Home Is Where the Office Is

CPAs in small and midsize firms say telecommuting is changing the boundaries of the office.
BY SARAH PHELAN

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
CPA FIRMS THAT USE WORK-FROM-HOME arrangements with eligible staff say there are clear operational benefits: They save money because there’s less absenteeism, they increase production, and they are able to keep high-quality employees longer.

SITUATIONS THAT OTHERWISE MIGHT take a CPA out of the workforce—such as a broken leg or a new baby—sometimes can be worked around by telecommuting. With it, an enterprise can continue its work unaffected by highway or rail disruption, weather disasters or civil disturbances, and staff can keep going on a project through holidays and long weekends if necessary.

MOST MANAGERS HAVE CONCERNS ABOUT how to keep track of what a remote CPA actually accomplishes from home. Allaying such anxieties starts with having a clear worker eligibility policy, defined performance standards and a well-planned program.

THE BASIC TELECOMMUTING TOOLS are familiar—a computer, appropriate software, a desk in a quiet area, a printer, fax machine, scanner, designated connections and a phone.

SECURITY IS A CONCERN ANYTIME COMPUTERS are used but especially for remote computers. Wide area networks have many extra protections. One CPA considers his hardware firewall a great investment for under $200.

BEFORE STARTING A TELECOMMUTING PROGRAM, a firm should check relevant state and federal labor laws; appoint a steering committee and coordinator; develop a comprehensive description of the program; set guidelines to choose candidates; design and conduct training; provide equipment and technical support to its workers at home; ensure seamless communication between staff, supervisors and clients; have a system to monitor its effectiveness; and have a promotion and advancement system that encompasses its teleworkers.

SARAH E. PHELAN, JD, is a New York-based attorney and freelance writer. Ms. Phelan was formerly a senior manager with Deloitte & Touche and a technical manager in personal financial planning at the AICPA. Her e-mail address is Phelanlaw@prodigy.net . She gets a lot done from her home office.

esides protecting staff and data by dispersing workforces geographically, CPA firms that use work-from-home arrangements say there are clear operational benefits: They save money because there’s less absenteeism, they increase production and they keep high-quality employees longer. CPAs who no longer spend two to four hours daily on a commute—as they do in many parts of the United States—say they can direct time and energy to the job that would have gone into travel. Here’s how some CPA firms use technology to extend firms’ borders in ways that benefit the organization as well as the individual.

NOT JUST AN EMPLOYEE PERK
Although telecommuting, or teleworking, had been a stagnating trend before September 11, financial services employers have been reconsidering what it has to offer, said a Wall Street Journal article last fall. It gives employers several advantages: access to expertise that’s unavailable nearby, the ability to work across time zones via e-mail at any hour—an asset for working with businesses overseas or long-distance outsourcing (see “ Overnight to India, JofA , Jun.00, page 57)—and it serves as de facto business-interruption insurance. Firms can carry on unaffected by highway or rail disruption, weather disasters or civil disturbances, and staff can keep going on a project through holidays and long weekends if necessary.

From a teleworking CPA’s perspective, doing the job from home is attractive for many reasons. A quiet home office has fewer distractions. During a demanding season or project, a CPA can sidestep after-hours issues of building access, working in a deserted office complex, being on the road late at night or having a different schedule from a colleague. Someone who has a broken leg, a sick family member or who is having a baby—which might take that person out of the workforce—can get around it by telecommuting. Some CPAs perform most of their work on the road, using technology to communicate with the central office from client locations as well as from a home office.
More Employees Do It
Twenty million people telecommute at least one day each month, more than three times the number that did so a decade earlier.

Source: International Telework
Association and Council study, http://www.homebiztools.com/telecommute.htm .

TAKE TIME TO ACCLIMATE
Most managers fear losing control and have concerns about how to keep track of what a CPA actually accomplishes off-site. Allaying such anxieties starts with having a clear worker-eligibility policy, performance standards and a well-planned program. For example, Deloitte & Touche, which has won awards for workplace sensitivity to women’s issues, permits staff members to telecommute only after they’ve been with the firm at least two years and have gotten outstanding performance reviews.

Because both employers and employees need time to know each other, it’s unwise to offer telecommuting as a recruitment incentive for entry-level CPAs, says Ron Lague, CPA and managing partner of Kenney, Dennen and Lague, a three-partner, 20-person firm in Andover, Massachusetts. “Early career CPAs need the mentoring, training and indoctrination into a firm’s culture that an office setting gives them,” he says. But “whatever their individual schedules, all firm staff should come together at least once a week. To see each other less weakens the connectivity that makes a firm strong and prosperous,” says Lague.

