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Beyond COVID-19: Why agile tax operations are critical to recovery

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Jon Dobell of EY discusses how leaders need to significantly reshape their tax operations to ensure companies are fully fit for a post-COVID-19 recovery.

Corporate tax and finance functions need to accelerate the transformation of their operations if they are to support COVID-19 crisis-management efforts and their organisation's future recovery. Unfortunately, recent research from EY finds that while some tax functions are well-positioned, many are struggling to put in place the right people and technology models to monitor, evaluate, and respond to fast-changing global conditions.

That readiness is critical, with tax systems having been the focus of many of the comprehensive economic-relief packages introduced by more than 115 countries and jurisdictions since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.

Provisions ranged from shifting filing and payment deadlines for income and indirect taxes to an abundance of broad and targeted tax relief measures, all designed to offer a lifeline to get companies and individuals through an unprecedented crisis. Yet they are only useful if businesses have a clear line of sight across their operations to best claim help and make use of it.

Tax and Finance Operate survey

EY conducted its Tax and Finance Operate (TFO) survey before the pandemic, spanning more than 1,000 tax and finance executives from 42 jurisdictions representing 17 industries (a full report on the TFO survey, can be found online: How a reimagined tax and finance function can improve your bottom line). Almost all respondents indicated that they were transforming the operating models of their tax and finance functions, reflecting a need to:

  • Ensure they have the right talent and technology capabilities available to monitor, evaluate and respond to major legislative change around the world, a need that has taken on urgency in 2020;

  • Be prepared for the evolving talent demands requiring tax professionals to augment deep technical knowledge of laws and regulations with data, process and technology skills; and

  • Future-proof their tax technology to keep pace with evolving digital tax filing requirements.

Respondents also indicated they want tax and finance professionals to spend less time on routine compliance and more time advising the business on broader strategies, while also reducing overall costs of the function. This sort of agility will be even more important during the post-pandemic recovery.

Many businesses were already falling short of these objectives before COVID-19. Some 39% of respondents were having trouble attracting and retaining people with the necessary skills to be effective in the modern tax and finance function. Meanwhile, 65% said their biggest barrier to achieving their tax function's purpose and vision was that they lacked a sustainable plan for data and technology.

While some organisations have the ability to both attract and hire the right talent and develop the best tools in-house, most cannot keep up given the rapid pace of legislative and regulatory change and technology advancements. It is not surprising that 73% said they were more-likely-than-not to co-source tax services in the next two years and rely on vendors who stay relevant by investing in both people and technology.

The speed with which stimulus measures were passed in response to COVID-19 is an acute reminder of just how quickly the tax legislative landscape can change. As the emergency stimulus legislation is relying on deficit spending and tax expenditures, it is likely that tax legislation, in particular, will continue to remain fluid as countries reckon with their fiscal balance sheets. In addition, the pressure to stay up-to-date with tax technology is unrelenting and expensive, especially at a time when many companies are coming under cost pressure as part of their own financial recoveries from economic shock due to the pandemic.

As businesses stabilise amid the immediate crisis, tax and finance functions will be called upon to play an even stronger role in helping companies to determine their next steps and to know what happens beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Transforming the operating model to include some co-sourcing may help reduce overall costs, control unpredictable information technology expenses, and redirect internal resources to more strategic activities. It also enables organisations to leverage the vendor's considerable and ongoing investments in the necessary talent, technology and data strategies to keep pace with an ever-changing world.

The route to recovery

Every global business should take four critical steps to get on a resilient path.

First, they should scrutinise their existing tax and finance operating model. It is the time to examine the organisation's priorities around cost controls, value creation and risk management to understand how the tax and finance function contributes to the overall business strategy. Once these priorities are clear, it is easier to identify gaps in people, processes and technology and decide how sustainable the existing model is for the future.

Second, they should determine what capabilities to build. Keeping tax and finance activities in-house generally requires some degree of internal transformation to optimise existing people, overall tax processes, and technology. Some organisations may decide to keep activities they consider higher-value and best-in-class – for example, planning or managing tax controversy. However, they need to be sure they can perform them with effectiveness and control. Other more routine tasks may be better done using a multi-tenanted, state-of-the art technology platform owned by a capable service provider.

Third, they should determine what to co-source. Some organisations may decide it is better to co-source some activities, especially those that are more routine such as the completion of tax returns, regulatory filings and data collection. It may be that co-sourcing these tasks can be performed at lower costs through centralisation or the use of third parties.

Finally, find the right mix. Many companies will decide a hybrid approach is right for them, where they decide to continue to own some tax and finance functions they consider to be critical, while co-sourcing others. The right hybrid approach can improve both effectiveness and efficiency while empowering their people to focus on being a value-added partner to the business by focusing on activities that improve the bottom line.

Corporate tax and finance functions need to accelerate transformation of their operations if they are to support COVID-19 crisis-management efforts and their organisation's future recovery.

Click here to read the entire 2020 EY-ITR Asia Pacific Guide

Jon Dobell

PartnerT: +61 2 8295 6949

Jon Dobell is a partner based in Sydney, who is also Asia-Pacific Tax and Finance Operate and Global Operations Leader. He has more than 20 years of experience in corporate and international tax, working in Asia and Europe. He specialises in advising clients on managing their global and local compliance and reporting requirements. He has a strong background in tax and finance processes, software and systems, and regularly advises clients on how best to structure their functions globally.

He also leads the firm's Asia-Pacific tax innovation activities, where he is tasked with driving a culture of innovation across the tax practice. Following this culture change, the focus moves to commercialisation and the creation of incubation hubs in key locations to develop new ideas into market leading tax solutions.

Jon has bachelors of commerce and law degrees from the University of New South Wales.

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