How accounting firms around the world have adapted to COVID-19

Most accountants are busier than ever right now. They feel more productive and are happier, despite working from home. And few want to return to the office full-time when this is all over.

These are some of the key big learnings from our study looking at how the accounting profession has adapted to COVID-19.

We have all heard how much this crisis has impacted businesses and industries around the world. But it was unclear exactly what challenges are having the biggest impact, how firms like yours are adapting, and what the future might look like.

To grasp the full impact of COVID-19 on the industry, we surveyed almost 1,000 accountants across 20 countries. They told us how their firms have been affected, how they are adapting to working remotely, and what they want to see happen next.

Many of the insights will surprise you. The biggest takeaway?

The overwhelming majority of accounting firms have risen to the coronavirus challenge.

Highlights from the study are displayed in the infographic below. Keep reading for further analysis.

Who we surveyed:

To gain a full understanding across the entire accounting profession, we surveyed:

  • 906 accounting professionals, from junior staff to firm owners

  • Representing 737 different businesses, from sole practitioners to enterprise business

  • From 20 individual countries across 6 continents

  • Including Karbon customers (65%) and non-customers (35%)

The survey was conducted in June, 2020.

Accountants are busier than ever.

It is often stated that accounting firms can benefit from a crisis, and this survey backs that up. The struggling economy and influx of government stimulus packages in almost all regions combined to present accounting firms with more work than ever.

69% are experiencing a higher than normal workload and 23% have maintained their standard level of workload. Just 8% are experiencing less work.

Sole practitioners are the least likely to have taken on more work, with 82% stating that their workload has stayed the same or increased (compared to 96% of firms with 10-19 staff).

I'm so proud of my team and the way we've managed to adapt quickly, even though we were thrown a massive increase in workload. 90% of our clients were directly affected.

Partner/Owner, Australia, 5-10 staff

Many want (and expect) the remote work shift to stay.

Perhaps the clearest outcome from the survey is that many have benefitted from the sudden shift to working from home.

The overall percentage of professionals working remotely more than doubled, from 40% to 83%. And the majority of those have started working from home full-time.

  • 61% are happier working from home compared to the office

  • Just 18% wish to move back to the office permanently when it is suitable to do so

  • 59% would like the option to work from home or the office

  • 67% expect that they will work from home more often in the future

We should have gone virtual sooner! We excel at helping our clients use technology to work smarter, not harder. We should have drawn firmer boundaries with our clients earlier.

Partner/Owner, United States, 5-9 staff

Managers and staff agree—team performance has not suffered.

Despite the overwhelming shift to remote work, productivity has not suffered most. 75% said that they have been able to maintain or increase their normal productivity level. This is even more true for Mid-Level and Senior staff, with more than 80% in those roles maintaining or increasing productivity.

Most Managers have remained satisfied with their team performance too. 84% are confident that their team is staying productive when they work from home. And the same percentage — 84% — are noticing the same, or greater level of output from their team.

We more productive away from the office because we are not experiencing as many interruptions.

Junior Staff Member, United States, 11-19 staff

Is the United Kingdom on the verge of the biggest change?

Prior to COVID-19, United Kingdom-based firms had the lowest percentage of remote workers, with just 25% working from home. This figure jumped to 94% during COVID-19, suddenly making the United Kingdom home to the biggest percentage of remote workers in the profession.

The UK also has the lowest percentage of accounting professionals who want to return to the office—just 12% of all surveyed wish to return to the office permanently when it is suitable to do so.

And they expect that this will become a reality, at least in part. 77% of UK-based accounting professionals expect to work from home more often after COVID-19. Once again, this figure is the highest of all regions.

Working from home has been completely positive, with the exception of training staff, which is proving more challenging to do remotely.

Senior Staff Member, United Kingdom, 5-9 staff

Karbon customers enjoy a smoother transition.

If you work in an accounting practice using Karbon, you are more likely to have found the transition to working from home easier. The survey, which included a mix of Karbon customers and non-customers, found that:

  • Karbon firms working from home increased by 43%, compared to a 29% increase amongst non-Karbon firms

  • Managers using Karbon are 10% more likely to be confident that their teams are remaining productive

  • Output from teams using Karbon is 6% more likely to have stayed the same or increased

  • Staff using Karbon are 17% more likely to be happier working at home

  • Staff using Karbon are 37% less likely to want to move back to the office permanently

  • Staff using Karbon have a 9% greater chance of being more productive at home

  • Karbon customers are less likely to face challenges not knowing what their team is working on

  • Those not using Karbon are twice as likely to face client communication blind spots

We could never have done as well as we have without Karbon.

Partner/Owner, Canada, 50+ staff

Firm owners and Partners are the least satisfied working remotely.

A clear outcome from this survey is that most have benefited from working from home. However, one firm role is less likely to have enjoyed the change—Firm Owners and Partners.

Across all measures, Partners & Owners are the least satisfied working at home compared to Junior, Mid-level or Senior staff (although it needs to be said that the majority of Firm Owners and Partners still responded positively towards remote work).

  • 55% of Firm Owners/Partners said they are happier working from home, compared to 71% of Senior staff

  • 1 in 5 Firm Owners/Partners want to return to the office permanently compared to 1 in 10 Mid-Level staff members

  • During COVID-19 less Firm Owners/Partners moved to working from home than any other position

The disruption forced us all to work remotely, but I believe that the office is still important for client interaction, staff culture, and general staff productivity.

