Remote work from a virtual office is likely to be the new normal for a while, as some experts are now predicting a total lockdown of American life that could last for three months. A lockdown would involve measures much more severe than just school closures and suggestions to work from home. It could mean total isolation and forced closure of offices, as it has in parts of Europe.
For instance, in an attempt to avoid the type of crisis that has gripped Italy, France is currently requiring people to fill out a form and submit it to the government before leaving their homes for any reason, including just taking a walk, for the next two weeks. The fine for non-compliance is $150, and 100,000 police officers are ready to enforce the measure.
Could something similar happen in the US? This is uncharted territory, but the likelihood of government stepping in to keep people from leaving their homes is strong and growing stronger by the day. San Francisco is already under a shelter-in-place order with an indefinite timeline.
Even outside the context of a total lockdown, social distancing, a practice that certainly requires working from home, could go on for quite a bit longer than a couple of weeks or even a few months. The US government’s own plan to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus says the pandemic is likely to last for 18 months. Some experts suggest that social distancing could be necessary for the majority, or possibly all, of that period of time.
The good news is that compared to consumer-facing businesses that require large gatherings of people, such as restaurants, museums or theaters, CPA firms are in a good position to weather whatever storms the coronavirus panic might bring.
However, like most businesses, CPA firms need to be prepared for a long period of remote work from virtual offices, primarily homes. Antiquated methods of working with clients and accessing files won’t suffice. Accounting firms need their remote access to be:
Reliable. CPAs need to access the applications essential to running their businesses, including tax, firm-management and workflow apps, among others. And firm owners and their employees alike need to be able to get to those apps from wherever they end up while practicing social distancing or waiting out a lockdown—probably at home but really anywhere with an internet connection.
Emailing files from one employee to another, or from firm to client, in a remote setting just courts disaster. Version control becomes a serious issue with sensitive financial information at stake, and firms lose billable time waiting for one employee to send a key document or spreadsheet to other employees or to a client. All members of a CPA firm’s staff need to be able to work in the same applications in real time with no lag, no delays and no confusion over file versions.
Robust. At present, a lot of CPA firm staff members still access data via a remote connection to an office workstation or possibly through a small server with limited capacity. That’s fine for an employee or two working occasionally from a remote location, but a full staff of employees working at home all day, every day will quickly overwhelm that setup. The result will be poor performance and long periods of downtime or unavailability.
CPA firms that are set up for piecemeal remote work today need to dramatically, and immediately, upgrade their remote-access capabilities, which they can do by adopting a hosted cloud solution easily capable of handling an entire firm’s worth of work volume. The ability to work through a pandemic panic is contingent on application performance keeping up with employees’ needs and continuing to work at the pace of business.
Secure. Scammers and bad actors aren’t practicing social distancing online. If anything, the coronavirus panic has brought forth a whole new genre of attack aimed at frightening email users into clicking on fake COVID-19 news. Email is a notoriously insecure way to share critical files, and coronavirus is only adding to the risk.
Fortunately, deploying the cloud for applications minimizes risk by moving critical files out of email and into a secure hosted network. In fact, Right Networks was recently able to identify and shut down malware attacks at two CPA firms before the intrusions had the chance to do any real damage. Information is the lifeblood of any business, and that’s especially true for accounting firms. With the coronavirus pandemic spawning new attacks, security is more paramount than ever before.
But there’s more to surviving the coronavirus scare for accounting firms than just getting their operations into the cloud. They need to counsel their customers to do the same. In many cases, CPA firms take in files from clients, modify data on their own machines using specific accounting applications, and then send files back to clients.
It’s a time-consuming and expensive process, and it’s not necessary when clients are running QuickBooks Online or QuickBooks Desktop—the latter of which is still the preferred version of the application—in the cloud.
Plus, while an accounting firm is a fairly recession-proof category of business, failure to operate in the cloud could put other businesses out of business. That will be a problem for CPA firms if their clients are the companies that go under. Advising clients to move operations to the cloud helps accountants protect revenue because in doing so, CPA firms ultimately keep their own clients afloat.
What’s more, businesses need help from their trusted advisors at accounting firms now more than ever. In an era of unprecedented confusion and fear, company owners are unsure of how long they can survive with the shutdowns that are happening and those that are to come. CPA firms that step up now and point their clients in the right direction are likely to form lasting relationships with the businesses that pay them for guidance. Those that don’t might find themselves losing clients when the pandemic panic finally ends.
The fact is that nobody knows right now how long coronavirus panic will grip the US and the world. What seems almost certain is that most employees at CPA firms won’t return to their offices for at least a couple of months and possibly for much, much longer. Moving to the cloud is a survival tactic accounting firms, and the time to move is now.
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