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Running your CPA firm remotely? How accountants work from home successfully
Remote accounting work is on the rise. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, CPA firms had begun embracing the benefits of cloud-based practices, empowering their accountants and staff to perform their duties and tasks from practically any computer, tablet or mobile device. Advancements in technology have resulted in remote accounting work increasingly becoming the norm, as employee expectations and desires shift, and firms discover the benefits that exist when working outside the constraints of a traditional bricks-and-mortar office. In fact, accounting jobs have been some of the most popular remote roles available for the past few years (These are the 14 most common remote jobs—here's how much they pay. CNBC, 11 Mar. 2018).
Nearly half (2018 Anytime, Anywhere Work. ConvergenceCoaching, 2018) of all accounting firms had already been building a work-from-home culture into their practices before the global crisis and mandatory quarantine gripped the world. Now, we can expect those numbers to increase significantly, as the entire globe adapts to a new way of conducting business remotely — now and in the future.
In this white paper, we will review:
- Why accountants need to be able to work from home
- How to establish a strong virtual infrastructure to support remote accounting work
- How to ensure collaboration amongst team members and clients virtually
- What to consider for data security and internal protocols
- How to create a work-from-home culture within your firm (including myth-busting some stale preconceptions!)
- How to identify the best remote employees
- How to encourage a healthy work-life balance
- How to work in a shared home environment with your children and spouse
For starters, it ensures your firm’s continuity, regardless of where your employees are physically located. This is important not only as more people seek a greater work-life balance but is also critical should your firm encounter an unexpected disruption like a fire, flood, or a global event like COVID-19. It is important to be prepared and be able to adapt to unexpected change.
A Gallup poll conducted from March 30 to April 2, 2020 found that 62 percent of employed Americans had worked from home during the Coronavirus crisis, a number that had already doubled from mid-March. As Gallup accurately noted, the COVID-19 pandemic may not be an issue forever — but remote work will be (Brenan, Megan. U.S. Workers Discovering Affinity for Remote Work. Gallup, 3 Apr. 2020).
A remote work environment also enables your accounting firm to maintain its edge in a competitive job market and provide the flexibility that many of today’s professionals are seeking in an employer. According to separate Gallup data, more than half (54 percent) of workers said they'd change jobs for the option to work remotely (Hickman, Adam, and Jennifer Robison. Is Working Remotely Effective? Gallup Research Says Yes. Gallup, 9 Apr. 2020). Under ordinary circumstances, work from home flexibility drives staff engagement, which means happier employees, more satisfied clients and ultimately greater profitability for your firm.
While remote accounting work is becoming more commonplace and firms that are unable to adapt risk placing themselves at a significant disadvantage, that’s not to say that accountants’ work from home doesn’t present its share of challenges.
Building and maintaining an effective and productive work-from-home environment (whether it is temporary or permanent) involves such steps as establishing a strong infrastructure, nurturing the right culture, and ensuring a healthy work-life balance. To help you and your accounting staff succeed, here are some actionable tips and insights to help ensure your firm can keep working in every scenario.
You wouldn’t want to live in a home that has an unstable foundation. The same thinking holds true for your accounting firm’s remote work capabilities. Whether you have one staffer or your entire team working from home, it is essential to first establish a strong technical infrastructure for business continuity and security.
By leveraging the right technology and having the proper internal protocols and security measures in place, you can better protect your firm and client data while also ensuring productive remote accounting work.
Leverage cloud-based software for remote tax work
For tax and accounting firms, cloud computing has become a critical component of effectively doing business, enabling both employees and clients to seamlessly collaborate from wherever they are. Cloud technology supports simple, secure file sharing and communication.
Has your firm already adopted a centralized, cloud-based suite of tax and accounting tools? If so, you’re ahead of the game. Ensuring that accountants working from home have access to your firm’s core applications and real-time client data is essential. With centralized data management and real-time updates, your staff will always stay in sync and working together, regardless of where they are.
Hosted software applications operate exactly as if they were installed locally, except that the solution provider handles software maintenance, updates, and data backups. This leaves you and your staff free to concentrate on what’s most important — your clients. All you have to do is log in and go to work.
There are a number of benefits for cloud-based software that enable accountants to work from home, including:
- Easy access to real-time data
- 24/7 access and availability
- Multi-user access to the same data at the same time
- Automatic software updates
- Infinite storage capabilities
- Faster and better collaboration with clients
- Simpler recovery and back-up options
One of the biggest benefits of the cloud is seamless data sharing. Both Bob and Jane can work on the same client file at the same time. They won’t need to check-out and check-in their workpapers, tax return worksheets or any other client data when they’re using cloud-based software. Partnering with a solution provider that hosts software on secure data centers provides your team access to tax and accounting software and client data anytime, from anywhere. This helps ensure business continuance — no matter what the situation.
