After working remotely for several months, audit teams have been rethinking how they approach workplaces and work processes in the coming months — and beyond. AuditBoard’s Scott Parker shares 4 ways internal audit might embrace recent lessons learned from the virtual workplace to build more flexibility and adaptability into audit operations going forward.
The uncertainty stemming from COVID-19-related effects has changed how businesses operate — and this means the future of audit work must change with it.
The rapid shift many organizations made to working remotely to meet regional and local shelter-in-place guidelines in March 2020 has accelerated the implementation and use of technology to enable communication, collaboration, and productivity. How and where auditors work, how technology is leveraged, and how we collaborate has changed. Now, as restrictions have begun to ease to varying degrees across the United States, Internal Audit has an opportunity to reassess its standards for efficiency and productivity based on insights gained from responding to crisis-related challenges.
Teams are rethinking the model of how internal audit can and should operate. How far should audit departments embrace the virtual workplace to have teams work more flexibly and remotely? In what ways will audit teams build more adaptability into the function?
After speaking with hundreds of audit leaders about how their teams have responded to pandemic-related impacts over the past few months, below are some predictions for what the future of the internal audit profession may look like in the coming years.
The future of audit work in 2020 and beyond
1. More remote audit teams
Remote work isn’t new or specific to recent developments — in fact, Flexjobs reports that “42% of people who are 100% remote said they have been working remotely for more than five years.” Amid the pandemic, we recently polled auditors about the future of work. A May 2020 poll conducted by AuditBoard with over 1000 respondents found that 41% of respondents expected to return to the office in the 3rd quarter of 2020, over 30% expected a return in the 4th quarter of 2020 or later, and nearly 15% expected to work remotely for the foreseeable future.
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.
2. Increased workplace flexibility and adaptability
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.
3. Increased investment in enabling technology
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.
4. Navigating daily work and collaboration
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.