Vice President of Research and Policy Institute of Management Accountants
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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Accountants

It's been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic appeared suddenly and wrought massive changes on the world seemingly overnight. The Institute of Management Accountants studied those changes to understand how the accounting profession was affected and to determine some best ways to move forward. VP of Research and Policy Raef Lawson shares some insights from the report.

Feb 16th 2021
Vice President of Research and Policy Institute of Management Accountants
Columnist
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The ongoing pandemic has made a significant impact across industries and professions, as organizations report losses in earnings, layoffs and implementation of long-term remote work procedures. Finance and accounting are no exception. Professionals in the field remain at the forefront of a financial crisis and continue to navigate industry changes. 

IMA’s (Institute of Management Accountants) recent report, “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Finance Function,” highlights how the pandemic has affected accounting and finance professionals across five countries, including China, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Respondents reported losses across the board, as well as shifting priorities in skills needed by today’s professionals. With these changes taking place, how can the accounting and finance function progress both during and after the pandemic?

Upskilling in New Core Areas

Lifelong learning is top-of-mind for certified accounting professionals as they keep pace with mandated continuing professional education (CPE) requirements and emerging skill areas. The pandemic has both accelerated this need and exacerbated a skills gap. IMA’s report revealed that 68 percent of respondents indicated greater interest in upskilling due to COVID-19, with this trend taking place across all levels of the organization. At the same time, 12 percent of respondents believed their skills will not be relevant post-pandemic; another 10 percent were unsure. 

Shifting priorities have upended typical day-to-day tasks for accounting and finance professionals as they are now a go-to source for guidance in a crisis. To maximize the positive impact on their organizations, finance professionals need to focus upskilling efforts on risk management and cash flow management and forecasting, which have increased in importance over the course of the pandemic. Eighty percent of survey respondents indicated that they are planning to improve or have improved in these areas, among others. Though many professionals likely already have a foundational understanding in these subject matters, it is critical to understand them in the context of a long-term crisis of the kind we are currently experiencing. Courses, webinars and workshops are evolving to address these areas so that current and future events do not catch accounting and finance departments off guard, and these resources can be utilized by both individuals and organizations. To move forward, organizations must first prioritize the needs of their staff, and are at least partially responsible for encouraging ongoing education to keep pace with evolving expectations.

Employee Retention and Support

While the pandemic has widened the skills gap, it has also opened an opportunity for professional growth. With more time spent at home, individuals may now be more inclined to enroll in an online course to learn about an unfamiliar topic, or their organization may give greater support to corporate upskilling initiatives as various formats become more accessible. IMA reported that 49 percent of respondents’ employers supported upskilling or re-skilling among their employees during the time of the survey, and 72 percent believed their organizations should provide financial support to these efforts. Company-wide or accounting and finance focused training and learning initiatives will provide great benefits to individuals and organizations, even remotely. With the support of department leaders, human resources or an organization’s training and development team, companies can strengthen collective knowledge that will propel them through not only the pandemic, but future disruptive events. Organizational support in learning is key to employee success. 

Outside of the working environment — which has now merged with the personal home environment — employees need greater support in adapting to change. Enabling staff to work from home and safe working environments were cited as top personnel-related concerns in IMA’s report, followed by training and development. With remote work comes an increased reliance on technology, as organizations seek to facilitate virtual meetings and events or communicate via new mediums. These company-wide shifts have required increased employer support and patience. The same follows for industry-specific technologies such as automation, which has now accelerated as a trend. As employers focus on supporting their employees amidst these rapid changes, they can be confident that their organizations will engage in higher performance and feel better prepared for what lies ahead. 

Staffing and Compensation Shifts

Unemployment has risen due to the economic crisis, and this was reflected in IMA’s survey’s findings on downsizing and layoffs. Responses varied by country, with companies in the United States least likely to reduce staff sizes, and those in the Middle East experiencing the most downsizing. Looking at compensation, the report found that most respondents faced reduced pay, though also varying by country; companies in the United States were less likely to decrease compensation than those in other countries. As organizations work their way back to stability while facing declining revenues, accounting and finance professionals must continue to be at the forefront of business continuity. With their strategic guidance, organizations suffering losses in employment, compensation and revenue will find their way back to pre-pandemic levels.

At the same time, however, the report also indicated that less time is being spent in business partnering and decision support. As finance professionals are increasingly counted on for crisis management and for maintaining profitability, they must position themselves as strategic partners. An understanding of how to guide decisions is of equal importance as knowledge of the business and its many functions. The value provided by accounting and finance professionals to fulfill the role of a decision maker is essential in rebuilding after the pandemic.

Moving Forward

As we head into the one-year anniversary of country-wide shutdowns, accounting and finance professionals must strongly consider what is required of them and their organizations to move forward on the path to recovery. Professional certification, continuing education and corporate upskilling programs are ideal methods for prioritizing employee needs and embarking on the road back to stability. Rebuilding begins with each individual’s commitment to overcome the key challenges facing an organization. The pandemic has made an impact on both personal and professional levels, and by taking the appropriate steps to progress, we will see a brighter light at the end of the tunnel.

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