Why auditing in the time of COVID-19 requires a delicate balance of human and machine

By Wes Bricker, US & Mexico Assurance Leader and Vice Chair at PwC

When I rejoined PwC this past July, I found myself in a different, much more digitally savvy firm than the one I left in 2015 to join the SEC. During that time, PwC underwent a significant transformation in how the firm is structured, how it operates and how it was preparing its own workforce for a digital future.

When PwC announced its New world. New skills. initiative, investing $3 billion globally in both technology and training individuals to digitally enhance our business, clients and communities, little did we expect that there would be a “new normal” we’d be forced to operate in during this pandemic. And over the past few weeks as I have had conversations with a number of our clients on how COVID-19 is impacting their people and their business, I keep coming back to our transformation and how it has helped the firm weather this storm.

But, one interesting result of this new (ab)normal reality is that, in many ways, it has reignited the age-old debate of human vs. machine. For most, COVID-19 has prompted organizations to focus hard on their people given the challenges this has created to working remotely, and in many cases, has also caused a re-prioritization of technology as the answer for navigating this environment.

For us at PwC, it has always been our belief that human and machine collaboration can be far more powerful than either alone. As we’re working through one of the most challenging financial reporting periods of late, this balance has been at the very core of why we have been able to accomplish our audit work with limited to no disruption during our busiest time of the year, with a clear focus on two overarching principles:

Why auditing in the time of COVID-19 requires a delicate balance of human and machine

Staying laser-focused on our people and teams

Our people are and will always be the heart of our success as a firm. It’s our people who deliver on the quality of our work and this starts with planning. At the onset of the pandemic impacting our audit engagements, each team was tasked to put in place an engagement-continuity plan that incorporates our new way of working. It wasn’t clear at the time just how COVID-19 would impact how we work. However, we did know that, for us to best be positioned to succeed and meet our obligations, deadlines and more, it was necessary to think ahead and plan.

Amidst the rapidly evolving situation and a mountain of “unknowns” there were a few things that were readily apparent: we would likely face limitations in being physically on-site with our clients and our teams in addition to personal obligations and challenges. Our existing benefits and culture of flexibility helped prepare for these challenges, and we are continually reevaluating our approach to meet new needs.

We also recognize the power of community. To support and empower our people, we created an internal community, “What’s your how? / What’s your why?” to help connect PwCers to one another virtually during this unprecedented time. Rooted in our purpose and values, this forum provides a space for our people to build a community, share inspirational stories and exchange practical advice about how they are managing themselves, their families and their clients during this unexpected time (“What’s your how?”), and why it’s so important to the people they care about, including themselves (“What’s your why?”). Further, our focus on community wellness also means that we have many well-being resources to help us care for ourselves and our families — including unprescribed sick time, back-up childcare, options for virtual doctor visits and access to an emotional support app.

Staying laser-focused on our people and teams

Leveraging and making full use of technology

Tech-enabling the audit and the use of other technology applications, like communications tools, has made it easier than ever for our auditors to work remotely. This allows us to consistently deliver our services and maintain connections throughout the audit process.

Throughout the  phases of conducting an audit, we leverage existing firm and “citizen”-developed tools to complete our work, whether that’s extracting data, performing a data-driven risk assessment or surfacing audit-related insights. One example of a “citizen”-developed tool is an extraction bot, built by one of our audit team members, that leverages robotic process automation to enhance substantive audit testing of property, plant and equipment. In all cases, these technologies are helping us look at full populations, identify anomalies, and hone in on areas of greater risk, allowing us to deliver quality audits during this unique time when COVID-19 has changed all aspects of business and our personal lives. 

And importantly, being a strong communicator is a vital skill for any successful auditor. The start of any good audit is to understand our client’s business and what’s happening in their company and their industry, and we’ve been able to connect with our clients virtually to build that channel of communication to better gain that understanding from the onset. Further, we have relied on technology to help in the communication, supervision and review among engagement teams.

There are of course a few areas of the audit where physical inspection is important, such as manually examining inventory or securities that have been registered in certificate form. Where possible, we have shifted to virtual inventory counts to allow us to remotely observe count activity in situations when we may be unable to attend in-person. However, for situations where we may need more than technology, we have been able to complete this work using safe social distancing guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Our commitment to digital upskilling means our people are creating new solutions to help solve old problems.

Positive outlook

I recognize that we are still dealing with this challenging time and will be doing so for the coming weeks and potentially months, but I remain encouraged by the way our engagement teams are coming together across our Assurance business to deliver quality service to our clients, despite the difficult circumstances we are now in. While everyone’s health, safety and well-being remains our priority, I’m also amazed at the resilience of our people to do what is needed to serve our clients. Whether it’s leveraging new technologies or redefining what a collaborative working relationship looks like in this new world order, these teams have continued to stay singularly focused on delivering for our clients - and ultimately building trust in society and solving important problems. And I believe that our success and the steps we have taken as a firm offers a blueprint for how other remote teams can also deliver a truly differentiated experience for their company and clients, regardless of physical location.

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Wes Bricker

Wes Bricker

Vice Chair—US and Mexico Assurance Leader, PwC US

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