TOOLS AND TERMS
By now most CPAs are familiar with the basic tools: a computer, appropriate software, a desk in a quiet area, a printer, fax, scanner, designated connections, such as DSL or cable, and a phone. They can make do with less—a portable computer, Internet connection and phone—and handle outputting and distribution at the office or though a neighborhood facility. Call-forwarding, voice mail, mobile phones and e-mail make location irrelevant in many instances, too. Besides hardware, there are potential issues about labor law, liability, software use, workflow and coordination that may affect remote-office workers. A CPA firm starting a teleworking program—see “ Resources ,” “ Getting Started Checklist, ” and “ Teleworker Costs ”—will increase its chance of success if it

Checks relevant state and federal labor laws.

Ascertains how its insurance liability will be affected.

Thoroughly researches remote work opportunities for the firm.

Writes a comprehensive description of tasks suitable for an off-site program.

Sets guidelines for choosing teleworker candidates.

Designs and conducts training for systems, software and work coordination.

Provides equipment and technical support to its workers at home.

Ensures seamless communication between staff, supervisors and clients.

Monitors the program’s effectiveness by comparing goals met with staff objectives.

Has a promotion and advancement system that encompasses teleworkers.

Getting Started Checklist
Get management commitment and name a project champion or advisory committee.

Talk to people in other companies or organizations with similar situations. When in doubt, start small.

Develop policies that address goals, scope, eligibility criteria and selection process for telecommuters, equipment needs and time lines.

Set targets for optimum number of participants and number of out-of-office hours. Incorporate expected seasonal swings in workload.

Assess costs and savings. Develop a budget.

Systematize files and file sharing to facilitate searches; in-office staff will need to easily locate any data remote workers ask for.

Ensure data backup on remote workers’ computers. Plan for timely software updates, too.

Set minimums for in-person contact with management. This will vary with tenure of worker.

Determine a standard time frame for at-home work. Will worker be available at conventional business hours or at certain hours during the business day? Many home workers “hit the desk” in the early morning or late evening, but you may want to designate core contact hours.

Develop policy on equipment maintenance. Will firm’s tech support person deal with a remote office crash or an upgrade, or will worker call a local expert and get reimbursement?

Consider suitability of worker’s proposed location: Is space adequate? Are there distractions? Will office equipment create hazards?

In consultation with your insurer, develop standards for physical safety of workers and equipment at home (such as smoke alarms, electrical wiring, access to fire exits).

Determine whose insurance policy covers the office equipment for casualty and theft.

Evaluate and troubleshoot on an ongoing basis. Calendar a date to review the project and set second-wave goals six months out.

Positions generally suited for telecommuting are those in which a worker

Doesn’t need more than once-a-week face-to-face interaction.
Can meet clear work objectives.
Can meet clients’ needs long-distance.
Will find uninterrupted time offers a productivity boost.

USES RANGE FROM SPLIT SHIFTS TO…
Woody Levitan, CPA and managing partner of Levitan, Yegidis and Goldstein in Wallkill, New York, says he has more than doubled his firm’s gross revenues over the past 10 years without a corresponding increase in head count. He added an office in his home in 1995 and now considers the tools that help him telecommute among his most important business assets. Most days Levitan works at home late at night and early in the morning to get uninterrupted time in which to respond to the e-mails from Malaysia, Japan, Australia and England that are part of the firm’s business-development work. He does the rest of his job—mentoring, coaching and administration—at the central office.

Nicole Hendren, CPA and firm administrator at Williams, Overman, Pierce & Co. in Raleigh, North Carolina, also works a split day. She is at the firm Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 3:30 but, to be close to her family, puts in the rest of her time from home. Usually, she gets in these hours by working weekday evenings from 7:00 to 9:30, but sometimes assignments spill over into the weekend. She schedules meetings, negotiations and interviews for the central office. Hendren, whose job involves relatively little client-service work, says she nonetheless has partnership as a goal, and her managing partner is aware of it. (Also see “ Partner and Twins: A Banner Year ” and “ CPAs Who Are Making It Work. ”)

…TOTAL IMMERSION
Lague’s firm is in the eighth month of a major technological upgrade that has made most of its people mobile. On a recent day, 19 of the firm’s 20 staff members were working away from the central office. To achieve this, the firm installed customer relationship management (CRM) software, which provides an office intranet, accessible via the Internet from any location. The system comprises client data, staff assignments and workforce management automation—a time-and-activity feature that lets partners and managers make assignments and track in real time what staff members work on at home or while on the road. A Web portal is part of the package, and the system ultimately will offer clients access to their records, too.

