How the pandemic has changed the accountancy industry is useful to consider as we enter a new stage of returning to normal life. As with most industries, COVID has greatly impacted the accounting and finance profession. From the way businesses operate to how accountants are trained, no part of the industry has escaped change.
This article shares highlights from the session where guest speakers, listed below, joined Gareth John to discuss how the pandemic has affected the accountancy industry, the changes made by the awarding bodies during this time and how they have benefited the industry, the role the accountancy profession can play in the recovery of COVID, as well as predictions for the future.
UK awarding bodies:
AAT – Andrew Williamson, Director of Marketing and Brand Strategy
ACCA – Claire Bennison, Head of ACCA UK
CIMA/AICPA – Stephen Flatman, Vice President of Examinations
ICAEW – Shaun Robertson, Director of Education and Qualifications
Expert industry observers:
You can watch the recording of the forum by clicking the button below.
Key Comments from the Awarding Bodies
Looking back at the last year:
What were the key responses to COVID you made?
The awarding bodies’ responses to the pandemic were varied. All of them moved remotely with employees working from home and exams operating online, however, some were better prepared for this than others. CIMA was at an advantage as they had computerised their exams since 2015. As a result, they did not have to cancel a single exam. Similarly, ICAEW had already started embracing a digital platform for exams. However, AAT and ACCA had delays getting their exams online as they had not already had the technology in place. This led to some students unable to progress.
Cash flow and changing business models were the first focus for a lot of the awarding bodies and their clients. Followed by maintaining mental health amongst staff and helping teams manage and work remotely. COVID emphasised the importance of pulling on existing members and external sources for support.
Another response noted by the awarding bodies was the need for increased communication and the provision of information. Many feel they became like press officers, grappling with everchanging government advice and communicating what the changes meant for students and members. They communicated what businesses were entitled to then helped them get it. This has created a sense of interconnectedness and demonstrated the value of effective communication in building and maintaining business relationships.
How do you think the pandemic has affected the accountancy industry in general?
The awarding bodies agreed that one of the biggest changes the pandemic has had on accountancy is the acceleration of digital delivery. Andrew from AAT recalled how before the pandemic practices were on a five-year delivery path to get digital. The pandemic forced this to happen in five weeks. Most, if not all, accountants are embracing new technology as a result of the pandemic, the technology was already available but people hadn’t stepped up to using it. Andrew believes a blended delivery of face-to-face and digital learning for trainees is here to stay.
For a lot of students, the pandemic had a negative effect on their studies. The awarding bodies who struggled to move their exams online, saw their students experience a long period of time where they could not complete their qualifications. This was because they could not sit their assessments or their colleges were closed. As a result, there are fewer newly qualified entry-level candidates available.
The pandemic has also meant staff had to pivot on their skills and adapt. Accountants have had to prove the skills knowledge they get from their training alongside their technical content knowledge. Skills such as resilience particularly came to the forefront for members new and old. The pandemic reiterated the importance of interpersonal skills learning.
The current position:
What role do you think the accountancy profession can play in the coming recovery from COVID?
As a result of lost opportunities for young people to work during the pandemic, support for developing professional skills earlier on will be needed. Claire from ACCA highlights how the accountancy profession can work together with the community to grapple with skills. Professional bodies need to put these partnership opportunities together so they can do more than a conventional accountant and take on a variety of different tasks. It is everyone’s role in the accountancy industry, particularly the awarding bodies, to talk about accountancy differently. They can help the next generation understand the people focus of the profession and the different career pathways within it.
What changes in the industry do you think will be permanent? What other changes can we expect to see in the next couple of years?
The pandemic has caused a socio economic shift. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) will have an important role in stepping up in this space. Including understanding ethics, how businesses work, and supporting businesses and their sustainable recovery. A lot of businesses are already starting to shift their mindsets to focus on these topics however many are still trying to survive the pandemic. Shaun from the ICAEW agrees that upcoming topics of focus for the accountancy industry will be ESG, climate change, sustainability, and human capital. Businesses will need to embrace these recommendations. The awarding bodies can play a role in educating people and allowing the profession to be open to everyone.
Skills and development
Steve from CIMA believes it is too early to say what the response to the pandemic from the accountancy industry is going to be, although often a crisis is followed by invention. Steve thinks the post-pandemic challenges will be related to scarcity and abundance in supply chains, as well as the rapid and extensive change to the types of skills needed. Practical skills will be needed alongside adaptability and resilience to cope with change within a business.
