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The COVID-19 tech effect: advisory accelerated

13 August: The coronavirus pandemic has forced all organisations to adapt to a completely new way of working. What are its long-term implications for accountants?

Dean Shepherd, lead technology product manager at Wolters Kluwer, worked as a tax adviser before moving into technology. The new working world he found himself in was fast-paced – the expectation was that new technology would appear faster than you could develop your product. “We’re certainly seeing that now, more than ever,” he says.

Take MS Teams for example: at the beginning of the year, a handful of accountants used Teams to communicate with colleagues and clients. Now, a recent poll of Wolters Kluwer customers revealed that all but one respondent is using Teams, and the company is looking at ways to integrate its products with the platform. “You can have a genuine, collaborative working environment with a client, bridging the functionality that already exists in Teams.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new technologies and working practices across the sector, particularly cloud technology and a more collaborative, advisory approach to services. This will be covered in detail at Shepherd’s panel discussion at ICAEW’s Virtually Live conference.

Attitudes around cloud technology have suddenly changed, says Shepherd. A significant proportion of accountants were reticent about moving their data onto a cloud server outside of their control. In recent months, that hesitance has faded away. “We've certainly seen see an acceleration of people adopting it.”

A lot of this has been driven by the uptake of video conferencing tools, which has changed the expectations of the client-advisor relationship, says Shepherd. More people are now working flexibly on both the accountant- and client-side. It’s now easier to have ‘face-to-face’ chats with clients.

There’s also been an acceleration in client expectations as a result of the coronavirus, with more focus on advisory services over compliance. Previously, this shift was happening but at a much slower pace, explains Shepherd. 

“I think it will also really accelerate the amount of advisory services that accountants offer and the types of services that they offer. We'll probably see an increase in technology-related advice that accounting practices are offering their clients because everybody's had to go through this big, big change, whether you're in accounting practice or any other business.”

As a self-described “tax guy”, Shepherd has been keeping an eye on digital acceleration at the HMRC end of things. This has been kept in limbo to a degree, with Making Tax Digital delays halting the response from the sector and its technology partners.

With the recently-announced new timeline for MTD, however, that agenda is back on the table. And COVID-19 and the changes that it has brought to working practices has opened more organisations up to the possibility of adopting completely digital processes. “This will probably help HMRC get greater adoption quicker, with businesses operating in a digital manner and being able to comply with the Making Tax Digital program when it comes into force,” says Shepherd.

So what’s the next step in accountancy’s accelerated journey towards a more digital, real-time future? Audit analytics is the next big thing, says Shepherd. “Rather than audit kind of being an end-of-year affair, I think we'll see greater adoption of tools within the client systems so that auditing is effectively taking place throughout the year, rather than post-year-end. That will be really interesting to keep an eye on.”