Is tech changing the face of the tax department as we know it?
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Is tech changing the face of the tax department as we know it?

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Tax has developed a reputation over the years for being a serious and rather joyless profession, partly due to decades of tax professionals being portrayed as men in suits with piles of paperwork in the mainstream movies and TV shows of the late nineties and early noughties, writes Niall Kiernan, senior director of product management for ecommerce and marketplaces at Vertex. Today, however, the adoption of new, emerging technologies, paired with significant changes to traditional workplaces and cultures, has given rise to a new ‘face’ for the industry. Tax is heading in a new direction, and it is being led there by ‘the tax technologist’.

If you were to ask someone on the street what a tax specialist looks like, what answer would you expect?

For most people, there are some long-standing stereotypes of the tax industry that have stuck throughout the years. Stereotypes which paint us out to be serious-looking, suit- and tie-wearing – almost nerdy – folk, bound to the shackles of our desks, working tirelessly with a stack of paperwork on one side and a calculator and cup of black coffee on the other.

It should come as no surprise after decades of tax and finance professionals being depicted this way in mainstream media and film. Just look at movies such as Along Came Polly, where insurance worker Reuben is rarely seen without a suit and tie, and is dead set on meticulously planning every aspect of his life using a complex risk calculator. Or ‘Big’ in Sex and the City, a successful financier who is only ever seen in the same boring office attire, with the dull and rather reserved personality to match.

It is a stereotype that even technology has caught on to. A quick tap on ChatGPT’s shoulder to ask “what does a person working in tax stereotypically look like?” produced some amusing results, to say the least. “Conservative style”, “mature or middle-aged”, “glasses”…

The origins of ‘the tax nerd’

It is likely that a lot of these stereotypes originated from the laborious nature of tax work back in the late nineties and early noughties. The basic IT equipment we have grown accustomed to now as a standard – our PCs, printers, and internet connection – were available, yes. But they were also far less advanced, slower, and still relatively new and ‘revolutionary’ at the time.

What’s more, the absence of more advanced tech tools and solutions meant that a lot of menial tasks were still being carried out manually by auditors, accountants, and other tax specialists. Just look at tax automation. It is no wonder the tax professionals of the early noughties developed a reputation for being clerical and a tad dull. For the most part, they spent their days buried in lengthy, boring paperwork, grappling with invoices, cross-examining books, and carrying out mind-numbing tax calculations manually.

Fast-forward to today’s digital world, and the availability of tax engines and other automation tools relieves us of a lot of these burdens, allowing us to focus on new challenges and areas of the job that did not exist before. The obstacles associated with online marketplaces and global e-commerce, for example, see ever-evolving tax legislation, particularly surrounding new products and services such as NFTs, and even ESG considerations.

The arrival of these new technologies to the tax industry has not only changed ‘how’ the tax department works, it has also sparked a makeover of sorts, changing the ‘face’ of the modern tax professional, the skills they need to succeed, and how they integrate within their organisation.

The tech treatment

It is likely that tech will continue to play a big role in how the industry progresses. By now, we have all heard the conversations swirling about how newer, emerging technologies, such as generative AI, will impact our daily lives, and, perhaps more importantly, our jobs.

The arrival of ChatGPT last year has piqued the curiosity of accountants and tax experts around the world. Some are excited about the benefits it will bring to the modern-day tax department, with its ability to answer complex tax questions in just a matter of clicks. Others have, rightly, raised concerns, questioning whether AI language models can ever be 100% accurate or trustworthy with regard to the complex nature of tax.

There is, of course, an element of uneasiness associated with change, too. As with any disruptive technology, the argument, or fear, is that generative AI models such as ChatGPT will eventually replace humans in the workplace.

However, as we have seen in the past with tax automation and other tools, this is rarely the case. Rather, the skills we need to conduct our work evolve and expand. This is a trend we are seeing across the board today, with the UK even experiencing a widespread digital skills shortage at the moment, across almost every sector, as job roles continue to evolve.

