A post-pandemic roadmap for the professional accountant

Nov 30, 2020
As the global accountancy profession began adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, the International Federation of Accountants convened a series of round-table discussions to understand the implications of the pandemic for professional accountants and leaders. Kevin Dancey and Alta Prinsloo outline the findings.

Crises inevitably demand that difficult decisions be made. Yet, the preferred conditions for making such decisions – time to deliberate or a clear sense of focus, for example – are in short supply. Countless small business owners, CEOs, government leaders and more confronted this reality in 2020. For many of them, professional accountants were there as trusted advisors when there was no semblance of certainty.

Like every profession, accountancy will emerge from COVID-19 changed. We will be accustomed to digital processes we once thought impossible. Our change management abilities will be sharper than ever. How we anticipate the future will be informed by an experience many of us never imagined would happen.

Right now, the profession has the opportunity to transform for the benefit of business, government, and society. It is also a critical moment to nurture existing talent and attract new talent. We must achieve this progress collectively, with clear and measurable goals.
Through it all, the pandemic highlighted the importance of future-proofed skills that can anticipate challenges and opportunities, and are agile in a new world where professional accountants are established as strategic leaders.

A shock to the system

In the Netherlands, virtual work has been commonplace for more than a decade. When COVID-19 forced lockdowns, professional accountants were ready. In other regions, the transformations were not as simple. In South Africa, workers embraced change very quickly, but the more remote areas of the country found it difficult to find immediate solutions. In China, meanwhile, the shift to remote work was rapid. In the US and many other countries, new systems took root overnight, but with them came new-found concerns about security and the availability of technology.

94% of the global workforce live in areas where workplaces closed in 2020 due to lockdowns, according to the International Labour Organisation. These challenges impacted governments, businesses, and employees. In our new hybridised workplaces, preserving the tenets of trust and integrity while also embracing opportunities that virtual environments introduce is key. For example, when firms are not bound to a physical office, hiring more diverse talent from different geographies is possible.

Educators and students were also disrupted and had to manage through a wide range of trials. On the one hand, universities and professors moved faster than ever to online instruction and, in some jurisdictions, had to overcome legal limitations in administering examinations online. On the other, students had not only to navigate internet bandwidth challenges, but also the mental health toll, personal economic hardships, and more, which the pandemic inflicted.

One silver lining of remote learning is that classes not bound to a physical classroom can capitalise on the connective power of technology. In academia, as in the workforce, it has become clear that much of the accountancy profession’s infrastructure needed to transform – not just for the immediate future, but also the long-term.

While the core skills of the professional accountant have not drastically changed due to COVID-19, the profession is changing. This crisis cast a spotlight on anticipation and agility, making it clear that the profession must take the opportunity now to rethink our curricula, our business models, and how professional accountants maintain their competency and relevancy so that they are ready for anything.

Evolving technology, regulations and standards

In early 2020, digital transformation was either in progress or identified as a strategic growth driver across businesses, accounting firms, governments, and beyond. Through the crisis, however, technology and data have been imperative not only to stay operational, but also to inform new and evolving strategies and ways of working. In a Deloitte survey, more than one-third of financial services industry firms in the US said technology upgrades were the top priority emerging from COVID-19. Meanwhile, more than half cited digitising client interactions as the first imperative. Across all industries, according to PwC, more than 60% of global CEOs acknowledge that they need a more digital business model for the future and that working outside of an office is here to stay. The way businesses everywhere operate is altered forever, and that reality has shifted how professional accountants engage with stakeholders. Professional accountants are the custodians of information that drives long-term strategy and, as businesses transform to stay relevant, professional accountants must be at the centre of that transformation.

With change comes uncertainty, both for professional accountants and our stakeholders – especially the public. In this moment, the profession must align around clear goals for our members so we can collectively meet the changing demand around us. This is critical as we aim to leverage technology in new ways, and as we continue to champion trust and transparency in businesses and governments worldwide. As a profession, we cannot passively accept change; we must seize the opportunities change creates while also anticipating and mitigating risks. We have the guiding principles to do this and international standards for financial reporting, audit and assurance, ethics, public sector, and, hopefully soon, sustainability, will continue to help the profession evolve.

Even regulators are being challenged to adapt to how accountancy work has changed, especially in light of 2020. In round-table sessions, we discussed how accounting firms should consider advocating for a way forward by partnering with regulators on the latest approach to financial reporting and auditing in a digital-first world. This will also serve us well as we align ourselves with a shared vision of the role sustainability reporting, focused on environmental, social, and governance (ESG)-related matters, will play in the future of the accountancy profession and our stakeholders. Accountancy is directly tied to prosperity, and a more holistic view of how people and planet fit into our profession is imperative.

