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Tax & AccountingSeptember 24, 2020

Impact of Workflow on the New Normal

Work at home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to create a home office for the first time. Suddenly, things that we took for granted in the office were not available, such as phones, scanners, high-speed printing, social conversations, and coordinating work among the team. Professional accounting firms were no exception. Indeed, the impact of workflow on the new normal became evident as the benefits of document management and workflow were leveraged by work-from-home employees.

Many businesses have allowed remote work or promoted a virtual workforce for some time. My K2 business has always been a virtual business with team members dispersed across North America. We have consulted for firms across the entire spectrum, from on-premise to a 100 percent distributed workforce. As the COVID-19 pandemic proceeds, business owners and managers are not renewing office space leases. They are redesigning offices or modifying building plans, and are allowing workers to continue to work remotely.

What Will Life Be Like in the New Normal?

On this point, your crystal ball into the future is as good as mine. However, there are a few things I am sure of, and a few examples may help you think about the future.

Consider airline travel before and after the events of 9/11. The adjustments that followed in the years afterward meant that travel has never been the same. Friends and family are no longer permitted to walk you to the gate when you are departing on that once in a lifetime trip, or meet you at the gate when you return. You can’t run to the gate at the last minute. It takes 30 minutes to two hours to clear security, particularly if you don’t have TSA precheck or global entry. Speaking of TSA, this entire organization did not exist before 9/11. Can you imagine a U.S. airport without TSA today? I could continue with airline examples, but since some of you do not fly often, let us try a historical illustration.

Consider a world with no microwaves, refrigeration, or air conditioning, which was not so long ago. How would you protect and handle your food? I suspect you have a hard time picturing life without a refrigerator, or summer with no air conditioning. On these items, technology changed the way we lived and worked. We no longer needed ice houses and ice boxes (the predecessor to a refrigerator, and yes I still have one in my home, albeit used for other purposes).

The new normal includes routines of handwashing, sanitizing work surfaces, plexiglass barriers, face masks, social distancing, and vaccinations. While some believe none of these items are needed, others think they are vital to the wellbeing of all. As a friend of mine pointed out this week, “I can’t wait to get back to hugging!”

Last week, and again today, I had the pleasure of attending a family birthday party. What about the impact of spreading COVID-19 while blowing candles? Spreading COVID-19 this way has already occurred in the U.S. Will we stop that tradition?

What Will Business Be Like in the New Normal?

Your business will be different, too - beyond the simple physical changes listed above. In 2020, many audits and tax returns were completed virtually for the first time. While I have a tradition of travel, and sincerely enjoy meeting people, in 2020, I consulted remotely for the first time. Consulting can be more challenging online, but a virtual consultation if planned well, can still meet the objectives.

I am not sure how long our lifestyle adjustments will last. During the 1918 pandemic, mask-wearing was still occurring in 1921 and beyond. Many of us have seen masks worn in public before 2020. Were they merely ahead of their time or wiser? Or did they come from an environment where disease or pollution was so bad, they needed a mask?

Consider this (by no means exhaustive) list of changes in business, and ask yourself which ones will be temporary and which ones will be permanent:

  • Reduction in handshakes or the use of a different greeting
  • Hand sanitizers common on desks and in meeting rooms
  • Changes in break rooms – do you want to touch the coffee pot handle?
  • Glares and stares when you cough or sneeze
  • Enhanced cleaning procedures in meeting rooms, break rooms, hotels, and other public spaces
  • Reductions in face-to-face meetings
  • Reduction in travel “let’s meet virtually instead.”
  • Meetings where social distancing is possible “let’s meet at Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Panera, or the outside tables at the local coffee shop.”
  • Price structures changing for virtual work
  • Less availability of team members to travel
  • Reduced flight schedules
  • More difficult coordination of teams for engagements or projects
  • The difficulty of coordinating national or international travel
  • Less choice in restaurants
  • Less choice in providers of business services
  • Increased costs due to less competition
  • More financial constraints

OR everything could go back to the way it was. What do you think will happen? Providers like Zoom, Apple, Microsoft, Intuit, and Google that all had work in the office policies now allow or mandate that team members work from home. And team members that experienced brutal commutes before the pandemic have adopted new habits to stay connected, efficient, and maintain their productivity.

