COVID-19 is accelerating change at Canadian accounting firms
Part one in a series on the post-pandemic accounting office
OTTAWA, May 15, 2020 – Tax season has always been the most challenging time of year for Canadian accountants working in small to medium-size accounting firms. But COVID-19, which has occurred during the traditional tax season for accountants, is a challenge unrivalled in living memory — a deadly global pandemic requiring the voluntary shutdown of a large swath of the Canadian and global economy. While the disruption is clearly an anomaly, some of the changes practitioners needed to adapt to — like an increased reliance on the use of technology — may accelerate long-term changes to the traditional accounting office in Canada.
“I suspect people are going to get used to the idea that you don’t have to physically travel to meet with people,” says Steven Flynn, a partner with Andersen Tax LLP in Vancouver. “Whether it’s doing something from your house and working with an accounting firm, either in your city, or another location, when people realize that it can be pretty streamlined and efficient to work electronically and with video conferencing, that will probably change the way people work with their accountants.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced the concept of social distancing. This has severely curtailed and, in many instances, eliminated face-to-face contact with clients since the partial government mandated lockdown began in March.
Flynn has only had two face-to-face meetings with clients since mid-March — a stretch during income tax season when he would have normally averaged two such meetings daily. “It's quite a change,” he says. Telephone and electronic, online contact have acted as substitutes during the Covid-19 lockdown period. “A lot of our clients are all over North America, so we’re used to dealing with clients on the phone or through video conferencing,” notes Flynn.
“We moved a lot of our communication platform to Zoom. We were doing that before the crisis hit and so we just accelerated that process. Now all of our internal video communications, all of our client communications — even our telephone system goes through the Zoom platform,” explains Flynn. “To be able to have video conferences has helped a lot with client communications,” he adds.
Face-to-Face meetings decreasing or eliminated
Catherine Barrie, CPA, CGA, a sole practitioner in Barrie, Ont., notes that her firm retains good relationships with existing clients. Missing the opportunity to see some of them in person this year — under less than ideal circumstances — has not, to her knowledge, negatively impacted on the relationship.
“The challenge is more the new clients that I would generally sit down with and get to know. I like to know who we are completing work for and it is more difficult to establish a relationship with them when we can't meet,” she elaborates.
There have only been a couple of instances where her firm absolutely needed to see clients in person, and these involved time-sensitive issues where people needed to pick up information such as their boxes of papers or bring signatures. Otherwise, telephone and online contact are the methods of connection.
Jason Kingston, a principal with DSK LLP in Kitchener, Ont. says the only face-to-face contact he has had over the past month has been with older clients who do not have access to either the firm’s electronic signature tool or the ability to print out documents that need to be manually signed.
Only about five per cent of DSK’s client base at its Kitchener and Cambridge offices in southern Ontario lack some sort of online presence, and that percentage has been decreasing over time, he notes.
But otherwise, communication with clients continues on, albeit in a different fashion than in a normal tax season when a significant number of face-to-face meetings would be on the agenda. Contact with clients has instead been through a combination of emails, phone calls or video conferencing. “People seem very understanding of the circumstances. Pretty much without exception, people have adjusted quite well to this,” Kingston says.
Larry Hemeryck, CPA, CGA, a sole practitioner in Simcoe, Ont., says his firm, consisting of seven people, has totally eliminated all face-to-face interaction with clients since the end of March.
“Our sole means of communication has been phone and emails, with some sporadic pieces of paper at our drop-off desk, and the occasional letter through Canada Post. We attach a note to the client copies of their tax returns indicating the major changes from prior years’ results. It helps maintain that personal touch,” he says.
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Clients are adapting as well
For client businesses that already used cloud-based accounting systems, this has meant little or no change in communications. “Over the past few years, we have converted many of our small business clients to cloud-based accounting software to be better prepared to offer our expertise and advice. It’s part of our service,” says Hemeryck.
But with a client base in southwestern Ontario that is largely rural and agricultural, with many pockets still experiencing poor or no Internet connection, most clients are still paper-based and drop off or scan the firm their paper copies. This tax season, however, they have adapted well in changing their method of communicating, he adds.
Jeff Buckstein, CPA, CGA is an Ottawa-based freelance business journalist. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay. This article is the first in a series on accelerating change in Canadian accounting offices. Read the full series in order (to date):
Part One: COVID-19 is accelerating change at Canadian accounting firms
Part Two: COVID-19 pandemic promotes paperless public practices
Part Three: WFH: COVID-19 is accelerating remote work at accounting firms
Part Four: COVID-19: Accounting firms are finding efficiencies amidst disruption