As the coronavirus pandemic rattled stock markets, closed school systems, and shut down major sports leagues this week, Jim Bourke, CPA/CITP/CFF, CGMA, had his head in the cloud, his work applications at his fingertips, and his feet planted on the front porch of his home in New Jersey.
Bourke, a partner and managing director of advisory services for N.J.-based regional accounting firm WithumSmith+Brown, has been urging firms for years to move as much of their IT infrastructure and data to the cloud as possible. Because his firm did so years ago, he is accustomed to working remotely and is well prepared if the efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 require him to stay away from the office.
Not all accounting firms, or other businesses for that matter, are as prepared for all or large segments of their staff to work remotely. What can organizations do if quarantines or other travel restrictions preclude staff from coming into the office? What technologies will be needed? What policies will need to be in place? Can even organizations that have so far eschewed remote work cobble together a workable solution? The article addresses those questions and more.
A break in the clouds
As illustrated by Bourke’s comfy perch on the porch, businesses that have already migrated to the cloud are in the best position to handle increased demand for remote work. That’s because cloud applications and infrastructure provide much more scalability and accessibility than servers and software housed in the office, said Marc Staut, a shareholder and chief innovation and information officer at Boomer Consulting and former CIO for CohnReznick, one of the dozen or so largest U.S. accounting firms.
“Those firms that opted to keep everything on-premise and haven’t embraced remote working are going to struggle the most because their fixed mindsets are going to make things very rough for them,” Staut said. “It won’t be easy to make changes quickly, and they are possibly going to be limited by not having enough laptops available, not being fully licensed (to use certain software and hardware), and possibly not having the bandwidth available to provide a workable user experience.”
Fortunately for businesses, even those largely not in the cloud, several large technology vendors have provided a silver lining in the form of free access to products or certain features within products. For instance, Microsoft, Google, LogMeIn, Cisco, and Zoom are all offering free licenses during the COVID-19 outbreak to their meeting, collaboration, and remote work tools.
“This is a great opportunity for firms that haven’t planned for a full-scale remote working scenario,” Staut said.
The videoconferencing application Zoom is one of three popular communication tools recommended by Liz Mason, CPA, the CEO and shareholder for High Rock, the Arizona-based accounting firm that she founded. Mason also cites collaboration platforms Microsoft Teams and Slack as good fits for remote work with both staff and clients. Teams is available to Microsoft Office 365 subscribers, while Slack offers a robust free version. Capabilities provided by both Teams and Slack include video meetings, instant messaging-style conversations, and file sharing.
“Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams are all great programs that can pretty much run on any computer purchased in the last five years (as long as it has a camera and a microphone),” said Mason, who has relied heavily on cloud computing and remote access technologies in building her practice.
Slack, Teams, and Zoom all offer videoconference capabilities that simulate being in the room with colleagues or clients.
Office 365 subscribers can use Skype for Business for free, but Mason prefers using Zoom for video meetings because Skype for Business requires all attendees to download a plug-in to use the software.
“So, if you use it, be prepared for every client to be five to 10 minutes late to your scheduled video calls,” she said. “Zoom is simple — [clients] just click a link and it works. For internal calls, we use Slack. You click a phone button right in the application to start a call with a co-worker or even a group call where anyone in the channel can jump in! Join.me is another easy and powerful tool for remote communication.”
The ability to share files is crucially important for accounting firms and finance departments. Many firms already use secure portals from vendors such as CCH, Thomson Reuters, and Citrix to transmit tax documents and other files with clients. For smaller firms, Mason points to a host of cloud-based applications, including Microsoft SharePoint and OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Docs, among many others.
“You should also consider hosting any server or desktop products in the cloud,” Mason said. “If you have a tech-savvy IT person, or even intern, check out Microsoft Azure for a virtual machine remote desktop to host programs. They are available for multisession (multiple users on the virtual terminal with the products installed) with the full Office 365 licenses.”
