How can you ensure your staff is safe from infection with COVID-19 when they visit or work at client sites?
Although many firms have successfully made the switch to a low-contact, remote environment, there are still times when an onsite visit is unavoidable. Given the many questions surrounding staff safety onsite, how can firms decide when client visits are appropriate and how they should be handled? Here are some of the steps firms can take to minimize the risks to staff and clients.
Establish why and where staff should go onsite
At 15-person Forbush & Associates in Reno, NV, the decision to send staff to client offices was driven by the nature of the client advisory services they offer, according to managing partner Brent Forbush, CPA. That includes taking care of accounts payable and receivable and tracking payroll, which his firm finds are easier to do onsite in some cases and which require at least some exchanges of documents. His firm now goes to about 10 clients regularly, from as often as twice a week to as little as once a month or less, depending on their needs.
Many of them are mom-and-pop businesses that have not invested in or don’t know about the advances in technology, he says. As a result, firm members may have to:
Retrieve invoices—for deliveries made using handheld devices, for example--from the client’s office and use the firm’s scanners or other technology to digitize the records, while also checking to make sure no invoices have been lost.
Go onsite to print client checks and provide them to the appropriate signatory authority for signing and mailing in order to maintain internal controls and segregation of duties.
For accounts receivable, meet in person with client estimators to review documents together, including drawings, renderings or layouts that have not been digitized.
Due to privacy concerns, go onsite briefly to update payroll or employee management systems with new hire personal sensitive information so that it will be available for the next pay run. The firm may also have review security camera footage to address issues related to manual timeclocks. In other cases, the client may use excel timesheets that are printed and physically signed by employees and retained by the company for labor law purposes, so the firm has to obtain the physical copy to digitize it and ensure that paychecks match timesheets.
At Landmark CPAs in Fort Smith, AR, auditors began going to client offices in June, after relying on online meeting options as much as possible before then, said Chris Brown, CPA, audit manager of the 125-person firm. “We had a process for remote audits in place and it was working, but we also knew it was much more efficient to be in the field. Not to mention missing out on the in-person connection to our clients that is so hard to re-create through email,” he said.
Find out about client practices
The wide range of COVID-19 protocols among clients can be a challenge, Forbush says. Some take extensive measures, including checking temperatures at the door, using one-way corridors and spacing arrival times to cut down on traffic, while others have more relaxed guidelines.
At Landmark CPAs, making it work “all came down to communication,” said Brown. “We were sure to ask what they expected of us and what procedures the clients had in place.”
At Texas-based Weaver and Tidwell, L.L.P., the firm developed an eight-question checklist, like the one below, that asked how clients were handling issues such as masks, social distancing and contact tracing, according to CEO John Mackel, CPA. If any clients do not follow the accepted protocols cited in the survey, the general counsel works with the partner to determine if any firm members should go onsite.
Identify the risks
Beyond finding out what clients are doing, firms will want to develop their own standards for necessary protocols. When the pandemic began, Forbush’s firm made an internal determination of what kind of client visit safety measures would protect their staff and make them feel comfortable visiting client sites. The type of business was another consideration in deciding whether an onsite visit was advisable.
“We looked at the potential exposure they might have at each client,” he said. When a client was considered higher risk—because there was a lot of customer or other traffic or a high-touch environment—the firm tightened its protocols. At a physically small but extremely busy grocery store client, 40% of the employees do not use direct deposits but want physical checks. To avoid entering a densely packed physical storefront (even one that is limiting entry to 50% of store capacity due to state mandate), the firm member delivering the physical checks will alert the business when en route and call or text once arrived. At that point a store management person will exit the store to retrieve the checks from the firm member while masked and socially distanced as much as possible.
Keeping track of what happened onsite can also help, as well. At Mazars, the health screening that has been established in their offices (temperature checks, questionnaire, masks and social distancing) must all be followed for client visits, according to COO James Blake, CPA. Client visits also require planning, which includes documenting the client’s facilities protocols, level of headcount, inquiry on cases at their company and the need to be on site versus a consideration of remote services. When logging in to their computers, all firm members are driven to a check in screen that asks if they will be remote, in the office or at a client. Those who will be in the office or at a client are asked if they have passed the health screening and their badge swipe security cards are matched to their answers.
After each day at a client, firm members must document what areas of the client site the staff member visited and which individuals they were in contact with. That allows the firm to react quickly if anyone needs to be alerted to a possible exposure or if further contact tracing is necessary. No matter how thorough a firm’s procedures may be, they should be assessed and adjusted as conditions and state guidelines change in its area.
Take it case by case
Every firm—and in some cases the circumstances of every engagement—is unique. As CPAs seek to set guidelines to protect their people, their firm, and their clients, it’s best to keep an open mind while setting a foundation based on sound health and safety protocols.