure their internal knowledge management processes and become experts in a variety of subjects: management, IT, finance, and HR, to name but a few. If they’re going to meet their clients’ increasing expectations, and provide as much value as possible, practices will have to find a way to conduct crucial training at scale — even if everybody is working remotely.

In order to keep up with rapid societal change, we all must continue to learn new skills. Accounting is no different. Accountants that develop new skills will be the ones who can help their clients meet the future head-on. Nowhere is this more true than in the role of technology in business. 15 years ago, the cloud was something you saw in the sky. Nowadays, it’s technology at the heart of most accounting practices and their clients.

Read more about the conversations we had with these leading accountants in 2020. The expert insights we got from them into the profession and their views on understanding the challenges and opportunities that accountants will face in 2021.

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