Auditors have long been the road warriors of the accounting profession, but, with the increase in mobile technologies and collaboration tools, we are seeing remote work being done by virtually every member of the firm, which is having an impact on the firm’s overall technology strategy. To take advantage of the firmwide mobility trend, firm leadership needs to re-evaluate its long-standing positions on everything from IT infrastructure and equipment preferences to workflow and the respective policy changes. In this article, we identify considerations to break the firm away from the status quo and take advantage of remote work capabilities that are providing leading firms a competitive advantage.
The adoption of viable remote access technologies and the transition of more and more applications to cloud providers has allowed for all firm applications to be accessed remotely. This technological transition comes with the de facto benefit of allowing remote access not only for auditors but for ALL firm members whose applications are now mobile-capable. There is a continuous trend of firms transitioning a significant portion (if not all) of the traditional internal network infrastructure to cloud-based accounting application providers, which in effect is reducing internal technical requirements for staffing, as well as network servers and storage. Firms still maintaining internal networks need to re-evaluate their IT strategy to identify the benefits of working virtually, and evaluate which technologies and vendors are the most viable, secure, and cost-effective, and the impact on IT staffing and capital expenditures. This trend is increasing the budget amounts for the application costs in the cloud while simultaneously reducing traditional IT capital budgets and staffing/training allocations, with many firms not taking into account the latter.
Firms traditionally purchased laptops for auditors and desktops for tax, accounting, and administrative staff because of a historically significant difference in pricing and estimated life. Today, there is a trend toward firms purchasing laptops for more and more users not only for mobility but for improved collaboration and as a hedge against environmental disasters. The transition to laptops and cloud/mobile applications has made the capital cost and expected equipment life differential inconsequential compared to the benefits of being able to work remotely. The latest CPA Firm Management Association (CPAFMA) technology survey found that the most common laptop formats (selected by 58% of firms) were those with 15.6” displays and a full 101 keyboard (including a 10-key number pad), followed by 23% selecting 17” models which also have the full keyboard. Firms still buying traditional 14” laptops should consider models with larger displays, as the size and weight of these units have come down significantly while providing the expanded screen real estate that tax and client services personnel need. While most auditors continue to utilize the 15.6” format, there is a growing trend toward senior management desiring even more mobility and transitioning to smaller formats such as Ultrabooks, Microsoft Surface computers, and 2-in-1 devices that have the functionality of both a laptop and a tablet (reducing the demand for iPads/tablets that many firms still purchase for senior management out of tradition).
Other traditional equipment decisions to be re-evaluated as firms expand their remote footprint are the integration of mobile monitors, Internet hot spots, and scanner/multi-function units. While most firms have recognized the benefits and standardized on multiple monitors within the office, they often overlook adding a secondary display for mobile users. 14” and 15” mobile displays from ASUS, HP, and Lenovo are under $250 and allow remote users to work as effectively from a client office or home as in the firm’s office. Remote Internet connectivity provided by clients is often the source of complaints among mobile staff, and using public WiFi (coffee shops, hotels, airports, etc.) comes with serious security concerns. The long-term solution that all firms should be re-evaluating is the use of mobile hotspots through employees’ mobile phones or as stand-alone hot spot devices (MiFi) that connect through the 4G cellular system. Firms should re-evaluate their policies for digital cellular plan payment/stipends, as this will become the most manageable and secure Internet access method in the near term, particularly as the new 5G systems roll out across the country. The CPAFMA survey also found that more than half of firms were still carrying scanners/multi-function devices into the field; but, when auditors were asked how often they used them, the most common response was “seldom” and many never even took them out of their trunks. With more firms mandating the use of portals/secure email solutions and asking clients to provide digital files, firms should re-evaluate the need for carrying printers and scanners into the field and instead invest that portion of the equipment budget in educating clients on working digitally rather than on replacement scanners.
We have found that one of the hallmarks of efficient audit production is formalizing the process to receive all client source documents digitally before the start of the engagement. One of the most cited arguments against remote work is the inability to communicate directly with other team members who are not available when they are away from the office. Lack of direct access hinders workflow by making personnel wait until a necessary team member comes back into the office. Today’s collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Slack, provide remote personnel the ability to not only message, talk with, and see multiple firm personnel, but to share and edit documents simultaneously through the computer display. Firm leadership should be aware of the benefits and time savings of being able to provide direction and assistance to firm personnel when it is needed and be educated on how remote collaboration tools make this possible. Traditional desktop computers did not come with video cameras and speakers attached, and while many firms added them for key users, they were seldom standardized within the entire firm, which significantly hindered adoption of collaborative tools. Firm owners need to realize that real-time collaboration is possible and that the benefits in managing firm workflow far outweigh the costs of implementing the hardware and educating users on working effectively with these tools.
IT governance is often an overlooked component of a firm’s technology strategy. While auditors have evolved with mobile technology adoption and set guidelines and policies as they worked remotely, other firm users are seldom aware of these policies and will need to be educated on them before they begin to work remotely. Firm owners will need to review their written policies from a larger, firmwide perspective and ensure that they include the different requirements for tax, client services, and administrative personnel. Considerations such as personal equipment usage, system maintenance, client confidentiality, communications, and availability will need to be addressed when updating policies. Mobile/remote work capabilities provide firms with distinct competitive capabilities, but many firms have not taken the time to adjust their technology strategy to incorporate the changes required in their firms. Firm leadership should network with peers and attend upcoming industry conferences to identify the opportunities that remote workers provide and to understand the impact on their overall information technology strategy.
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