Workflow Technologies Elevates Productivity

Collaboration and coordination of business activities between team members, across functions, and offices creates better business outcomes. Besides the video collaboration tools of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, document management, voice over IP (VOIP), and Microsoft 365, the number one tool that made life and business better during the pandemic.

In 2020, I received dozens of reports of firms where workflow technologies made all the difference in the world. After the July 15 tax deadline, I have heard from dozens of firms who were using paper control sheet systems that were entirely hobbled during the pandemic. The manual system was the number one issue to address before the tax extension season.

Work at home orders exposed the shortfalls of doing things the same way as we had in the past, much like not having a refrigerator. You can store food without refrigeration, but it is nicer to have the convenience of extended cold storage without the hassle and mess of ice. A workflow system in place to control projects makes things easier and more profitable.

Workflow systems can be generic, like Microsoft Power Automate, or specific to public practice, like XCMworkflow. Workflow systems that support CPA firms today should include:
  • Control and monitoring of the work across multiple departments, including:
    • Tax
    • Audit
    • Client Accounting Services (CAS)
    • Advisory
    • Wealth management
    • Administrative support like onboarding
    • Business development
  • Management visibility
    • With dashboards
    • Of staff who have too little or too much work
    • Of workload progress
    • Of bottlenecks
    • Into the efficiency of the processes used
    • Into individuals who need coaching because the work is taking too much time
    • For identifying highly efficient staff members, and real-time insights into their best practices so they can teach others
  • Client experience including
    • Portals
    • Prepared by Client document gathering
    • eSignature
  • Simplifying firm operations
    • Due date monitoring
    • Scheduling of the staff
    • WIP status of an engagement against the budget
    • Simple sign-off and approvals
    • Connection and integration with other systems
    • Automation where possible, including Robotic Process Automation
    • Uniformity, standardization, and optimization of processes of all kinds

When correctly customized and implemented, a workflow platform becomes so integral to your business, you cannot imagine running the practice without the workflow technology. Workflow is far beyond the simple checklists and job status of the 1990s. It is evolving to become predictive of the workload and enhances your ability to complete engagements. Workflow software can give partners insight into staffing, profitability, and compliance. Most important, with workflow done right, it becomes much harder for your firm or an individual to drop the ball without visibility. It can still happen, but it is far less likely.

You can learn more in our K2 courses like K2’s Understanding Workflow and Automation Essentials or at our K2 technology conferences by attending the workflow sessions. Workflow technologies have a high impact on managing CPA firms well.

What’s Your Firm’s New Normal?

As a CPA firm partner and owner, there’s not enough time in the day for you to do everything—and you certainly do not want the surprise of a missed due date or a dropped ball on a project. You have plenty to do with partner and client relations, business development, team member recruitment, engagement, and advancement, as well as firm administration and operations. Tools like workflow make your overall job easier with enhanced visibility and management information at your fingertips.

Consider what you want your firm of the future to become. Do you need as much space? How should the client interaction function? How do you control and monitor work that is done from one or more offices, homes, or client sites? How do you improve work/life balance and recruit needed talent if team members are working from home? What is your firm’s differential?

Work at home may be part of your firm’s “new normal.” On the other hand, our businesses may go back to normal. However, the impact of workflow on the new normal or the old normal is notable. You can get better control of your team’s work, reducing stress, and improving the experience for all.

Randy Johnston, Executive Vice President, K2 Enterprises
Randy is one of the partners at K2 Enterprises (www.k2e.com). In his role at K2 Enterprises, Randy helps to create and deliver technology-focused training to business professionals throughout North America. You may reach Randy at [email protected]