Ensure data and employee synchronization
To effectively manage a remote accounting workforce, it is imperative to leverage an integrated suite of products that are designed to work together, rather than trying to parse together disparate systems. This enables you to automate your workflow and raise the level of service you provide your clients from any work environment. The benefits of an integrated cloud-based tax and accounting workflow include:
- Reduced data entry because client data flows through in real time across all software programs
- Real-time access to current trial balances, payroll, financial reporting and client data
- Secure remote access by clients to tax returns, payroll information, financial reporting and other documents
- Improved practice management with due date tracking, task management, budgeting tools, realization rate projections, time and billing entry and oversight, and more
- Peace of mind that your client data is secure and encrypted, whether in transit or saved on the provider’s servers
- The ability to manage both clients and staff from a single, user-friendly administration module
Working from home in accounting obviously means that there’s much less face-to-face interaction among both team members and with clients. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that there’s functionality in place for efficient collaboration.
When all of the products you use for research and compliance work share the same database, there’s no manual syncing required. Whether you’re uploading client documents, recording employee time, entering client billing items, or updating a project status, you never have to worry about keying information in multiple places. By leveraging a single, universally-accessible platform, your firm can easily create, modify, and share documents, manage your firm, and stay synchronized with colleagues and clients — even from the comforts of home.
For instance, with 24/7 access to the messaging features in Microsoft Exchange, employees can schedule meetings, stay in contact, and manage tasks quickly and easily. Plus, Microsoft Outlook email, calendar, and contacts can be accessed from any smartphone using ActiveSync. And Microsoft Teams enables staff and clients to chat, meet, call, and collaborate all in one place. As many accounting firms use the Microsoft suite, these tools are readily available to implement for a productive work-from-home environment.
And if the workflow solution your firm chooses also works with popular document-sharing solutions, like Dropbox or Google Drive — or better yet — comes with a secure client portal, it will be easy for your clients to exchange documents and collaborate on edits with your staff. You can even “assign” tasks to your clients that require their action, such as uploading necessary documents or completing e-signatures.
Clients expect the accounting firms they do business with to provide them with an efficient and secure way to collaborate and exchange information, regardless of your staff’s location.
Impose internal protocols and security measures
“Remember; when disaster strikes, the time to prepare has passed.” — Steven Cyros
Concerns over cybersecurity and data breaches for both CPA firms and their clients has vaulted “managing privacy/security risks” to the top of the list of concern for firms of all sizes (Staffing Remains Top Concern for CPA Firms, AICPA Survey Finds. AICPA, 13 June 2019). And for good reason.
As gatekeepers to a treasure trove of sensitive client data, you must ensure that client data remains secure. For remote workers, this means having the right tools in hand and taking the proper steps to protect both your firm’s and your clients’ data.
If you haven’t already, one of the first steps you should take is to develop specific policies and procedures for information security. These policies and procedures, which should be readily accessible to employees, identify acceptable practices and expectations for business operations. They should be reviewed and updated at least annually, as well as whenever there are changes within the organization or its technology and include specific guidelines for when accountants and other employees work remotely (Small Business Information Security: The Fundamentals. National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2016).
Additionally, you should also have a written plan for disasters and information security incidents. This will help to contain or reduce the impact of an event, should one arise. The plan should include a step-by-step response that addresses what to do, who should do it, and how. It should also address employee safety, client communications, and the preservation of data (Small Business Information Security: The Fundamentals. National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2016).
To help mitigate risk, review your firm’s internal controls and consider taking the following security measures: (SafeguardingTaxpayer Data. IRS)
- Always use the highest multi-factor authentication available
- Install anti-malware/anti-virus security software on all devices (laptops, desktops, routers, tablets and phones) and keep software set to automatically update
- Use strong passwords of eight or more characters, use different passwords for each account, use special and alphanumeric characters, use phrases, password protect wireless devices and consider an encrypted password manager program
- Encrypt all sensitive files and emails
- Do not use a public Wi-Fi (for example, at a local coffee shop) to access your firm’s network, programs or data
- Establish an encrypted Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to allow for a more secure connection (especially from home networks)
- Keep your web browser software up to date so that it has the latest security features
- Delete web browser caches, temporary internet files, cookies and browsing history on a regular schedule
As the accounting profession evolves and new, innovative technologies change the way in which people work, it is often said that one of the biggest challenges for firms is change management. For a growing number of firms, this includes creating a work-from-home culture that works.
As discussed earlier, it is important for firms to ensure that associates have the right tools and technologies in place to work efficiently and collaboratively, whether in the office or at home. But technology is only part of the equation.