The pandemic has changed accountancy through hybrid working. Claire from ACCA believes hybrid working is here to stay which is going to affect leadership and management. Hybrid working will depend on personality as well as individual’s and the business’ needs. New employees who have started during the pandemic and had no contact with their team should be prioritised for going back to the office. Different people will have different needs so businesses should be cautious to not have one rule for all. Furthermore, younger partners need to not be left behind, there is still a place for more experienced mentors in the office.
Key Comments from the Industry Experts
Looking back at the last year:
In your view how have you seen the pandemic affect the accounting industry?
Graham from PQ Magazine believes that within the accountancy industry, part qualified accountants have had it toughest. These trainees are often still living in shared accommodation and so have struggled more working from home. They have also had their work, studies, and exams disturbed. Some awarding bodies have performed better than others when it comes to exams, but this has been problematic for students who are vulnerable and in their positions. They have not been able to demonstrate their competency to their employers through exams.
Adaptability to change
Chris from Generation CFO feels that working from home has been the biggest shift. It proved the change had always been an option but was something people were choosing not to do. This highlights that businesses can do a lot more and mindsets need to be open to different ways of working in order to change. There was more output from employees but this was due to working longer hours rather than more technical working. This illustrates some issues around businesses’ own agility, being able to adapt, and use technology. From an industry point of view, finance teams stepped up to huge demands to save companies but this way of working is not sustainable. Many had to pause capital projects and finance transformation projects. There needs to be a balance between surviving and making sure the business continues to develop.
Louise from Moneypenny commissioned a survey during the pandemic from senior partners at accountancy firms about their business’ focus. See the Moneypenny survey results here. They found that a lot of businesses communication had suffered since March 2020. Many company’s phone lines had been down or were being manned by the wrong people so the client’s journey suffered. Louise feels businesses need to be conscious of developmental differences related to communication, particularly for new intakes who have not benefited from informal in-office learning from their peers.
Martin from First Intuition believes the pandemic has changed the accountancy industry by destroying the education system conveyor belt that has been around for decades. 2021 intakes are going to be more impacted than those from 2020 as they will have had even less school and office contact. The education sector should therefore focus on getting the basics right, such as sitting exams, so students can progress. For new intakes who have been working throughout the pandemic, employers should be mindful of the gap in their experiences with some trainees being on furlough and some having worked twice as much as usual.
What changes that we have seen do you think will be permanent and what other changes do you think we will see in the next few years?
Graham sees remote invigilation as a good thing and is here to stay. Exams on demand can be very beneficial for trainees who have had disrupted learning, however, this doesn’t always work for students. Learning by zoom has been a good way to ensure studying and progression continues through the pandemic however students still need to have aspects of face-to-face contact. A blended approach will be the most effective going forward so trainees can still bond and gain a better understanding of company culture.
Adaptability to change
The pandemic has changed accountancy through the ability to adapt to change. Chris wants businesses to acknowledge that they need to be able to adapt to change to develop. This includes understanding what people want in the return back to work and understanding and effectively managing mental health and absenteeism. Furthermore, carrying through what businesses have learnt from the pandemic and continuing to bring new skills and talent with a focus on learning pathways. Graham agrees that people who hide behind numbers and data will struggle in the future. Adapting to changes including digital technologies is going to become part of the finance toolkit.
Flexibility and skills development
Martin believes flexibility and empathy with each other and organisations will stay within the industry. He hopes to see more bridging programmes to assist in the continued development of skills and knowledge.
Key Comments from the Audience
- Accountancy education needs to change more rapidly so accountants can support the social and economic shift that is inevitable with climate change
- Life long learning is important, lots of new future-focused areas are relevant to all finance professionals
- Having people coming into accountancy with different backgrounds ensures there is a diversity of thought. There are different strengths between graduates and school leavers, which are important to have within a firm and the sector. Choice of routes is important to help attract good people
- The onboarding of new staff, particularly new students, is one that businesses have to be mindful of. Colleagues need each other to help them work effectively, which cannot always be replicated using technology
- Have faith in the ingenuity of the workforce to solve issues without necessarily going back to how it used to be
- It will be important to put ESG at the centre stage going forward
- Offices should be changed so that it is more of a ‘social space’, a meeting or training area, and less of a ‘workplace’. Office time should be used for interaction with people
Key focuses for the future:
- Support, compassion, focus on values and mental health
- Mentorship, coaching, value pathways, entry-level recruitment and retention
- Sustainability, technology, hybrid working, collaborations
- Adaptability, communication, flexibility, accessibility