Bring the remote work trend into your accounting classroom

Use this trend as a springboard into discussing the impact of technology on accounting.
By Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA, DBA

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on virtually every aspect of the economy on a global basis, and higher education is no exception. Accounting firms, as well as the clients they serve, have been forced to accelerate changes once thought to be years away. One specific change is especially relevant for educators: the growth of remote work.

Not only has remote work become part of the status quo in the present, surveys and feedback indicate that it is not a passing trend, but a fundamental change in how work occurs. One survey found that 82% of employers plan to allow employees to work from home at least part of the time even after the pandemic ends. By encouraging students to explore this trend, faculty can help prepare them for this radically changed business landscape.

The remote work trend has many implications that can make for fruitful discussions in the classroom. It can serve as a good introduction to related topics that students will encounter in their careers, including:

Cybersecurity. Operating in a remote environment could present an obstacle to maintaining appropriate controls from a cybersecurity perspective. With more individuals working remotely than ever before, ensuring data is stored and transferred via secure networks is critical. For example, firms might require staff or client staff to have alternate VPNs or devices that they use off-hours, on the weekend, or if someone else needs access to their usual work device. In other words, employees could be required to only perform work on authorized devices, with non-work devices being used for personal activities.

Organizations also need to determine appropriate ways to evaluate whether a remote work environment is secure, especially for employees or staff handling confidential information in areas such as payroll and human resources. Device policies and protocols will, almost by default, need to evolve. Organizations might launch policies connected to downloading specific software, addressing security issues on devices, or potentially even requiring an audit of hardware currently in use.

Interoperability. For remote work to be successful, different systems need to work together, including the following: privately owned Wi-Fi networks, institutional VPNs, software offerings operated purely in the cloud, specialized software or hardware components traditionally accessed on-site, add-ons and updates from enterprise platforms, and external programs such as those utilized by consultants and auditors.

Audit and attestation. The continuing digitization of data and the remote nature of how it is handled, stored, and managed will inevitably change the audit and attestation process in virtually every organization. Auditors will need to obtain an understanding of internal controls and determine whether such controls have been placed in operation. This is challenging enough in an office environment and is even more complicated in a remote-first environment. As such, auditors need to consider what evidence can be obtained remotely to determine if effectively designed controls have been placed in operation. These procedures might take the form of increasing remote access to client staff computers, requiring video calls during certain processes, or requiring meetings at third-party locations. If auditors are unable to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence to perform and complete the risk assessment process, then auditors may have scope limitations. 

Business management. Some aspects of business management (cash flow and the like) will be altered if remote work changes the nature of corporate structures. For example, if remote work becomes the norm rather than the exception, what impact will this have on commercial real estate, leasing, and capital expenditures?

Career options. With the growth of remote work, a graduate living in a more rural area of the country, for example, could compete directly for the same job with a graduate living in the same major city as the employer.

Automation. Working remotely will almost certainly lead to more automation of the audit process, either through robotic process automation or artificial intelligence. This is an important fact for accounting educators to consider when designing their courses.

Students will not necessarily need to know how to program apps, but they will need to be conversant with them and able to explain how the applications can be used to improve a business. Bringing real-world examples and applications of this automation (like those mentioned below) into the classroom is a great way to kick-start this conversation.

Ways to integrate these topics into your classroom

Here are some specific methods and tactics that educators can use to incorporate the remote work trend into courses across the business curriculum:

Discussion posts and online conversation. Discussion posts are a tried-and-true method to foster online engagement. One tip I have used to spark more engaging conversation is to enable students to upload their initial thoughts or responses via an audiovisual platform, such as Kaltura, Slido, or Adobe Connect. Instructors might be able to start off the discussion with text entries within their institution’s learning management system and let the students continue the conversation by posting or referencing videos that relate to the topic. Students are increasingly accustomed to consuming this kind of content, and it is certainly more engaging than just flat text.

Some discussion topics around the remote work trend could include (1) how to interview effectively in a remote-only environment, (2) how to engage with your manager in a remote work environment, and (3) methods employees can use to stay up to date with technical changes without the benefit of in-person instruction.

Faculty can also use striking facts to spark conversation. Pieces of data that could start a discussion of cybersecurity, for instance, might include information related to the average number of devices per home, the number of people per streaming or other web-based account in households, or the number of cellphones or tablets that are lost or stolen annually. Statista and Pew Research are great resources to assist with gathering this information.

Remote presentations. Another topic and technique that I have used is to have students practice presenting in a remote manner. Considering that, for the time being, at least some classes, interviews, and jobs will be operating in a remote-first or remote-only environment, students should be able to communicate and articulate all kinds of ideas and concepts without the benefit of being face-to-face with colleagues or clients.

Presentations of this kind can either take the form of traditional presentations followed by Q&A sessions, or classroom discussion. In my experience, shorter presentations (a maximum of 30 minutes) tend to work best. Either way, students will gain hands-on experience and the opportunity to discuss, answer questions, and engage with colleagues in a virtual environment.

Leverage external resources. There is no reason any instructor should feel they are trying to weave remote work content into courses all alone. Below are some surveys and articles that might provide food for thought and basis for conversation and classroom engagement:

Though the long-lasting effects of COVID-19 are impossible to predict, several definitive topical and workplace shifts do seem to be fully underway. Working remotely is certainly one of them. Learning about this new area can be challenging for sure, but it’s also an opportunity for proactive and engaged educators and institutions.

Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA, DBA, is an assistant professor at Lehman College in New York City. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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