Those in leadership roles must proactively foster a positive work-from-home culture. This involves dispelling commonly held misconceptions on working remotely, building trust, and fostering effective communication and collaboration.
It is no secret that leadership can be hesitant to embrace remote work for their employees. This is often because they have a hard time getting past popular myths about accountants who work from home. Let’s take a closer look:
Myth #1: Remote employees are unproductive
Myth buster: Research suggests that the opposite holds true. In fact, an annual survey conducted by FlexJobs found that 65 percent of respondents said they are more productive in their home office than at a traditional workplace. Why? Fewer distractions and interruptions; less stress from no commute; minimal office politics; and a personalized, quiet environment. Furthermore, 85 percent of businesses confirmed that productivity increased in their company because of greater flexibility. (Hering, Beth Braccio. Remote Work Statistics for 2020: New Norms and Expectations. FlexJobs, 13 Feb. 2020)
Myth #2: Remote employees are unengaged
Myth buster: The reality is that the majority of remote workers are happier in their jobs and experience less stress. An Amerisleep study found that more than half of respondents (57 percent) were more likely than the average American to be satisfied with their job when they had the opportunity to work remotely. Plus, nearly 80 percent of respondents reported significantly less stress when working from home. (Hering, Beth Braccio. Remote Work Statistics for 2020: New Norms and Expectations. FlexJobs, 13 Feb. 2020)
Myth #3: All remote employees are introverts
Myth buster: People may often assume that all remote workers are introverts, but research shows that flexible work appeals to a wide variety of professionals for different reasons. According to a FlexJobs survey, pet owner, entrepreneur, living in a rural area, stay-at-home mom, and caregiver were among the top 10 self-identifiers. (Reynolds, Brie Weiler. FlexJobs 2018 Annual Survey: Workers Believe a Flexible or Remote Job Can Help Save Money, Reduce Stress, and More. FlexJobs, 29 Nov. 2018)
Successfully creating a work-from-home culture also requires that accounting firm leaders must trust employees’ ability to perform and execute work outside of the traditional office setting. The reality is that you can’t micromanage every minute of every day; you have to give employees a level of autonomy and trust that they will put in the hours to get their work done.
Encouraging greater collaboration and communication among staff can help strengthen that trust and further drive employee engagement. This could include:
- Requiring schedule setting
- Sharing calendars for transparency
- Instant messaging and video conferencing for check-ins
- Being mindful of communication timing (i.e., Are there any times team members should not be disturbed? What’s the expected response time to messages? Does that vary depending on what the message is, or the channel in which it is delivered?) (Lew, Claire. How to Collaborate Effectively in a Remote Team - Know Your Team: Blog. Know Your Team, 22 Aug. 2019)
- Starting each meeting with an icebreaker question. Informal communication is important for relationship building among staff, so even if you’ve been working together for some time, this can help you learn even more about your team. (8 Tips to Improve Collaboration in Remote Teams. Saberr, 20 Sept. 2018)
Tapping the best remote accounting candidates
Not everyone thrives in a remote work environment. That’s why it is important for management to identify and recruit the best candidates for a remote workforce, whenever possible. For example, an employee who needs a lot of handholding may not be the best fit to handle remote accounting work. To help identify the ideal candidates, consider the following skill sets: (How to Hire Remote Workers, Remotely. Robert Half, 10 Apr. 2020)
- They are not afraid of technology and are comfortable navigating common cloud-based solutions.
- They understand the importance of digital security and will take the proper steps to protect your firm and client data.
- They are self-starters. They can see a need and then take the appropriate actions without having to be told what to do.
- They are problem solvers and feel confident troubleshooting an issue before escalating it.
- They have strong communication skills in any format, including email, phone, video conference and instant message.
- They understand the importance of strong collaboration. In fact, in a remote work environment, a sense of collegiality is especially important.
Identifying your current staff who will be best suited to work remotely may be relatively easy. After all, you already know them, their skills sets and their personality traits. When hiring new associates for remote work, however, it is important ask the right questions. In fact, staffing firm Robert Half considers adding the following to your list of interview questions: (How to Hire Remote Workers, Remotely. Robert Half, 10 Apr. 2020)
- What is your history of working remotely?
- How do you stay focused and on-task when working from home?
- How do you stay engaged and motivated over long periods without in-person interaction with co-workers?
- Tell me about the platforms you use (or have used) to collaborate with off-site colleagues.
- What do you do to minimize miscommunication in emails and instant messages?
- What are the three attributes that make you an effective remote worker?
- What are the greatest challenges of working off-site?
- What is your approach to work-life balance when your job is remote?
You may even want to consider conducting the interview via video conference. This allows you to see how they present themselves, and you can gauge their equipment’s and bandwidth’s suitability for remote work.
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