How COVID-19 Warped Us Five Years Into the Future—And What That Means for Your Accounting or Finance Career

Tom Brady was a Patriot. The only “Tiger King” was Tony, and he was grrrrrr-eat! And hand sanitizer was just worth its weight in, well, hand sanitizer.

All of these things were true at the end of 2019, and that was less than half a year ago. So why does it feel like another lifetime?

The events of the last few months have put us in a kind of time dilation bubble, where massive, transformative changes occur on a seemingly daily basis. As millions of us sheltered in place and social distanced, it felt like the world was on hold (a feeling compounded by the countless hours we spent actually on hold, gaining a growing but begrudging respect for the music of Kenny G.) 

Meanwhile, businesses scrambled to give us the tools we needed to continue to work, play, and not drive each other completely insane while at home. Many of these solutions had been in the works for years, but the time bubble drastically accelerated their development, rollout, and use. 

We’re now living in a world with many technologies that weren’t predicted to be available or prevalent until 2025.

We won’t pretend we’re smart enough to understand the full scope of this technology time warp nor its impact on accounting and finance. We’ll leave that to future scholars and the countless books they’re sure to write about this phenomenon, at least two of which are sure to be adapted into bad-but-somehow-irresistible Tom Cruise movies. 

But we are smart enough to look around the accounting and finance world and observe how some things are a lot different than we ever could have predicted at the start of 2020. Things like …

We got more done by not going to work

In a recent Gartner survey, 74% of CFOs said they planned to shift at least 5% of their employees to permanent remote work positions. Nearly 25% of them said they’d transition at least one out of five workers to full-time remote. 

So there’s a good chance your Spider-Man pajamas could become your official work uniform (just don’t wear the mask while you’re on video calls). But, if that happens, there’s an even better chance that you’ll be just as effective at your job, if not more. A recent study showed that overall U.S. worker productivity has gone up by 47% in 2020 compared to 2019. 

Within the finance function specifically, 90% of CFOs in the Gartner survey said they expected the increase in remote work to cause “minimal disruptions to their accounting close process, with almost all activities able to be executed off-site.” 

These stats certainly don’t “close the books” (see what we did there?) on the in-office/remote work productivity debate—an oft-cited study from 2012 showed that workers are more productive performing “dull” tasks in the office and “creative” tasks at home. But these numbers do, at the very least, help to dispel the terribly outdated “while the cat’s away” theory of work. 

It turns out, accountants and finance professionals are not children. You guys might eat ice cream for dinner, make some prank phone calls, and learn some naughty words staying up past your bedtime to watch Kimmel, but you don’t need a babysitter when it comes to doing your job. Whether you’re in your PJs and trading your favorite “Savage Challenge” videos with co-workers between tasks or in full suit-and-tie at the office, the math still comes out the same. 

We made smarter use of our data

For accounting and finance professionals, having fast access to the right data has always been critical. And, as the world has changed and grown more complex, it’s become even more essential for employers to provide you with tools that allow you to easily get the information you need when you need it (and the ability to write off your WoW subscription as a business expense).

So it’s no wonder that—even as overall IT budgets are shrinking—investments in analytics technologies are stable or going up. 

A pre-COVID IDC study revealed that advanced spreadsheet users spent 26 hours per week working in spreadsheets and wasted eight hours a week repeating the same data tasks. No wonder you guys drink so much Red Bull. 

While we don’t yet know the full effect of the time bubble and increased spending on analytics solutions, we do know that a new class of technology solutions is putting valuable insights at your fingertips while automating tedious data tasks. According to one report, using modern analytics allows you to complete financial forecasts 74% sooner, make decisions 25% faster, and improve financial report accuracy by 16%.

That’s a lot of time put back in your day. And time, as they say, is money—money you can spend on the things that really matter, like pre-ordering The Last of Us Part II. So, in a way, if your employers are using modern analytics solutions from companies like Alteryx, they are paying for your video game habits. (But you should try to expense them anyway and see how it goes.)

“Free” stopped being a four-letter word

Remember when encyclopedia sets cost $1,000? No? Man, you guys make us feel old.

For the first 50,000 years of human history (give or take), information and education were expensive products that only the wealthy elite could afford, akin to the contemporary trend of eating gold for no reason. In the U.S., the first free public school system and free public high school didn’t exist until 1837, and the federal Department of Education wasn’t founded until 1867. 

We still place a premium on education, demonstrated by the rising costs of college tuition (and, for those of us who study international relations by watching 90 Day Fiancé, by the rising costs of cable TV). 

But we’ve come a very long way. Today, if you can afford a high-speed internet connection or a local internet cafe, you can access a virtually unlimited and ever-expanding stack of information. And as ad- and user-supported sites like YouTube and Wikipedia have become more prevalent, the economic barriers to information have further deteriorated.

This was a trend we always expected would continue—but, again, the time bubble sped it up substantially, as a seemingly endless stream of paid services were put on discount or given away for free. 

Among the list of things that are now free:

  • Library of kids’ shows from Amazon Video;
  • Online streaming of select Broadway musicals;
  • Tech support from Support.com;
  • Social media marketing through Hootsuite;
  • Daily virtual workout sessions from Planet Fitness;
  • The Kahoot! virtual learning platform (free to schools until they reopen); and
  • 450 courses from Ivy League schools.

Not to mention, Alteryx provided us with a bunch of those sweet, sweet data and analytics services for free or at discounted rates.

Training and skill-building became more essential (and more available)

With so many employees now working from home, businesses are looking harder at training programs to ensure their workers’ skills stay fresh—and companies that provide those services are responding by giving many of them away for free.

For example, through the Advancing Data & Analytics Potential Together (ADAPT) program, new graduates and unemployed data workers can get access to free data science and analytics learning courses, an Alteryx Designer license, a community of thousands of Alteryx users, and 1:1 virtual support from Alteryx associates.

Alteryx also offers webinars, ebooks, starter kits, and a wide variety of other resources that will help you learn to make smarter use of your data. Through the Alteryx Academy, you can participate in live, self-paced, predictive, classroom, and certification training courses

What will 2021 look like for accounting and financial professionals?

With so many uncertainties and the rapid pace of change, it’s hard to make any realistic long-term predictions about the future of accounting and finance. (Doc Brown, Professor Farnsworth, and Miss Cleo were all unavailable for comment.)

All we can say is that certain trends are probably going to continue—so imagine there’s a “more than likely” in front of all the following predictions (because we’re too lazy to type it over and over): 

To that last point, you might be wondering: What specific data and analytics skills do I need in order to stay relevant and competitive? That’s probably a topic for another article. In brief, however, businesses are looking for accounting and finance professionals with skills in:

  • Predictive model forecasting
  • Advanced revenue analytics
  • Cost optimization
  • SQL programming
  • Real-time model development
  • Data visualization

But don’t wait until 2021 or the next time warp scenario. Improving your data and analytics abilities can give your career a boost right now. Start working with companies like Alteryx, and build the skills you’ll need to stay relevant and competitive in the job market today. 

To learn more, register for The Role of Finance in the Digital World, a digital event sponsored by Alteryx and PwC. And check out the links below.

Access data and analytics resources >

Apply for free training through the ADAPT program >

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