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From Pivot Magazine

Virtual audits and the rise of the mobile economy

In a time without offices, accounting firms have had to quickly adapt to the new digital norm—and they’ve pulled it off

Overhead head shot of left hand working on lap top and right hand holding a cup of coffeeFor many big Canadian firms, the shift to remote work was less of a leap, more of a hop

At True North Accounting in Calgary, March 18, 2020 was supposed to be a day of celebration. The six-year-old firm was set to open its brand-new offices in Bridgeland, a vibrant, mixed-use neighbourhood in the city’s northeast quadrant, just across the Reconciliation Bridge from downtown. 

In the weeks leading up to the opening, Matt Peterson, a CPA and co-owner of True North, was one of only a handful of employees working out of the Bridgeland office, which was still a construction zone. But, as the big day approached, he got nervous, watching news of the pandemic unfolding around the world. The NBA stopped playing. Broadway went dark. Stores and restaurants and gyms shuttered their doors. And, pretty soon, Peterson realized his grand opening wasn’t going to happen.

On March 16, he sent out an email to all his clients, breaking the news that the firm’s offices in Calgary and Okotoks, Alta., were going to be closing indefinitely. True North deals primarily with small businesses, and tax season was on the horizon. He knew the coming months were going to be busy, so he also detailed the new digital documentation and authorization tools that clients would need.

For many clients, the transition was fairly smooth. For Peterson and his co-owner, Curtis Gabinet, it was a mad scramble. They had to prepare 11 employees across two offices for a rapid remote makeover. Over the course of the next 72 hours, Peterson and Gabinet assumed the role of deliverymen, shuttling VoIP phones, monitors, headsets and chairs from offices to employees’ homes. At the last minute, anticipating the need for virtual meetings, Peterson went in search of webcams, which were suddenly in short supply. “On Sunday afternoon, I went to maybe 10 different stores. I looked everywhere,” he recalls. Finally, he was able to secure a box of old webcams from a woman on Kijiji. “Adopting all this technology was a three-year plan that got fast-forwarded to three weeks.”

Over the past year, the pandemic has forced companies to reimagine how—and where—they do their business. For smaller firms like True North, whose clients include ranchers, plumbers, and contractors in the oil and gas sector, that meant rapid-fire adoption of various digital accounting and collaboration tools. 

Larger firms, however, were blessed with most of that infrastructure already. “We were on the road to more remote, more flexible, more digitized work,” says Chris Dulny, PwC Canada’s chief innovation officer. PwC moved quickly: as soon as employees left the building in March 2020, the company started ripping out landlines, removing printers and selling off storage cabinets from its 26-storey Toronto headquarters. It quickly adopted a hotelling model, reconfiguring the space to allow for more flexible work and social distancing. “When you move into something as game-changing as the pandemic, you look around and say, ‘What can we accelerate?’ ” Dulny says. “We don’t need people coming back to an office and owning space and printing paper and not getting that data into our digital tools.”

The pandemic has sparked a massive office exodus in the business world. As of the fourth quarter of 2020, downtown Toronto’s office vacancy rate had soared to 7.2 per cent, according to realtor CBRE, up from two per cent pre-COVID. By early 2021, Bay Street firms were giving up square footage—including Scotiabank, which is vacating the top floors of its rental space in 2023, and Power Corp., which will leave its Brookfield Place penthouse in 2024. As Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke tweeted, “Office centricity is over.”

While all of the accounting firms Pivot spoke to indicated they would not be reducing their office footprint, there’s little doubt that COVID-19 will fundamentally reshape what they do with it. Each said a variation on the same thing: when it’s safe to do so, we will return to the office. Just not all of us—and not in the same ways we used to. 

Geoffrey Leonardelli, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, thinks the corporate office, in some form, is here to stay. “For people who negotiate on a regular basis, who find personal interaction useful for building trust, there will be a time and place for space.”

The DJI Mavic 2, a popular flying droneWhen in-person visits to a client site were not allowed during early days of the pandemic, some companies started using drones to count inventory during audits

For many big Canadian firms, the shift to remote work was less of a leap, more of a hop. “Obviously, moving 8,000 employees virtual overnight—which is pretty much what we did in March 2020—was not something we envisioned ever doing,” says Silvia Montefiore, KPMG’s Canadian managing partner for business enablement and operations, who led her organization’s pandemic response team. “But even before COVID, we had some employees who worked a large part of the week from home.”

The majority of KPMG employees already had company laptops and second monitors at home, so little technology was required to get employees set up remotely. Serendipitously, in fall 2019, the firm had also made major tech investments, upgrading its servers and launching the Microsoft Teams platform. With Teams Live, KPMG has been able to host monthly town halls with 8,000-plus staff across 40 offices, says Montefiore: “Pre-COVID, we would never have been able to do this.”

While KPMG managers may have been familiar with these collaborative tools, putting them to use in a virtual office setting—with direct reports stuck behind a webcam, sitting at their kitchen tables—was another matter. The company developed a Digital Now training program in the wake of the first lockdown, using the educational platform Degreed to help leaders who might need support on how to manage a team virtually

At smaller firms like True North, some people are eager to return to normal—and leave their screens behind. Despite Matt Peterson’s best efforts, not all of his employees were equipped to go remote in March 2020. “One of our team members lives on an acreage outside of Okotoks,” he says. “She has rural internet, and everything we do is on the cloud, so she couldn’t work.” That employee comes in every day to the office, where she works alone. 