Office 365 and Microsoft Teams are two of the tools used by Bourke, who said that even accountants who have been chained to the office can quickly make their remote working situation more workable. “In fact, I would argue that anyone in our profession could be experiencing some of the benefits of remote access in as little as 24 hours,” he said.
For employers, staff working remotely raises several security concerns. Accounting firms and finance departments often have applications, data, or computing resources that employees must access directly.
“Security is critical no matter the systems used,” said Lisa Traina, CPA/CITP, CGMA, a partner with cybersecurity firm CapinTech, a CapinCrouse company.
As an example, Traina said that accountants should not be working at home on computers with outdated anti-virus software, especially if others in the household use the computer.
“So, any system used must have security measures in place, including things like current operating systems, updated software, virus and malware protection, encryption, login restrictions, IP address restrictions, and employee-acknowledged acceptable usage policies,” Traina said. “The list is long.”
Employers should also have multifactor authentication in place for all key systems, including email, she said.
All of this advice is for naught if accountants can’t access stable and secure high-speed internet access. Traina recommends that accountants avoid using public Wi-Fi networks, such as in coffee shops or some public areas, and should also make sure that the security on their home Wi-Fi connections is set up.
In a pinch, accountants can use their cellphones as mobile “hotspots” through which their computers can access the internet securely. Search your phone’s settings menus to access its “hotspot” controls, which often provide instructions on how to use it to connect your laptop or other computing device to the internet. The use of mobile hotspots can help accountants avoid public Wi-Fi and stay online if their home internet connection goes down, Traina said.
Many accounting firms and other employers already provide some type of remote access, be it a through a virtual private network (VPN) connection or a virtual computing environment, according to Staut.
“But not all of them are licensed for scaling past a minority of staff being remote,” he said. “If that is the case, they do have some options and should reach out to the vendors they work with and see if they offer the opportunity to increase their licensing or deploy a short-term solution.”
For example, Staut said, a firm that has a Cisco VPN can leverage the free trial of the business version of Webex, the videoconferencing and meeting application owned by Cisco.
Vetting the VPN
Another connection concern is capacity. Can a firm’s VPN and technology infrastructure handle a larger percentage of its workforce connecting remotely?
“That’s a great question,” said Les Nettleton, director of information technology services for Metairie, La.-based accounting firm Bourgeois Bennett. “So, I think … you’ve got to set up some test procedures and make sure that your people are able to get connectivity into your office.”
One approach, which Nettleton said he is aware of a firm using during the current pandemic, is to have a certain percentage of staff working from home on a Saturday and see if they can work effectively without major slowdowns in computing performance. The firm can assess the results of that test and then do another assessment with everyone working remotely.
“Now being a realist, I know we haven’t built most of our firms from the standpoint of external connectivity to have the entire firm come back into the [office],” Nettleton said, adding that firms should prepare staff for the possibility that they might find their applications running slower remotely, especially if they are connecting through Wi-Fi at home.
To do that, firms need to instill a mindset of being end-goal-oriented, said Nettleton, who advised firms have staff ask themselves, “Is it better to get your work done via a slower connection than it is to do no work at all?”
For Mason, ultimate success with remote working arrangements is as much about cultivating the right culture as having the right technology.
“Make sure you are setting expectations upfront with your team,” she said. “If you bill hourly, set billable hour goals. If it is project-based, set expectations of what project milestones need to be completed each week. Set up virtual team meetings or one-on-ones with anyone planning on working remotely. It helps keep projects moving as expected and avoid the last-minute delays to clients. I would say a project management or a practice management application with milestones, deadlines, and assignments is a must for anyone planning to have remote workers.”
In the end, employers may be surprised at what they learn when staff work remotely.
“Embracing the remote work life might give some firms a taste of the potential where they would not want to go back,” Mason said.
For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit the JofA’s coronavirus resources page.
— Jeff Drew (Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA senior editor.