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Top tech tools for a flexible workforce

As accounting firms rely on employees to work from home or remote offices in a post-COVID-19 world, are they providing them with the tools needed to work well?

Sonakshi Babbar | November 2020

By now, most public practices would have found ways to provide their employees with the tools and resources required to work productively from home or remote offices.

However, a Gartner poll shows that 54 per cent of human resources leaders cite poor technology and/or infrastructure as the biggest barrier to effective remote working.

Doing it right starts with the basics: giving employees the right hardware, gadgets and secure access to applications, files and content.

Move to the cloud 

Practice Connections founder Alan FitzGerald, a technology consultant to public practices, sees the adoption of cloud services before the COVID-19 pandemic as a key differentiator between those who have coped well with the new ways of working and those who have struggled. 

“It’s been easier for firms on the cloud to adapt to the transition to remote work than the ones who are on non-cloud software,” FitzGerald says.

Indeed, a new report on cloud adoption has found that planned cloud usage is now 37 per cent higher than originally planned among small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) this year as a result of COVID-19.

Related podcast: Data security in the age of working from home

FitzGerald makes the point that now, more than ever, accounting firms looking to move existing desktop solutions to the cloud should not rush into making a decision but “plan ahead and do their research in advance about the marketplace and vendors to get the outcome you are looking for”. 

He also suggests developing a good understanding of the trajectory of your business over the next three to five years. If deciding on cloud services, he recommends taking advice from vendors such as Xero, QuickBooks and MYOB, peer groups, technical publications, cloud integrators or technology experts that specifically cater to the accounting market. 

Kyelie Baxter CPA, managing partner at IQ Accountants, saw first-hand the advantage of investing in a robust cloud solution well before COVID-19 changed the way many work.

“We were already as cloud-based as possible,” Baxter says. “We wanted a working environment where we’d be able to work from anywhere in the world and have the same user experience as if we were sitting in the office.” 

She points out that the transition was not a simple switch and required intense collaboration between IQ Accountants and its IT providers for over five years to achieve the desired results. 

“It turns out we were getting COVID-19-ready and didn’t know it,” Baxter says. 

The work-from-home station 

"With hardware, some firms will struggle because their systems are set up in a way that doesn’t facilitate working from home and that's where assistance from the firm’s IT support [service] will be essential,” FitzGerald says. 

He suggests accounting firms provide relevant hardware to their employees so the firm can retain central control of the software and passwords on the devices.

“You don’t want employees to use home PCs because you don’t have any control of the security and virtual private network [VPN] access,” he warns. 

FitzGerald also notes the extreme importance of having up-to-the-minute antivirus software to prevent hacking and phishing when taking a system out of a secure office environment. 

He recommends investing in high-performance machines for a superior software experience. “Choosing the right hardware is also important to create the right impression,” he adds. “Clients take into account the quality of the technology you are using.

“Firms should advise employees of the [permitted] budget and encourage them to buy office equipment such as headsets, keyboards and monitors to enable the business to keep going and also feel as comfortable as possible at their home workstation. 

Baxter takes a similar approach. “We supply hardware to staff and have protocols regarding the use of the equipment and ensure appropriate virus protection is installed.” 

She has also found that transitioning to more mobile hardware like laptops instead of being tied to desktop computers has enabled more flexibility.

“It’s very freeing to know that I just need my laptop, Surface Pro or maybe even mobile phone for an appointment,” she says. 

Secure data access 

A McKinsey poll has highlighted that a major concern for IT leaders is the increased cybersecurity threats since the first wave of the pandemic.

“Sensitive data is important because of the Notifiable Data Breaches Bill 2016,” FitzGerald emphasises. “Implementing antivirus suites with password protection, hacking and phishing protection is imperative when teams are working remotely without the central security provided in an office set up.”

He recommends using stronger passwords for software applications – ideally, managed centrally with a solution such as Practice Protect and utilising others like FuseSign, DocuSign or Adobe Sign to securely send information to clients.

Baxter’s firm uses Citrix to keep data secure when the team needs to access data remotely and a portal for clients to submit confidential documents electronically. 

“We implemented Practice Protect a few years ago to ensure the firm has complete control over sensitive data, no matter where our team works from,” Baxter says. 

Communication must-haves

“We were using cloud services and were able to pick up our equipment, go home, plug in and get started working,” Baxter continues. “Our clients weren’t affected by the office being closed as there was no change to their service arrangement.” 

Her team continues to use traditional phone calls, although it uses 3CX – a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system – which has allowed staff to continue serving phone calls without setting up call redirects from desk phones to mobiles and home phones. 

To further support your firm’s technology requirements, CPA Australia has launched the Leverage Technology Guide. This pragmatic guide is part of the MY FIRM. MY FUTURE suite and was developed in consultation with Alan Fitzgerald. 

It will arm you with the practical information you need to rise to the challenge and seize the opportunities that technology presents to ensure your firm is fit for the future. You can download this complimentary guide now.

My Firm. My Future. Guides
A suite of four practical guides: Leveraging Technology, Incorporating Advisory, Look to Specialise and Do Better Business. Access now.