At a glance
By Engel Schmidl
The gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic hit home very quickly for Gold Coast-based CPA Kyelie Baxter.
The managing partner of IQ Accountants, Baxter made the call to send her Australian staff home in the middle of March, a week before the Queensland Government issued its instruction for people to work from home.
She was confident the firm was digital-ready, and her staff could handle the challenge of remote working. She could also sense the next few weeks or even months might be gruelling.
When reality hits
"I knew that as soon as it got real, and it got real very quickly for our clients, they were really going to need us, and certainly they did because that week everything hit and they [the federal government] started talking about stimulus packages," Baxter tells INTHEBLACK.
A visit by a client to her office hastened her own move to remote working. "A client came into the office that day and ended up testing positive for COVID, and then I had to go into isolation."
Thankfully, Baxter did not contract the virus. But the experience further emphasised for her the seriousness of the situation, especially regarding the potential damage to the financial health and wellbeing of her clients, many of whom operate small to medium-sized enterprises.
Isolating at home with her family, including her two young school-aged children, Baxter and her staff set to work sorting through the deluge of information coming from the federal government and other authorities.
Alongside subsidy programs like JobKeeper, the firm also had to rapidly ascertain how the various state government programs would affect their clients.
"Because we're a digital firm, we've got clients nationwide," she says. "So, it wasn't just the federal packages that we had to be on top of, it was also all of the state and territory grants and that really hit me. My head was just exploding."
She knew this was going to be a matter of business life and death for some of her clients.
"Some of our clients were very proactive and really just wanted to know how the stimulus packages work, were they eligible and how do they get that funding," she says.
But some either ignored the unfolding crisis or felt overwhelmed and paralysed.
"More so, it was probably the people that were putting their heads in the sand or were unsure," she says.
"I had to go in and give them a tough line, 'If you keep doing what you're doing, you will not have a business.' And that's a hard thing to say to people."
Connecting and caring
From a business perspective, BlueScope Steel's manager finance transformation, Stephannie Jonovska FCPA, says the pandemic required a prudent response.
"We did the conservative things, which I think are appropriate when you have a lot of unknowns, including how do we focus our attention on the most critical business projects," she says.
"Ensuring we conserved cash is really an important part of what we did because we wanted to make sure we came out of this very sustainably."
From a culture perspective, Jonovska and her team employed a more progressive strategy.
The focus was on wellbeing and connection, with Jonovska saying the conditions created by the pandemic crystallised the importance of nurturing personal resilience and strong team cultures.
"Much of our role as leaders is to motivate and maximise the potential of our people. But the other part of that is about connecting and caring for people," she says.
Remote work and the complexities of the hybrid workplace have emerged as major issues for many organisations. At BlueScope, Jonovska has worked hard at bringing technology into the service of people, enabling them to connect and check-in with each other. She says one of her favourite mantras is “business-led, IT-enabled”.
"There's got to be a connection there between the connecting and caring and the technology because maintaining morale and building culture can be pretty difficult when you're doing it remotely."
The heightened sense of uncertainty and fear brought about by the pandemic has been felt by individuals in different ways, testing the traditional boundaries of home life and the workplace, blurring those distinctions and perhaps making us privy to the personal lives of our work colleagues in an entirely new way.
She says her situation at BlueScope was helped by the fact there was already a strong team culture in place before the pandemic and receptiveness to digital and online engagement.
"The emotional, social impact, we're very able to share that because of the high psychological safety we've created even before we all went into lockdown," Jonovska says.
"What I loved observing is people reaching out and checking in with each other," she says.
"The ability to see, hear and almost feel stress or need in another human being via sound or visually via a screen is hard, but it's been apparent to me that that emotional part has come through, that support has come about because the team is very comfortable with each other and able to reach out."
The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the connection between lives and livelihoods. Its complexities have presented an entirely new set of challenges for everyone, including accountants. As Jonovska says: "This is not only a health pandemic. It's a social pandemic. It's an economic pandemic."
From working out the intricacies of subsidy programs through to dealing with the new paradigm of workplace culture and practices, CPAs across the country like Kyelie Baxter and Stephannie Jonovska have been called upon to help guide their businesses through perilous times.
"This has been the hardest year I have ever had in practice. And I've been practising now for 20 years," Baxter says. "I think the main reason for that is because of the emotion of each client's story and their circumstances."
But out of the turmoil, she sees a silver lining.
Baxter thinks the pandemic has been a wake-up call for many businesses, which, she hopes, will encourage them to think more deeply about their future and even about how a CPA can help them make the most of their situation.
"Now that people have been through something like that, their businesses are more robust because they, as people, understand what that's like to go through.
"Right now, they see our value more, especially those more micro-businesses. I think they always thought that the advisory or CFO services were for businesses bigger than what they are.
"They know that just being good at their business isn't enough. That's not a good enough strategy anymore."