Members look ahead to 2021

Dec 01, 2020

Six Chartered Accountants assess the events of the past year and consider what could lie ahead as the New Year approaches.

2020 has changed the trajectory of many lives. Some have seen their careers go in unexpected directions while others have adjusted to the new working world around them. No-one can say that they have escaped unscathed by the events of this year, personally or professionally. Patrick O’Sullivan Greene, Jude Fay, Declan Walsh, Fiona Byrne, Henry Duggan and Jennifer Harrison explain their challenges and triumphs from 2020, the changes to their personal and professional lives during the pandemic, and their predictions for the New Year.

Remote working goes mainstream

For Patrick O’Sullivan Greene, author and activist shareholder, 2020 has taken him away from the office, colleagues, family and friends, but a changing business world had prepared him for remote working.

When COVID-19 announced itself on the world, I had already been a member of the remote working community for a number of years. When I started working in my native Killarney after returning from London, I was able to take advantage of the strong communication network in Kerry, the two direct flights a day to London and a good rail connection to Dublin. As a director of an activist fund that has invested in quoted companies across Europe and being involved in a number of early-stage businesses in Ireland and France, I was still able to conduct business from a distance. 

Remote working, of course, has now become more mainstream. This has been facilitated by the rapid growth in shared office providers across the country and the ‘internationalisation’ of rural Ireland. The opening of the Box CoWork space in Killarney, combined with an emerging coffee culture in the town, has given me access to a community of similar-minded people.

The enforced lockdowns have brought a major change to my work life; no office, no travel, no coffee. Of course, this is a minor inconvenience next to the impact the pandemic has had on many other people’s lives. But, COVID-19 has not just impacted negatively on my work life. I have not met some close friends and colleagues in nearly ten months, including the parents of one of my godchildren, and I am unlikely to meet them for another six. 

However, there have been compensations. I was able to put the final touches to my first book – Crowdfunding the Revolution: The First Dáil Loan and the Battle for Irish Independence, the story of the founding and funding of the well-known start-up called Ireland.

Going forward, I expect some structural changes in the post-pandemic world; more remote working, less international travel and a greater appreciation for the environment. Humans are social animals and we will adapt as necessary. 

It is important that the Government continues to provide support to SMEs, in particular the retail, pub, restaurant and wider tourism sector. We need to ensure those businesses make it through to the other side.

Embrace transformation

Jude Fay, a psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice in Co. Kildare, considers the challenges and opportunities faced by the mental health sector this year and outlines the important changes she plans to make in the years ahead.

Previously, psychotherapy services, therapist training and CPD were mostly delivered in person. Like other industries, we have had to adapt to providing services online. Psychotherapy can be delivered online, but it is not the same. We lose some of the visual clues, such as body language. However, the transformations are not all bad. There is greater awareness of the importance of mental health. For some, online access makes it easier to engage, both practically and emotionally. Services online do not rely on physical proximity. For practitioners or clients in rural areas, this offers greater choice.

But since the pandemic began, I have been very aware of a free-floating grief, and hear others in the profession saying the same. A sense of confidence and certainty has been lost. While, intellectually, we know the future is always uncertain, the pandemic has brought that uncertainty much closer. COVID-19 losses are not just the obvious ones. I believe this pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on what is important, to look at where our lives have become unmanageable and take action to change that. Personally, the biggest impact has been the inconvenience and a restriction of my normal movements. A couple of friends contracted the virus but, thankfully, I have not lost anyone to it. A good friend died in April, and I was unable to attend the funeral. My mother was hospitalised shortly before, and again during, the lockdown, and the family was unable to visit her. Those experiences were very hard. 

On a lighter note, I turned 60 this year and had many plans for celebrating, most of which had to be shelved. I should be preparing to travel to South America, but clearly that’s not going to happen! Going forward, I will look for the joy in each day and be mindful of my many blessings. I will connect more with loved ones, let small things go, and appreciate my good health. 

Adjust accordingly

Declan Walsh, founder of Deferno Solutions, the Chartered Accountants Northwest Society and The Neurology Support Centre, reflects on the drastic changes the charity sector was forced to undertake in 2020 and what all organisations should look forward to in 2021.

COVID-19 has, and will continue to, negatively impact the charity sector. Not only has it had an impact on the charities’ ability to fundraise, but the more direct impact has been on the actual provision of services to the end-user.

Over the next 12 months, charities will have to think differently about how services can be provided. New service delivery platforms will become the new short-term norm. While not ideal, the move to online service provision is becoming necessary and differing skillsets are needed. At the Neurology Support Centre, we have just launched, in conjunction with Spectrum Life, an online counselling and wellbeing service for users and their families, which provides 24/7 confidential access to a range of services. Strategic planning, both from a business and charity perspective, has been turned upside down over the past year. The five-year plan is now often replaced by a five-month or five-week plan. However, it is critical that board and management teams review their long-term goals and make sure that the short-term goals are equally aligned.