Partner/Owner, Australia, 11-19 staff

Accountants are facing common challenges.

A greater workload, combined with a shift to remote work, has presented some issues for accounting firms and their staff. The most common challenges that survey respondents and their staff can all be attributed to one or both of those factors.

Challenges experienced during COVID-19:

  1. Greater workload than normal: 54% of respondents

  2. Higher stress: 52% of respondents

  3. Increase in email volume: 47% of respondents

  4. Increase in meetings: 35% of respondents

  5. Client communication blindspot: 22% of respondents

  6. Not knowing what the rest of the team is working on: 20% of respondents

  7. Other challenges: 4%

Just 9% of respondents said that they have not had to deal with any new challenges.

Due to volume of calls and emails, productivity has not increased.

Partner/Owner, United Kingdom, sole practitioner

The tools accountants are using to stay connected when they are remote.

Despite an ever-growing list of communication tools to choose from, many of which have become household names during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that some 'traditional' options have never been more important.

For most accounting firms, email and phone remain the tools of choice for both internal and external communication.

Karbon was the only tool built for specifically for accounting firms that was included in the top 10 tools identified for both team and client communication by survey respondents.

The tools being used to communicate with teams:

  1. Email: 78% of respondents

  2. Phone: 66% of respondents

  3. Karbon: 62% of respondents

  4. Zoom: 61% of respondents

  5. Microsoft Teams: 34% of respondents

  6. Slack: 27% of respondents

  7. Google Hangouts: 12% of respondents

  8. GoToMeeting: 6% of respondents

  9. Other: 4% of respondents

  10. Webex: 2% of respondents

We switched to Karbon during the pandemic, and it has been amazing for allowing us to collaborate.

Mid-Level Staff Member, United States, 5-9 staff

The tools being used to communicate with clients:

  1. Email: 92% of respondents

  2. Phone: 71% of respondents

  3. Zoom: 60% of respondents

  4. Karbon Client Tasks: 39% of respondents

  5. Microsoft Teams: 14% of respondents

  6. Sharefile: 12% of respondents

  7. Google Hangouts: 9% of respondents

  8. Slack: 7% of respondents

  9. GoToMeeting: 7% of respondents

  10. Other: 3% of respondents

Prior to COVID-19, I traveled to 70% of my clients. Now it is phone, Facetime, Zoom, and email. This side of things is working well and will probably be the model of my business in the future.

Owner/Partner, Australia, sole practioner

What you said:

“As a firm that was 100% remote prior to COVID, our challenge was that this is all different. It has had a psychological impact on my team."
Partner/Owner, United States, 2-4 staff

"I've realized the importance of being flexible and prepared."
Partner/Owner, Australia, 20-49 staff

"Our cloud technology has been great. I love the non-commute. Clients are more open to online transfer of files and no in-person meetings."
Partner/Owner, Canada, sole practitioner

"Working from home and doing daily team catch-ups via Zoom has been working well."
—  Senior Staff Member, Australia, 2-5 staff

"While productivity is seen as the main criteria, I'd encourage owners to consider the human factors that are impacted when isolated at home. It is important that the social aspects are considered just as highly as productivity."
— Partner/Owner, Australia, 11-19 staff

"Partners are too busy to set aside time to discuss changes. We need to do it in a formal manner, which is harder when we are at home."
— Senior Staff Member, Canada, 11-19 staff

"Client anxiety means they need longer conversations and more connection"
—  Senior Staff Member, United States, 5-10 staff

"Flexibility to work from home is great. The only drawback is that I cannot swing my chair to ask another team member for advice about a work-related matter."
— Junior Staff Member, New Zealand, 5-9 staff

"Working from home during COVID-19 has presented a different set of challenges to working from the office. But it has been a helpful glimpse into what a good balance of office and face-to-face work could look like, coupled with working-from-home flexibility when the restrictions are lifted."
— Senior Staff Member, United Kingdom, 11-19 staf

"I personally prefer working at the office. I am more productive and efficient in a working environment."
— Junior Staff Member, Asia, 50+ staff

"We are so happy to have been using Karbon prior to COVID-19. We always know what the team is working on and where it is up to."
— Partner/Owner, Australia, 11-19 staff

"Remote working is great. I've been so busy I've been able to hire, but the increased amount of work around funding is a pain."
—  Partner/Owner, Canada, 2-4 staff

"There is no normal anymore. Each day feels like starting from scratch."
—  Senior Staff Member, United States, 50+ staff

"Karbon has helped with our workflow and communication."
— Mid-Level Staff Member, United States, 5-9 staff

"Sometimes it is difficult to separate work from home, but I'm getting better at putting boundaries in place."
— Junior Staff Member, Africa, 20-49 staff

"We've actually seen an increase in clients. More people are realizing the benefit from the cloud and WFH, and are wanting to switch from desktop."
—  Partner/Owner, Asia, 5-9 staff

"My workload hasn't changed, but my hours were reduced to save costs. All that has happened is that I am now unpaid for a lot of my hours."
— Senior Staff Member, Australia, 20-49 staff

"Remote was an easy transition, since we had all the necessary tools in place already."
—  Partner/Owner, Canada, 20-49 staff

"We were completely remote before, so not much has changed. We already had the right tools in place, and we all do our best work when we are remote."
— Senior Staff Member, United States, 20-49 staff