Within firms, the next top priority was lowering overheads and reducing staff costs, with restricted equity partner draws, deferred or cancelled bonuses and pay rises among common steps.
The findings, published in Commonwealth Bank’s latest Accounting Market Pulse report, were taken from a survey of 33 accounting firms, ranging from large firms to suburban practices, during the height of the crisis in May.
The report found that accountants were well positioned to take on the significant business disruptions caused by COVID-19, with years of investment in cloud-based solutions allowing partners and staff to seamlessly deliver services while working from home.
Close to 80 per cent of firms stepped up communication with their clients as the crisis hit, before turning to their own backyard, with 61 per cent reducing overheads in a bid to preserve jobs.
Less than one in five firm surveyed chose to reduce their headcount.
CBA professional services national manager Marc Totaro said the preparedness of accounting firms in handling disruptions allowed them to turn their eye to long-term recovery.
“While accounting firms are taking a neutral view on short-term business conditions, many made tough decisions early to maintain their operations and workforce and to position themselves for the longer-term recovery. This meant staying close to clients, many of whom needed support, including navigating the government assistance packages,” Mr Totaro said.
“As federal and state governments unveiled emergency assistance packages, accounting firms took on a crucial support function, explaining to clients in simple language the eligibility criteria and intricacies of the application processes for the hastily-put-together packages.”
Focusing on the future
Accounting firms are anticipating a strong rebound in two years’ time, despite believing conditions will move back to neutral in 12 months’ time.
In the interim, firms believe business advisory services and recovery and insolvency work will be in greatest demand in the coming six to 12 months.
However, mid-sized firms anticipate that the majority of their work will be in tax consulting, while smaller firms expect increased demand for business recovery, wealth management and financial planning.
Having successfully navigated through business disruptions, accounting firms are now looking to accelerate their digital transformation programs, with 82 per cent saying they would focus on digital service delivery and providing flexible working arrangements for staff.
As a by-product of this, they anticipate further increasing investment in technology and cyber security.
Meanwhile, a net 45 per cent of firms are expecting to reduce office space and net 73 per cent will travel less for client meetings.
“Years of investment in the cloud, cyber security and even CRM software meant firms were equipped with the tools to service clients digitally and manage a decentralised workforce. And 88 per cent of firms already offered flexible working,” Mr Totaro said.
“That investment is now expected to accelerate as firms embrace the digital economy and seek new ways to balance efficiencies with engaging digital experiences for clients and staff.”
Jotham Lian is the editor of Accountants Daily, the leading source of breaking news, analysis and insight for Australian accounting professionals.
Before joining the team in 2017, Jotham wrote for a range of national mastheads including the Sydney Morning Herald, and Channel NewsAsia.