According to many stakeholders, sustainability is now an indisputable necessity. A long-term strategy rooted in sustainability helps guarantee any organisation’s place in the future. Indeed, two-thirds of global respondents in a recent BCG study on how the pandemic heightened awareness of environmental challenges agreed that economic recovery plans should prioritise environmental concerns. To that end, we must evolve our mindsets and reporting, and perhaps most importantly, our curricula for future talent.
In particular, the students we spoke with were passionate about a much larger focus on ESG in the accountancy profession. As one student from Hong Kong said, “We are not prepared to handle ESG because there are no strict standards to hold us accountable”. For the future of the profession, transparency and accountability concerning ESG and long-term sustainability must be ingrained in high-quality reporting and assurance practices globally.

IFAC is committed to advocating for new sustainability standards that would offer a reliable and assurable framework relevant to enterprise value creation, sustainable development, and evolving expectations. This is an opportunity for accountancy to evolve and to offer the next generation of professional accountants, many of whom identify as global citizens and environmental advocates, a strong foundation to make a difference.

The important marriage of technical and professional skills

Change management and sharp communications: From every region, discipline, and position, one skill was referred to more often than any other in every round-table we convened in the past three months: change management. We were in a rapid state of evolution before COVID-19. At the start of 2020, McKinsey & Co. noted that nine in ten business managers said skills gaps existed in their organisations or soon would. That reality has only become more evident. Accountancy is not a profession operating in a static world, and the skills learned have to reflect an equal measure of agility. There is a clear need for well-rounded skillsets that combine technical skills and professional skills that are rooted in relationship-building and communication. Doing so means placing more emphasis on stronger, trust-based relationships with key partners. This requires a focus on interdisciplinary skills when engaging with colleagues and in our strategic discussions with clients. Stronger communication skills will help professional accountants manage risks and garner buy-in for solutions.

Scenario planning and storytelling: Professional accountants are dynamic thinkers with an aptitude for proactive planning. We are trusted partners in times of change and uncertainty, and we must be prepared for that demand to continue. We have to maintain the momentum 2020 created and the renewed trust imparted on our profession. Many round-table discussions spent significant time on the importance of accountants continuing to build in the areas of professional skills and focusing on new techniques for analysing and interpreting data in differing circumstances, and aptitudes for strategising on increasing priorities such as ESG. Our stakeholders agreed that the profession must become better storytellers, able to effectively show how all the pieces fit together and how the finance function bolsters resiliency and growth. The basics of this can be taught in classrooms, but this skill will largely be shaped on the job.

Upskilling: How we compete in the learning and development space – with dynamic curricula, more agile credentialing and continuous learning models that are suited to a hybrid world – will be a differentiator moving forward. “Professions that invest [in education] now are going to come out of this with a competitive advantage,” said one academic leader. We have to show aspiring accountants and those who might be upskilling during their career that the profession is anticipating, adapting with agility, and remaining a step ahead. Affirming the need for agile, future-proofed skills, one professional accountancy organisation CEO said, “I’ve worked through three pretty major crises in my career, and the common theme through all of them is that you must use it as an opportunity for change. A crisis gives you license to adapt”.

Defining the accountant of the future

Professional accountants are, and will continue to be, strategic partners in any setting, be it in the private or public sector. The pandemic tested our capacity as business drivers, and we rose to the occasion.

This is a pivotal moment for the accountancy profession, one where we will change old paradigms and embrace new skills for the digital and rapidly evolving world in which we live. How we act in this moment will define the future of the profession, and the opportunity for positive change is immense.

Right now, societies and economies around the world are trying to find a way to move forward from a crisis-laden year. Professional accountants are the highly strategic and collaborative problem solvers who will help businesses and governments, large and small, move forward.

In the round-tables IFAC conducted in recent months, CEOs, auditors, academics, students and more from around the world shared a clear vision: we, as a profession, must accelerate new ways of working, embrace technology, align our work to new and evolving societal demands and, above all, ensure we are investing in the right balance of skills that will fortify the profession for whatever the future holds.  

Kevin Dancey is Chief Executive at IFAC, and Alta Prinsloo is Chief Executive at the 
Pan African Federation of Accountants and former Executive Director at IFAC.

The research process

The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) spent the past three months engaging with dozens of people associated with the accountancy profession across more than 20 countries with a range of perspectives. They included chief executives of professional accountancy organisations, chief executives in business, chief financial officers, audit committee members, auditors general, accounting firm leaders, academics and students. 

By convening these various stakeholders, IFAC set out to understand the implications of the pandemic for professional accountants and leaders, and how their experiences will affect the future of accountancy and, more specifically, accountancy skills.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated change and forced us to reconsider the role of professional accountants. We heard from our stakeholders about the transformation of organisations, the agility of business, and the resilience of professional accountants managing through unanticipated change.