Moving Toward the Virtual Firm: Remote Office (Part 4 of 5)
Specific Needs of the Remote Office Environment
In this fourth installment of her five-part series, Simone Hoover details the essential software, platform, and communication devices when transitioning to a remote office environment to maximize workflow and peace of mind.
- At a minimum, each employee needs two internet connections, such as cable and DSL or a mobile hotspot (e.g., a MiFi device), with one acting as the lead connection and the other as a backup.
- Know whether each staff member has a generator in the event of a power outage. In addition, employees must have extra laptop batteries available, and the firm must have a procedure in place to remind staff to keep spare batteries charged. Be aware of geographic pros and cons depending on where the employee is located.¬† You must keep track of the time zones, and at a minimum, send all meeting invitations with the conversions set forth.¬† It really does take a while to think in those terms. While setting a meeting with different remote attendees can be more challenging, the payoff lies in the weather having far less impact on affecting attendance and infringing on productivity.¬†
- Appliances:¬† Workers should have smartphones and possibly tablets, in addition to laptops.¬† Firms can provide the equipment or provide a stipend in a bring-your-own-device structure (BYOD).¬† Naturally, a receipt for equipment issued should be part of the personnel file and inspection part of the exit process.¬† Caution: ¬†BYOD presents additional challenges in terms of security and the retention of data when an employee/contractor ceases to work with your firm. ¬†Be clear about expectations and consider building in some backup systems.¬†
- Managing Calls:¬† Have a plan for handling incoming phone calls, whether it‚Äôs a phone answering service or a virtual phone system.¬†¬† Onebox.com, Alltel.com, and new unified messaging platforms will give you a common switchboard, collect messages, route them in audio and/or text form to one or more individuals, follow you to the device of choice, and more.¬† We have a telephone tree that allows coverage for all incoming communication by at least two people and all message delivery can be modified at a central website in a few minutes. ¬†So, whether the staff has changed or just goes on holiday, the supervisor can immediately redirect the phone calls. In some cases, the assigned phone numbers are transportable should you change providers.¬†¬† This service is now available from most major carriers such as Verizon, ATT, etc.¬†
- Cloud-based applications: ¬†These are optimal, but not essential for a remote office. Cloud-based accounting systems include QuickBooks, Xero, and Intacct.¬† Even MS Office is now available by subscription or can be hosted on a cloud server, as can most other software.¬† While you may choose this option, it is also possible to host a traditional application on a cloud then migrate to the cloud version as time/budget permits.¬† The difference is that cloud-based software is designed to share data among applications and is usually kept up to date on an ongoing basis.¬† No more downloading loading upgrades, which must be coordinated with the cloud provider.
- Browser versions:¬† Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google, and Safari are resident on our computers these days.¬† While moving to the cloud will save you on hardware purchases, it pays to know the nuances of this critical interface and keep up with enhancements. I am still running Windows XP on some devices.¬† This puts limits on the Internet Explorer upgrades possible which in turn impacts the user experience on some websites.¬† No matter.¬† With a quick browser switch to Mozilla Firefox, and I can access all the current features of these websites without having to abandon my computer geek‚Äôs favorite operating system.¬†
- Scanners:¬† A first step should be to implement a document scanner policy, either a network-based scanner (such as a Fujitsu fi-6670 for $5,599.99) capable of scanning color and 14-column ledger paper for all to share, or personal scanners (such as the $304 Epson Workforce Pro GT-S50, or Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500 $420, which I use) for each employee‚Äôs desk.¬† If you are using a multi-function machine, be sure it adapts the scan quality to meet software requirements or the data may not import correctly.¬† Most mid-range multi-functions now allow for this.¬†¬† Some key features to look for are two-side, multi-page scanning, a fast automatic sheet feeder (at least 20 pages per minute), scanning to the cloud and automatic paper size detection, color detection, and cropping. You might also consider implementing a business card scanner (such as a Corex CardScan Executive for $225).¬† You can also find an app for intake of business cards such as Cardmuncher (free)¬† which uses the smartphone to photograph the card, upload to your contact list in Outlook and add to your Linked In contacts, if you desire.¬†
- Centralized data storage:¬† To share scanned documents throughout your organization, you should either implement file server data storage or a cloud-based data storage solution (such as Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Drive, Amazon EC2, Dropbox, or SugarSync),which all offer at least 1 GB of free data storage with additional space available for a monthly fee. Both Dropbox and YouSendIt have free or limited use and fully functional versions for reasonable charges of $24.99/mo. or less.¬† Just set up all authorized personnel as users, grant them the proper share and security permissions, and set scanners to automatically save files to your shared data location. For added protection, files containing client data should be password-protected using 128-bit encryption prior to uploading to a cloud-based drive.
