Digitize your accounting practice. How to help your employees

This is the age of digital accounting practices.

In fact, digitization is one of the most important factors shaping the development of the accounting profession today.

A particular driver of digitization has been Making Tax Digital (MTD), which aims to use technology to make the tax system more efficient and effective.

So what does digitization mean for your employees?

Essentially, they need to be comfortable working digitally. But as you know, some of your people may need more help than others in this department.

In this article, we highlight three areas where you can help your employees when it comes to transitioning to digital ways of working.

And when they accelerate, not only will your practice see the benefits, but so will your clients.

Here’s what we cover.

Going digital can be difficult

The digitization trend will only continue to accelerate.

But while accounting practices generally understand they need to embrace it, they may struggle with its real-life implications.

Typically, digitization involves moving away from Excel spreadsheets and desktop accounting software to cloud-based accounting software, which in turn tends to lead to new processes and ways of working.

Some employees may feel uncomfortable with the new direction the practice is taking, or feel they lack the skills to thrive in a more digital environment.

So what actions can your practice partners, managers and other leaders take to support your staff in the transition process?

3 Ways to Help Your Employees Go Digital

1. Train and train employees on new systems

Your employees will feel more comfortable using new systems if they receive comprehensive training on them.

It is also important that they receive additional training as new software updates are released and that they are available for follow-up after training.

As well as formal training sessions held face-to-face and online, your employees can benefit from informal sessions such as lunch and learn events.

US-based WithumSmith + Brown, a member of the HLB global accounting network, is committed to leveraging the latest cloud solutions across its audit, tax and advisory service lines.

It believes the best technology gives its people the flexibility to work the way they want, which means they serve customers better and drive revenue growth.

Withum also understands that if its employees are to get the best out of its systems, they must be proficient in using them and have a high level of cyber awareness.

“We put a lot of time and effort into training,” says Jim Burke, partner and managing director of Withum Consulting Services. “When we implement new technologies, we conduct mandatory training for all our staff.

“Also, because we use a lot of web-based systems, we make it mandatory for our staff to watch a cyber security awareness video every quarter.”

While all employees receive standard training on the new systems, there is a core team that receives additional training so they can support the rest of the team.

In addition, the practice has a training coordinator who works with people on their training plans.

Jim adds: “If the training coordinator sees that staff need specific technology support, we make sure we provide them with training.”

2. Accept that work processes can change

New technologies can allow your accounting practice to operate far more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

However, this will only happen if work processes change along with the introduction of new systems.

Your employees must adapt their work so that they can take full advantage of the convenience of technology and the opportunities it presents to build stronger relationships with customers and generate new business opportunities.

Fred McBreen is the former managing director of Hertfordshire-based accountancy practice Base52, now 3E Accountants.

During his tenure at the practice he co-founded, the firm embarked on a change program that included using technology more effectively to improve its processes.

It chose a software package that it distributed to most of its customers and used scanning software to collect data. It also implemented a workflow management tool so that jobs and resources could be monitored and prioritized more effectively.

Work processes inevitably had to change as part of the transformation.

Fred says: “We redefined job roles and responsibilities to align with the new systems, so that development, review, analysis and customer support were delivered at the right level.

“Previously we were organized by type of work, for example year-end accounts, personal tax, accounting and VAT. But we restructured our teams to oversee all work for specific business clients.

“There was a hierarchy of roles within the teams so that basic development work was done at a junior/learner level, which was facilitated by the new technology.

“Managers were then freed up to spend more time looking after customers, reviewing work and doing higher-level analysis.”

3. Communicate and engage

Information about digital transformation must be communicated clearly and regularly to your employees and in ways that require their involvement.

A variety of technology tools can be used to provide updates on changes, from the humble email to your practice’s intranet or messaging platform.

Often, face-to-face channels such as town hall meetings and field days can be the best way to communicate change in the first place.

They give your employees the opportunity to ask questions in an open environment and offer their suggestions on how processes and systems can be improved.

Della Hudson founded Bristol-based Hudson Accountants in 2009, running the business until selling it in 2017.

He initially used cloud accounting software because he believed it would minimize his IT responsibilities and enable his business to maximize its profitability.

Additionally, he recognized that employees in the practice must actively commit to continuous improvement if they are to take full advantage of the technology tools at their disposal.

“Communication is key in a cloud-based accounting practice where people can work part-time or at home,” says Delia, “so we had a two-hour lunch and study session over pizza every month.

“During that session, everyone who has been on the training course will share what they have learned.

“Also, if there was something that people thought could be done better, this was the forum to speak up. It was also an opportunity to share the direction we wanted the company to move as a whole.

“I think if the team understands the values, they can fill in the gaps where there are no written processes.”

Final thoughts

Successful digital transformation requires a significant investment of time and effort by any accounting practice.

Inevitably, there will be some challenges in familiarizing your employees with new systems and processes.

To meet these challenges and encourage your employees to go digital, your accounting practice needs to review the transformation from a holistic perspective.

This means considering issues such as communication, culture, training and work processes, as well as the systems that will be most suitable for your practice and the needs of your specific client base.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in November 2019 and has been updated for relevance.

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