Some auditors told us they anticipate that after the pandemic, companies might entertain a hybrid talent pool — with some remote and some in-office audit team members. Others expected their companies may transition audit and other select departments into a permanently remote workforce as a measure to reduce their footprint and lower overhead costs (e.g., rent).
There’s no doubt that increased uncertainty is impacting audit work and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Although many auditors already work on-the-go, the pandemic has forced auditors to work remotely. With the help of technology, most auditors are finding that they’re able to effectively work from home — but what is still emerging is the degree to which auditors will elect to continue working remotely if given the choice to return to the office.
It’s not just about how the work gets done, but also what role auditors will need to play. We’ve heard auditors talk of now attending pandemic Business Continuity Planning (BCP) or COVID risk assessment meetings. As audit resources are being lent to management for a variety of new, and often unfamiliar, initiatives, auditors are discovering the need to become more flexible as they adapt to new perspectives and functions of today’s auditor.
The new realities are also creating challenges for auditors trying to juggle work and personal life. As with other professionals, remote auditors are contending with other family members at home, shift work, childcare shortages, and other logistics issues, requiring a more flexible stance to accommodate different circumstances.
Although most companies leverage various technologies to collaborate company-wide, some auditors we spoke with believe that accounting departments and their audit teams could have been better prepared from a technology standpoint. Dealing with system access limitations and slow response times has had a negative impact on the ability to audit efficiently. We’ve also heard from auditors that they didn’t realize how much they relied on paper, which is a problem when lockdown measures make it impossible to visit the office to get documents. The use of secured shared drives is a step in the right direction, but there are inherent limitations and functional complexities with this approach. Some auditors mentioned that their teams are now starting to look at audit platforms to help them to enable remote collaboration and to streamline and automate workflows, risk management, SOX compliance, and holistic reporting.
Leveraging technology for remote work comes with its own obstacles. Cybersecurity and other risks have been a recurring theme in audit committee meetings. To address this and other technology-related risks, some companies are investing in infrastructure, analytics, and security-based tools — including Citrix and company VPNs, to enable efficient and effective remote audit work. Additionally, companies must be prepared to ensure employees have access to a strong and stable internet connection in their homes.
Although competing priorities, team management, and an ever-increasing workload are common, these challenges are amplified during a pandemic. Maintaining an effective audit program in the midst of limited access to and between control owners and auditors, the inability to perform onsite fieldwork, unproven remote testing procedures, and in some cases a lack of basic reporting has forced teams to rethink processes and procedures from the ground up. As audit teams are asked to do more with less and add additional value in areas outside their traditional SOX and audit swim lane — including the risk assessment process and non-SOX related compliance — it is becoming increasingly important for auditors to have a seat at every table to ensure stakeholders have holistic insight into how decisions and priorities affect cross-team, upstream, and downstream audit activities.
Not surprisingly, a common concern for auditors is missing the collaboration that occurred during daily in-office interactions and face-to-face meetings. While we have been somewhat successful in replicating this while remote, many are looking forward to at least some in-person interaction in the near future. Of course, auditors and employees will not be able (or willing) to return to the office en masse until governing bodies and companies find a way to effectively mitigate the risks of working in proximity to others. Looking for ways to incorporate some of the most beneficial remote work measures adopted during the early days of the crisis will certainly increase flexibility and ensure business continuity in the event of another emergency.
There have long been discussions about how the future of audit work will be impacted by technology. Despite concern and hesitation, the pandemic forced companies to rapidly shift their perspective on remote work — and the technology to enable it. Recent experiences working from home have proven an unexpected accelerant for changes to how and where auditors perform their critical work. Individual audit teams and the larger internal audit profession will grapple with how to approach their workplaces and work processes in the coming months — deciding which “temporary” changes should be discarded when appropriate, which practices must be extended for the time being, and which shifts have, perhaps unexpectedly, improved the model for internal audit work going forward.