For financial services, a recent survey by UK Finance found that 30% of workers in the sector feel they need more digital and technological skills – indicative of where the profession is headed. Technology will likely never replace the need for a tax department, but it is certainly here to stay, and will continue to support them in the workplace to enable them to keep up with today’s complex challenges.

Regardless of your opinion on the digitalisation of the tax industry, the impact of new technology has been undeniable. However, its impact does not begin and end with the work carried out by tax specialists and the skills needed.

The ‘tax technologist’ is born

As the ethos of digitalisation continues to spill over into the tax profession, it seems to be challenging the stereotypical ‘look’ of the tax department that has been so heavily ingrained over the past few decades, too.

Before, the tax and tech departments within a company were traditionally separate entities altogether. But with the abundance of new tech being deployed by tax professionals today, these lines are far more blurred.

Tax’s tech treatment has given rise to a new ‘face’ for the world of tax – that of the tax technologist. Acting as the bridge between the tax and tech teams within their organisation, the tax technologist tends to look more like a developer or IT professional, rather than a stereotypical tax specialist.

Now, it is safe to say that the finance and tax sectors have been slower on the uptake of more ‘casual’ business attire compared with other professional industries, such as marketing, and there are many today that still insist a suit and tie is conducive to being a successful tax worker. However, this is being challenged more and more by some of the sector’s biggest names.

When investment banking giant Goldman Sachs announced more relaxed clothing requirements for IT employees in 2017, and later rolled this out for all employees two years later, it was one of many finance companies moving in this direction.

The modernisation of the tax department is largely to thank, not only for blurring the lines between tech and tax, but also for facilitating new ways of working, and new workplace models, most notably remote and hybrid work.

The finance sector – like most sectors – saw a major uptick in remote work following the onset of the pandemic, and for the majority of workers, this desire to work from home has not dissipated. It is why we are likely to see more big finance corporations follow in the footsteps of HSBC Bank, which recently announced the planned closure of its 45-storey office building in Canary Wharf, and subsequent downsizing.

Still a man’s world

The picture painted in this article so far is largely positive for the industry. Recruiting for the next addition to your tax team should be far more focused on the skills, digital literacy, and level of innovation they can bring to the company – not just what they look like.

In an ideal world, this would mean a widening of the talent pool and more candidates from different walks of live thriving within the modern tax department. However, while the stereotypical image of a person working in tax may have begun unravelling in recent years, for the most part, this image is still predominantly male.

If we look at the UK financial and insurance sector’s gender breakdown for 2022, for example, 570,000 full-time employees were male, compared with only 378,000 women. Alarmingly, the issue seems to have worsened in recent years, with new figures even highlighting how there were 200,000 more women working in UK finance in 1997 than there were in 2022.

If we are to truly embrace this new era of tax, and reimagine what the tax specialist of today looks like, companies must work harder to ensure this is an image that can include everyone, regardless of gender, or other characteristics.

Remote and hybrid working may offer one solution to the industry’s diversity, equity and inclusion problem, and we can already see a larger proportion of women working part-time in UK finance than men. The availability of more-flexible working models, along with other initiatives such as paternal leave and menopausal support, is likely to make a big difference in encouraging more women and employees from diverse backgrounds to enter the finance sector in years to come.

Final words

The tax industry is on the cusp of reinventing its image, for the better. With the help of new technology, and new ways of working, tax professionals are no longer being typecast as the boring – and rather joyless – people they have been portrayed as for years in TV and film.

As tax departments shake off some of their corporate, clerical image, and continue to evolve into innovative, creative and tech-fuelled spaces, the rise of the tax technologist is imminent – whose digital skills and innovation take precedence over outdated ideals of workplace appearances.

However, it is important that tax’s ‘makeover’ includes everyone, and is not just a case of the men swapping their suit and tie for a T-shirt and jeans. If companies within the finance and tax sector are to adopt the tech sector’s more flexible and forward-thinking ways of work and company culture, they must also work harder to ensure these benefits are available to all.

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