Making CRM software the fulcrum for firm operations is a bold change that would not have been possible without completely rethinking workflow, scheduling and client interaction—that is, designing and implementing an extended corporate network, Lague says. Effective uses of CRM software include sharing client information and monitoring client service. An individual firm’s methodology for “filing” information is as important as the technology, Lague says. He’s disciplining himself to plug all new information into the firm’s new and “monstrous” database. Lague is enthusiastic about the new tools, but big systems are expensive, and it’s too soon to gauge the firm’s return on investment, he says.

THE SPACE-TOOLS CONTINUUM
Lague and Levitan use virtual private networks (VPNs), which are more complex than other wide-area-network (WAN) arrangements but provide a private Internet “tunnel” from a remote computer to a firm’s server, and they recommend them. Before Levitan’s firm got a VPN, he used a portable Jaz drive to carry files back and forth and worked directly on it. (The two-gigabyte Iomega Jaz SCSI internal and external drives for Macs or PCs hold a lot of data but are notorious for crashing.) At home, Levitan now has a computer with a flat-panel monitor and one gigabyte of RAM (his office has only 512 megabytes). He had to train himself to save files to the network rather than the drive.

Resources
Teleworking information is on the Internet and available from sources such as the following:

Organizations
American Telecommuting Association (ATA), Washington, D.C., www.knowledgetree.com/ata.html .

Gil Gordon & Associates/Telecommuting, Telework and Alternative Officing Resources, www.gilgordon.com .

International Telework Association and Council (ITAC), Washington, D.C., www.telecommute.org .

Jala International, www.jala.com .

Books
Flexible Work Arrangements in CPA Firms, AICPA, 1997.

Creating a Virtual Office: Ten Case Studies for CPA Firms, by Anita Dennis, AICPA, 1997.

The Distance Manager: A Hands On Guide to Managing Off-Site Employees and Virtual Teams, by Kimball Fisher and Maureen Duncan Fisher, McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Telecommuting Success: A Practical Guide for Staying in the Loop While Working Away from the Office, by Michael J. Dziak, et al., Jist Works, 2000.

101 Tips for Telecommuters: Successfully Manage Your Work, Team, Technology and Family, by Debra A. Dinnocenzo, Berrett-Koehler, 1999.

Software
Most available products can be customized for home, small business or corporate settings. Pricing can be per business or per user. Here are some sites to kick off a search.

www.symantec.com (for pcAnywhere and Norton AntiVirus and many other packages).

www.laplink.com (for LapLink Gold 11 remote control and remote access software).

www.cosession.com (for Co-Session products).

www.microsoft.com (for networking solutions).

Digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable connections, the most common telework links to a central office, provide very fast data transmission. When a remote worker connects to a VPN or a WAN, the speed of the link between the main-office computer and the Internet is as important as the speed of the home system. A frequent network problem in homes using cable for both a computer and several TVs is that splitting the signal to serve them causes it to degrade and disrupts the Internet connection. If other nearby households use cable Internet connections, the signal left may not be robust enough to transmit big tax files, for example. One CPA solved the problem by having a dedicated cable line run directly into her home-office computer.

CPAs Who Are Making It Work
“I Can Do It All From Home”

Practitioner: Woody Levitan, CPA and managing partner.

Firm name: Levitan, Yegedis & Goldstein LLP.

Location: Wallkill, New York.

How long has firm had a telework program: Informally, seven years—was a longtime pcAnywhere 32 user. Virtual private network (VPN) implemented April 2002.

Firm CPAs who work from home: Managing partner and one other partner.

Best practice efficiencies: “Anything I can do in the office I can do from home.”

Best software: MS Outlook with Exchange Server.

Best resource: The firm’s computer consultants, ALOS Micrographics Corp. of Montgomery, New York.

Best thing about the program configuration: Setting up its “virtual desktop” arrangement so home had same capabilities as office and getting voice mail via desktop PC over computer speakers.

Disadvantages: Initial configuration of VPN. Had to give up Office Logic, “a really nice little program” from LAN-Aces, because it was incompatible.

