The Covid-19 outbreak has forced many companies to change how they work. But what does it mean for the future of finance roles?
We spoke with a variety of experts and found 11 changes that could reshape the finance function – and your career.
1 Commercial advice is critical
Since the spring, business have wanted the answer to an urgent question: how can we survive? Looking ahead they will need the answer to an even more difficult question: how do we recover?
Lee Owen, director at recruitment firm Hays Accountancy and Finance comments:
“As the market recovers, organisations are likely to place a greater focus on roles with a more commercial and strategic edge. These roles will help businesses jump on the front foot to dive their revenues forward once again.”
Smart accountants will be honing relevant skills to meet these needs. They will be developing their ability to generate strong insights and point to new business solutions.
Alongside this, accountants need to cultivate the confidence and presentational skills to ‘tell the story’ of the business – along with the networking skills to gain the attention of colleagues and stakeholders.
2 Technology – survival of the savvy
The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated the existing shift towards technological innovation.
“The value of proactive, digitally-aided accountants is becoming increasingly clear,” says Mark Farrar, AAT Chief Executive. “Those who have run with new technology are coming through the current challenges in a better position than those who haven’t.
“We must make sure we have the skills – and the willingness to learn – to meet that demand, or we could be left trailing behind the rest of the world,” he adds.
Andrew Harding, Chief Executive of management accounting at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), agrees: “Many companies are now accelerating their digital transformation plans and rethinking how they operate to build better capabilities to become more resilient.”
Such moves could have a big impact on types of roles within finance departments.
Recruitment expert Owen comments:
“Roles that can be automated by business intelligence tools, AI or robotics will become less prevalent in the market. This trend, in particular, may be accelerated in those companies who have been forced into a full review of their processes as part of their Covid-19 coping strategy.”
Matt Weston, UK managing director at accountancy recruitment firm, Robert Half comments: “More creative roles are being created, allowing finance professionals to do more people-facing tasks. There will be a greater emphasis on stakeholder management.”
New roles for accountants could open up, by collating data from automated ledgers, according to Roland Seddon, managing director of accountancy recruitment firm, MRK Associates. “Finance could work more closely with marketing to understand their customer,” he says.
3 Audit set to change
Accountants working in audit roles are likely to face big changes to the way they operate in a socially distanced world. “The nature of the audit process requires engagement and interaction with the audited entity, says Suffield. Suffield predicts challenges in acquiring audit evidence and very sensitive judgements in areas such as judging whether businesses
are going concerns.
“Although digital advances continue to influence how audits are conducted and how evidence is acquired, as well as aspects of the reporting process, for many firms the crisis is creating a systemic shock to normal client engagement activities,” he says. “Auditors will need to re-evaluate how they undertake normal auditing activities.”
Amanda Digne-Malcolm, practice director at ICAEW, predicts a surge in pent-up demand for audit.
“While some firms and audits and clients have continued audit work, some has deferred. For those firms, there will be a big impact on workload when things return to normality.”
4 Risk management
In May, the Bank of England warned of an expected 14% decline in economic growth this year – the worst fall since 1706.
The scale of the damage has led to fundamental questions of how prepared both government and businesses are for such massive shocks to the economy.
While no amount of risk management could have foreseen the Covid-19 crisis, accountants are set to play a key role in the increased level forecasting that will follow it.
Finance directors already have responsibility for managing risks to their businesses. Now there will be an increased focus on risk planning and management/governance at other levels.
The profession will continue to play a key role in setting standards and frameworks, promoting and developing transparent, relevant, fair, consistent and comparable outcomes for all stakeholders.
5 Turnaround skills in demand
Inevitably, many businesses will find themselves struggling to survive the impact of lockdown. The skills possessed by accountants will be critical in business recovery, experts say. “There are fundamentally sound businesses that are falling on hard times,” says Boyd. “Good company ‘doctor’ skills will come to the fore. There will be a demand for people with skills that are a hybrid between insolvency and corporate finance.”
Accountancy firms will need to sit down with clients and review cash flow and staffing structures, he says. “At the top end, turnaround specialists might be in demand from retailers. They can go in and say ‘how do we get you out of this? How do we turbocharge your online offering?’”
6 Temporary roles increasing
Despite the lockdown, the jobs market is not at a standstill. Employers are hesitant about taking on permanent staff, and so are turning to the contract/temporary market as a way to fill immediate skills gaps.
Once the market normalises, many of these companies are likely to convert temporary workers into permanent roles.
Another factor is that companies often cut jobs aggressively when faced with the threat of recession, only to find they are short of skills in critical areas. Temporary posts are a way to balance needs.
Boyd believes the crisis, and the accompanying shift to technology could also drive a longer-term change in the balance between temporary and permanent staff. “Some companies will be questioning why they need an in-house accounts department at all,” he says.
Temporary contracts or agency employment may be the answer – providing arrangements do not fall foul of IR35.
7 Homeworking and remote recruiting
Even when social distancing rules are relaxed, more accountancy organisations are likely to opt for home working or a hybrid of home and office work,” according to Jeremy Aroles, assistant professor in organisation studies at Durham University Business School.
With a likely reduction in travel and in-person meetings, “it will be important for businesses to set priorities for critical communication with stakeholders, partners, customers, vendors, and employees,” according to Harding. “For finance professionals, networking and partnering with other leaders in the business will also be essential to help set these priorities, maximise the effectiveness of decision-making across the business and mitigate risks.”
More home working could lead to opportunities to plug skills gaps with employees from other regions.
“Businesses might start to interview and onboard people remotely. It will be easier to fill a job in Bristol with a candidate from Edinburgh. There are more opportunities to get a better-skilled workforce,” says Weston.
However, long-term there will be challenges.
“Training is going to be a problem. There is a lot of learning that goes on by osmosis through working next to other people,” says Boyd.
8 Keeping it in-house
Outsourcing has always been part of the accountancy profession, but experts predict that firms are more likely to turn to their in-house teams to help them through the recovery period.
“As countries around the world prepare to face major economic downturns, companies will rely, more than ever before, on the expertise of their in-house finance teams to help them recover from the crisis and navigate uncertainty,” Harding says.
“They are also more likely to turn to their finance professionals, who know their organisations and business models inside and out, as they prepare to do business in a world that has changed forever.”
Bigger firms will call on their resources in their recovery,
according to Digne-Malcolm. “They are likely to furlough trainees and allow
them to focus on training before returning them
to work,” she says.
9 Cash management
The crisis could last for months to come in some sectors, and figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 42% of businesses have less than six months of cash reserves.
Recruitment consultants report a rise in demand for accountants with such cash management and credit control skills as a result of the crisis.
Lee Owen, director at Hays Accountancy and Finance, says: “Cash management remains key in trying economic times, so some organisations will be leaning heavily on credit control skills.”
The crisis has seen many organisations jettison normal governance processes and introduce new ones in order to respond quickly. “It has thrown into sharp relief the mechanics of decision-making,” says Digne-Malcolm. “For instance, it has shown what is possible in terms of electronic signatures, and using drones to do stock-taking.”
Businesses may revert to some pre-Covid-19 governance practices long-term. But processes that only add value and expedite are likely to stay.
11 Geographical siloing
Accountants working for firms operating at a global level could face challenges as travel becomes restricted.
Video conferencing can go only so far to help organisations adapt. In the Far East, getting to know people personally is extremely important.
Firms with branches in different countries could become more siloed, meaning a greater role for global accounting standards.
“The IFRS system is already in place and there is a question about whether the need for it to be extended,” Seddon says. “The new mutuality could come from reporting rather than relationships in a post-Covid world.”
AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.