In Vancouver, meanwhile, Manning Elliott LLP discovered its problem during the initial lockdown wasn’t technological so much as social. “We were cognizant of the isolation felt by new staff when things went remote, so we tried to find ways to keep people feeling integrated,” says Adam Denny, a partner at the firm that has a large private-company practice as well as public clients in some of B.C.’s high-growth sectors like cannabis and blockchain.

To combat the isolation, Manning Elliott instituted a series of online socials, including Friday Zoom drinks with groups of six to eight employees. The firm also instituted a system of buddies and mentors to make sure there was a constant connection between employees. Even so, they found that online camaraderie couldn’t compare to the real thing. Two months after the first lockdown, once health protocols were in place, staff began returning to the office; by early 2021, 50 per cent were back in Manning Elliott’s four locations.

For some, it was a practical matter—employees with young children who struggled to work from home—but others simply wanted to re-establish routines and collaborate with colleagues. And while Zoom meetings might permanently replace some business travel going forward, says Denny, some of its small-business clients are keen to share plans in the boardroom, or over a pint of beer. “There’s a clear benefit to being in a room with someone—being able to read their body language a little better.”

At the Big Four, body language isn’t always as crucial as it might be at smaller firms: corporate working relationships are often more task-oriented and, given the multinational nature of client operations, often dispersed around the globe. Sonya Fraser, EY’s Canadian audit leader, manages the company’s audit practice, as well as the EY office in her hometown of Halifax. “We haven’t had to adapt in ways that other industries have,” says Fraser. “We already had a lot of the communications with clients through our digital audit platforms,” like the audit platform EY Canvas, the analytics platform EY Helix and EY Atlas, a repository for thought leadership.

One big change that took place during the pandemic, however, was a full-scale adoption of virtual audit rooms. According to Fraser, they’re basically Microsoft Teams with groups of auditors who can interact in real-time. In some cases, team members work together in an EY office—where protocols and social distancing allow—while in other cases, they dial in from their home offices. 

Early in the pandemic, many firms also had to adapt how they were doing inventory counts for clients, especially when in-person visits to a client site were not allowed. In such cases, they relied on streamed video supplied by the client, usually via FaceTime or Zoom. Some companies are even using drones to count inventory during audits. Fraser, for one, thinks this is one development that will pick up steam: “The ability to use drones and other technologies will continue. Our digital audit platforms will continue to expand—and the digital audit is, without a doubt, where the future is headed.”

Web cameraA full half of PwC Canada’s clients say they’re comfortable working together remotely most of the time, up from 16 per cent

The biggest adjustment for many CPAs over the past year wasn’t the mechanics of remote work, but the client connections. Dulny says that PwC’s increasing use of collaboration technology has made it easier to manage timelines and keep open communication throughout each engagement—and as the firm looks to the future, it’s already surveying clients on how they want to work going forward: “We’ve seen a significant jump, from 16 per cent to 50 per cent, in the number of people more comfortable working together in a predominantly remote way.” He sees the return of face-to-face client interactions—though fewer of them. “I just don’t think people will default to, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go there all the time.’ There will be a balance. Mindsets have opened up.”

Peterson of True North has certainly seen minds open among his conservative clientele. In the beginning, he says, some people were resistant to adopting True North’s new technologies—including workflow program Karbon, proposal management software Practice Ignition, and HelloSign, an e-signature program—especially in Okotoks, the rural town where the firm’s second office is located. “Okotoks is a cowboy town,” says Peterson. “You can still ride a horse to work if you want. And there’s often a distrust of the government, of banks and lawyers.” If it can’t be done in person, it isn’t done.

To help overcome resistance, Peterson and Gabinet started offering webinars for clients on topics such as how to go paperless or electronically sign documents. They also pushed the videos on their social media platforms and in monthly newsletters. The webinars have proven so popular that Peterson plans to make them a permanent feature. “Clients have been great, now that they’ve been through it once. In all facets of their life, they’ve had to adopt new tools and new ways of doing things. So, it fast-forwarded this adoption, just by necessity. And it’s really helped our business to become more efficient.” 

For True North, operating in Alberta, with COVID-19 pain layered on top of oil-and-gas industry misery, it’s been a turbulent period. Peterson says they lost 16 per cent of their clients last year—including some who died from COVID-19 and others whose businesses simply went under. “There’s been a lot of people who just haven’t been able to pay their bills. And we’ve had to eat a lot of bills to keep some of our clients.” Still, he says, business was up 45 per cent overall for the year. All of the growth is coming from people leaving their jobs and starting new businesses. “We’re helping them get set up and guiding them along the way.”

Peterson is also planning a tentative date, later in 2021, for that grand opening—although he fully expects several employees will continue to work from home. He is revising plans for how the office might be used in the new normal. “Once COVID is done, we could have small-business boot camps, events, workshops, even provide meeting space for other businesses in the community.” Through the heavy clouds of a very dark year, a ray of light.


CPAs have the right kind of skills and training to help businesses navigate through tricky times. Also, if you’re a small business facing challenges during the pandemic, CPA Canada has a wealth of resources to help manage your finances. These include podcasts, webinars and how-to guides on financing, strategy and planning, cash management and managing risk to facilitate recovery from the effects of COVID-19.