Budget for implementation: An office that already has an MS network can do this for a modest incremental cost. Windows SBS (small business server) comes with Microsoft Exchange, which is licensed for up to 50 users. Once set up, the incremental cost for additional users is very low: their home computer, their monthly fee for high-speed Internet access and the cost of a hardware firewall at home (under $200).

How teleworking will be part of the firm in the future: It will definitely be rolled out to additional users.

E-mail: Woodyl@LYGCPAS.com

“As Quiet as a Saturday Morning”

Practitioner: Nicole Hendren, CPA and firm administrator (comptroller and HR functions).

Firm name: Williams, Overman, Pierce & Co.

Location: Raleigh and Greensboro, North Carolina.

How long has firm used working from home: Three years.

Firm CPAs who work from home: Lots of people sporadically, but not formally.

Best practice efficiencies: Forces planning and focus, both in office and at home; improves concentration.

Best software: Remote Administrator; will be replaced with a wide area network.

Best resource: Managing partner support.

Best thing since starting: Discovered how effective I could be at home. (“It’s something like going into the office on a quiet Saturday morning.”) Ability to balance work with family.

Disadvantage: You have to plan well.

Worst thing we did since starting: We were too optimistic about our ability to use the Remote Administrator software to achieve precisely the level of efficiency we had in the office. You need to be realistic about the capabilities of the technology. Firm plans to roll out speedier technology by yearend.

Budget for implementation: Employees pay for hardware and home cable connection out of pocket.

How teleworking will be part of the firm in the future: We don’t expect to work from home as often in the future. It’s a different economy from a year ago, and employees are less demanding. But when the economy does come back, offering work-from-home options will be part of staying competitive.

E-mail: NH@wopcpa.com .

Security issues are a serious concern wherever computers are used, and a firm needs to take extra measures with remote computers. Antivirus software, passwords, user IDs and software firewalls are important to keeping data safe. Levitan’s firm purchased a Netgear cable/DSL VPN firewall that he uses at home. He calls this extra level of protection a great investment for under $200. Maintaining the confidentiality and safety of hard copies is also a concern. Levitan uses very few paper documents that are not already backed up in the firm’s computer system or in the system of a third party such as a bank or law firm.

As for Hendren, her home system is connected to her central office with Remote Administrator software, which “sees” the work in progress on all linked computers. It randomly generates encryption for all data, screen images, mouse movements and keys and can protect its code from being altered. To increase speed, her firm plans to roll out a new wide area network, which includes a T-1 (high-speed) line between office and Internet, Hendren says. About half her firm’s professionals have laptops, so the creation of a WAN lets them take the equipment home and connect into the firm’s main computer via cable Internet access. She is negotiating with the local cable company for a group discount.

Teleworker Costs
Costs for starting a home office can range from nothing if a worker already has a laptop computer and phone, to six figures for a virtual private network for a firm with dozens of employees. Here are some costs to note.
Phone. Monthly cost for a second phone averages $25 per month. Some workers prefer to dedicate a separate phone line to fax and Internet use, for a total of three lines (home, business and fax/Internet). Quality handsets that include a speakerphone are available for less than $75. Wireless and headset phones also are reasonably priced.

Pager, cell phone. Initial cost is $100 to $200, plus ongoing access charges, which vary widely by service provider and amount of use.

Answering machine or voice mail. Prices range from $30 or more for a machine to $7 per month for phone company voice mail, which includes call-forwarding, remote access and privacy—plus, the cat can’t knock voice mail off the hook.

Computer, monitor and keyboard. Prices range from $900 (basic desktop) to $3,000 (high-end desktop, monitor, speakers) to $7,000 (high-end laptop plus plug-in keyboard, flat-screen monitor).

Printer. Prices range from zero (to use central-office printer) to $100 (slow and small) to $500 (speedy and robust).

Fax. Prices range from zero for desktop faxing to $100 or more depending on speed and paper quality.

Desk. Prices range from $25, used, on up to very pricey antiques. For computer use, look for a 26-inch height, a keyboard tray or place to attach one. A table can be multifunctional in a home setting.

Chair. Very important for productivity. Can be bought for $35 used, but the quality available at $200 to $300 is much better. Experts recommend armless chairs, so buying high-end “executive” chairs at $500 or more can be counterproductive.

File cabinet, with lock. CPAs need to secure client documents, and volume can easily exceed any desk-drawer storage capacity. Prices range from $75 (small, used) to $600 (big, new, with lateral drawers).

Computer software. Additional copies or user licensing may be required. Cost varies.

Equipment maintenance and repair. Cost varies. Vendor travel charges may apply.