- Indexed search tools:¬† Implement an indexed searching tool (such as Fast Find included in Windows Vista, 7, and 8). Indexed tools index every word in each data file, including the file name and associated keywords, so users can locate files quickly. Indexed search tools use the same type of technology employed by Bing and Google to return nearly instant search results. Similar search tools include Copernic Desktop Search ($49.95), dtSearch Desktop ($199), Voidtools Everything (free), and X1 Professional Client ($49.95).
- Shredders:¬† It is also a good idea to have a few shredders so paper documents can be properly discarded after scanning, or establish a collection box for centralized or professional shredding. We hire a concierge service to come once a year and invite clients to bring their shredding to the location, as well.¬†
- Paperless fax:¬† Implement an online fax solution that enables you to send and receive faxes via email. You can usually implement this type of faxing capability directly from your cloud storage solution for no additional charge (initially), or subscribe to specific online faxing solutions such as PATLive ($9.95 per month), MyFax ($10 per month), RapidFAX ($9.95 per month), or RingCentral ($19.99 per month). Some virtual phone systems include paperless fax now including ‚ÄúOnebox‚ÄĚ.¬†
- eSignatures:¬† Secure digital signature products such as HelloSign (free) enable you to sign electronic documents with legally binding signatures so you can execute paperless contracts without having to print and physically send paper documents back and forth. Similar products include DocuSign (starting at $15 per month) and YouSendIt, now called hightail¬†(free).
- Paperless reports:¬† No matter which software you use, you can usually print the system‚Äôs reports to Excel, PDF, or XPS file formats and send them electronically.¬† In most cases, you can apply password protection before sending. This method saves paper and toner, and recipients can easily maintain and archive the reports.¬†
- Digitize client/customer files:¬† You can hire a company specializing in paperless conversions to use high-powered scanning equipment to convert historical paper-based client files to electronic data files, then eliminate your filing cabinets and file rooms.¬† You can also make it a gradual transition as you handle individual files or client assignments.¬†¬† A word of advice; if your paper file system is not organized, take time to design the structure and the file reference system in advance and set up and maintain an indexing system.¬†¬† When everything is digital, viewed on monitors and you can find it, you‚Äôll be glad you spent the time to set up the logic. ¬†Many scanners now come with software to organize or recommend a compatible product.
- Electronic notebooks:¬† Encourage employees to use electronic notebooks such as Microsoft OneNote (free with Windows Live account) or Evernote (free) to capture their notes electronically, instead of on paper. These tools enable users to capture text, notes, hyperlinks, and images from computers, tablets, or smartphones.¬† Thereafter, the information can be accessed from all of a user‚Äôs computers or devices. With proper permissions, colleagues can be granted access to selected notes, links, and images, as well.
- Electronic PIM:¬† Use an electronic personal information manager (PIM) to manage your calendar, contacts, and to-do lists, such as those in Outlook. ¬†Your data can be synced to all of your computers or devices for easy access, and if desired, you can share portions of your calendar with colleagues or your administrative assistant.
- Paperless expense reporting:¬† Online expense reporting solutions such as Expensify (free) and Concur expense reporting ($8 per month) enable your employees to fill out expense reports online, including from their smartphones. Thereafter, electronic expense reports containing attached, scanned or photographed images of supporting receipts can be submitted electronically. Expensify can even recognize and convert your scanned receipts and enter the data details for you. This approach eliminates paper and re-keying, improves accuracy, saves time, and enables faster workflow and reimbursement approvals.¬† Shoeboxed provides the same service with plans ranging from $9.95 to $49.95/mo.¬† Many accounting software vendors will recommend a compatible program or third party application.¬† This is a treasure that you‚Äôll enjoy if your workforce is remote, or you travel.¬†¬†
- Paperless travel management:¬† Travel management services such as TripIt (free) enable you to plan and capture the specific details of business trips, which are then organized into chronological itineraries and synced to your smartphone for easy access. After the trip, you can save electronic copies of your itineraries, including notes, photos, and documented events, for archival and IRS reporting purposes.
Simone Velasquez Hoover, CPA/CVA is President of Simone Velasquez Hoover, PA.¬† The firm provides comprehensive financial, development and management support to nonprofit, membership organizations and high net worth individuals.¬† In addition, the firm provides forensic accounting, litigation support and dispute resolution services to individuals, families and business clients.¬† Ms. Hoover served as Executive Director, NACVA State Chapter Foundation Chapter President from 2005 through March 2013. ¬†Currently, she is also Executive Director of Operation Homefront ‚Äď Florida, a 501(c)(3) that serves the families of deployed and wounded service members throughout the state with emergency financial and other support. Simone can be reached at hoovercocpa.com.