2021 CPA Firm Trends Key Takeaways from a Summer of Discussions



This summer has been a whirlwind of meetings and conferences, most of them in person as a refreshing change. As the COVID Delta Variant threatens to send us backward in terms of human contact, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get out and talk with so many firms in the past few months. Between the AICPA Engage 2021 Conference, the Boomer Technology Circles Summit, and several roundtable discussions and firm meetings, we spoke with over 50 firms to gain a better understanding of what their worlds look like in the Summer of 2021. As we all walk the tightrope between a reprieve from the pandemic and the emerging threat of the Delta Variant, the issues facing firms today are a natural extension of the past few years. Yet each issue is tinged with the new challenges of a remote or hybrid work environment that is now with us for the foreseeable future. Below is a summary of my findings over the summer, many of which I will explore in more depth in future blogs. 

It will likely come as no surprise that staffing and the related challenges and solutions around it have dominated our conversations with CPA firms from coast to coast. The top concern discussed from various viewpoints and in different contexts at the AICPA Engage conference was the overall declining applicant pool as well as the decline of students majoring in accounting and as an extension, available for internships. In addition to the lack of available candidates, remote work and hybrid work environments have changed the landscape of recruiting, adding new wrinkles in the traditional models. Where local and regional firms drew primarily from their geography, the new requirement of being able to work from anywhere, including a new home in another location entirely, coupled with the opportunity to hire candidates who can live anywhere shakes up those models and creates a demand for more flexible thinking and planning.

As firms consider the advantages and obstacles of working with remote employees, onboarding employees who spend little—or in some cases no—time in the Firm’s physical offices has created a need to redefine how we create a great culture, particularly as these remote workers may even be a time zone or two away. Retaining firm superstars and attracting new ones is going to take significant intentional focus as well.

Part of creating great culture includes facing some new challenges around training. Many firms are looking to innovate in this area which has historically been a challenge. Getting the right training to people at the right time – and in a way that is easily consumable and balances learning differences and cost – is a tall order. Firms are finding innovative ways to meet these challenges with emerging technologies and out-of-the-box problem-solving. One finding in our discussions that is worth noting is that firms that have good collaboration between departments and support functions are finding success in building out training that is highly impactful in the hybrid environment. In the meantime, the hybrid work environment has been the spotlight for internal IT teams that have long been overdue. It has created a chance for IT to shine and illustrate their true value in the firm as they facilitated the fastest shift to remote work that any of us could have imagined. While a lot of that immediate work was firmly in the traditional IT wheelhouse of connectivity, performance, and security, many firms also integrated their internal IT teams more fully into solution building and adoption alongside their accounting counterparts. The emergence and accessibility of low code/no-code tools in automation make these projects incredibly powerful.