Insurance coverage. Equipment that travels, like a laptop or cell phone, is vulnerable. Homes, like offices, have fires and floods. Replacement costs vary.

HEAD HOME
As technology continues to get better and the cost of connectivity keeps dropping, firms that want productivity gains and to recruit and retain good people will more often start to “think outside the box” about how to get work done more efficiently and conveniently. Soon, the hard questions will be what to wear to the office when it’s only 15 feet away and how to mark an official start to the day. One CPA says that to have a clear beginning to her at-home workday, she’s developed a little ritual: She dresses for business, goes out the front door, comes in the side door and boots up.

CASE STUDY
Partner and Twins:
A Banner Year

“It was a crazy year,” says Lori Conaty, CPA, of 2001. “People would call to congratulate me and I wouldn’t know whether they were talking about my making partner or having twins.” Conaty is a first-year corporate tax partner at Pirolli, Deller & Conaty in Warwick, Rhode Island. The firm had instituted telework in 1998, when Conaty, then a senior staff associate, had her first child (see “ A Good Hire Is Hard to Find ,” JofA , Oct.98, page 89). So her partners didn’t flinch when she announced in November 2000 that she was pregnant, this time with twins—due in May, right after busy season.

“We’d just had a new partner withdraw after only 10 months and Lori was slated to become a partner on January 1,” says partner William R. Pirolli, CPA. “So we knew we were going to be in for a very challenging filing season.”

She made partner as scheduled, and the firm—where she’s worked for 10 years—set her up with a home office in expectation of the arrival. The timing was perfect: In late February her doctors told her she could no longer work 60 hours a week and forbade her to commute to the main office. They prescribed a schedule of an hour and a half of work, followed by an hour and a half of rest, up to a maximum of 20 hours a week. It wouldn’t have been doable without the ability to telework.

“In May she gave birth to beautiful twin boys,” says Pirolli. “After taking several months off, she began a schedule of three days a week at the office and two days of telecommuting, which she still keeps to. We never wavered on making her a partner as scheduled. We believed in her then and even more so now.”

Conaty recognizes that her firm has been extraordinarily supportive and says “close relationships with clients helped,” too. “Clients initially were reluctant to bother me with phone calls on my at-home days, but they’re getting over that,” she says.

Conaty’s workspace is a separate office in the lower level of her ranch-style home. Although she has full-time, in-home child care, she sometimes does clerical tasks while keeping one eye on the kids in a nearby playroom. At the end of the day, she also works while her three preschoolers are asleep. “Those hours between 8:00 and 11:00 p.m. are great—especially during tax season,” she says.

Conaty plans ahead and takes files home or e-mails them to herself before she leaves the main office. She says the worst thing about telecommuting is packing, lugging and unpacking files. If she forgets something, she calls and asks the office administrator to e-mail it. One of the best things she’s done has been to organize computer files systematically to enable office staff to access and e-mail additional files easily, she says.

Her firm has given her good tech support, and she says, “Our network consultants, I NET of Cranston, Rhode Island, have been our best resource. They were very down to earth—and they speak both computerese and English.” She recommends seeking out full-time computer consultants, not those who do it “as a second job.” The best tech tool has been high-speed Internet access. The cost for computer, printer, fax and monthly Internet connection was under $2,000, but that figure doesn’t include home-office furniture or a home phone line.

Not all tasks are suitable for telecommuting, however. Now that she’s lived through the learning curve, she knows that projects requiring access to 6-year-old files are better suited to the main office, for example. “Getting things done efficiently is the name of the game,” says Conaty.

“We make accommodations as required to ensure that she is a fully contributing partner,” says Pirolli. He has never regretted the firm’s decision to accommodate her. “We would love to show all practitioners that you can indeed make these types of situations work.”

Conaty’s e-mail address is Lconaty@cpaadvise.com .

SPONSORED REPORT

Year-end tax planning and what’s new for 2016

Practitioners need to consider several tax planning opportunities to review with their clients before the end of the year. This report offers strategies for individuals and businesses, as well as recent federal tax law changes affecting this year’s tax returns.

QUIZ

News quiz: IRS warning on cyberattacks and a change in pension rules

Once again, the IRS sounds the alarm about a threat from cyberthieves. See how much you know about this and other recent news with this short quiz.

CHECKLIST

Bolster your data defenses

As you weather the dog days of summer, it’s a good time to make sure your cybersecurity structure can stand up to the heat of external and internal threats. Here are six steps to help shore up your systems.