The near future will continue to be uniquely challenging as we emerge slowly from COVID-19 restrictions, restart the economy, and deal with Brexit. However, this change to a new norm has, in many cases, provided time to reflect on what may be a person’s main motivator in life. Ultimately, it is all about people, connecting directly, listening, understanding and being more empathic and, perhaps, relegating the necessary, but invisible, forms of instant communication and social media to a more secondary place. Whether as the founder of a charity, or as a financial advisor, the same rules apply. You must not only listen, but also hear what is being said, and adapt accordingly.

Find value in community relationships

Fiona Byrne, Director of James Byrne & Company, has found that, while this year has presented challenges, it has also strengthened her relationships with her clients, community and colleagues, and given her a better work-life balance.

Our industry was transformed overnight – the move to remote working has definitely been the most significant challenge. The majority of our team had previously operated entirely from the office, so there was an immediate need for IT infrastructure to be mobilised to our teams’ homes. This added to the uncertainty and stress at the time. Luckily, we had already begun the process before COVID-19 hit. It is incredible how people across the age spectrum and industries have been able to adapt and demonstrate an agility that, perhaps, we knew we had but never truly tested before. 

Despite this, we all miss the social aspects of the traditional office environment, of course. Although technology keeps us in touch, the lack of daily in-person contact has been tough and I am very conscious of the mental health and wellbeing of our team. Assuming this is the new normal, we need to work on how we can continue to build our office culture while taking in these new ways of working. The current circumstances have really demonstrated the value in relationships, and I take great pride in the fact that my company has offered support to both our clients and community. 

Looking at my own life, remote working allows for additional flexibility, less time is spent commuting and more time is spent with my family. I have noticed that as our professional and personal worlds have become blurred, people were extremely accepting and understanding. At the end of the day, we all have various family commitments and the fact that everyone went through this together meant that we all learned a little bit more about each other. 

2021 looks challenging but, hopefully, the New Year will bring a fresh sense of optimism and new ideas. As we approach Christmas, I am mindful that we will need to be focused on people taking a break – it is clear we all need to refresh. 

On the whole, the combination of virtual working and people’s adaptability is a positive development for our industry, and new innovative ideas will emerge that allow us to be fully compliant and work more efficiently. I believe remote working is here to stay and, if used properly, will allow accountants to become more efficient and have a better work-life balance. 

Secure a different future

Jennifer Harrison, sole practitioner at Jennifer Harrison Chartered Accountants, left the security of a “guaranteed monthly income” to set out on her own in September, leading her to walk down a more fulfilling professional path.

The pandemic has probably been one of the biggest life-changing events for me professionally. Like many others, 2020 started full of optimism, working in full-time employment with the opportunity of promotion in sight. This pandemic threw a spanner in the works with cutbacks, increased workload and home-schooling.

I was forced to re-evaluate the priorities in my life, allowing me the opportunity to see a different future professionally. I was a firm believer that security was in the form of a guaranteed monthly income, but this year has proven that nothing is guaranteed. Life is full of curveballs and we need to learn to change and adapt as they come.  

This change in perspective encouraged me to set up my own practice. It has only been a few months since I opened my doors, but I can already see the benefits along with a steady increase in interest and commitment from new and future clients.

Although the pandemic has prevented the face-to-face interaction with clients, it has allowed many clients to experiment with online communication, expanding my customer base. It has also allowed me to work alongside some amazing organisations, offering online support to businesses in Donegal. This is something I really enjoy doing and now, I hope to expand my business to include online training and support as a standard service (but it’s early days).  

I have to say, this year has been challenging personally. Restricting movements, fear for the health of my loved ones, reducing my social life and so on, but it has taken me down another, more fulfilling path professionally. This is a big step for me, which is scary and exciting all at once.

Utilise the tools you have

Henry Duggan, Managing Director of EMEA Financial Services at FTI Consulting, has found that the agile nature of his job was ready-made for remote working, leading to greater collaboration and creativity on his team.

COVID-19 has highlighted the need for flexible solutions to meet client demands. My work primarily focuses on sensitive, multi-jurisdictional investigations relating to money laundering, terrorist financing and breaches of international sanctions. My organisation has been extremely proactive in exploring how technology can facilitate such investigations during the current pandemic and been very successful in that respect. My team is leading multiple remote investigations across many jurisdictions, and COVID-19 has emphasised the need to embrace new ways of working and think about more creative tools and solutions.

I relocated from the Middle East in March, so I have worked from home since then. FTI Consulting has invested in forensic technology, which has ensured that I (and my team) have been able to continue conducting our investigations work since then. Notwithstanding the inability to socialise and travel, I have found that my ability to respond to client needs has been unaffected due to advances in this firm’s forensic technology. And, while normal face-to-face interaction has been lost during the pandemic, I have found that many colleagues have embraced virtual meetings, and this has led to greater collaboration and creativity. Sure, the casual coffee chats and unexpected catch-ups have been lost, but productivity has increased in my view.

Personally, given the agile nature of the work that I conduct, I don’t anticipate any major changes in the coming year. The biggest change that I have experienced so far is in relation to conferences and seminars. Previously, I would travel to other countries to deliver lectures on financial crime and money laundering. However, the increased prevalence of webinars has been refreshing and has reinforced the importance of distance and blended learning. The tools are there if you’re prepared to adapt and use them.