The Mobile Office

More CPA firms are adopting wireless technologies and mobile devices to work from anywhere.

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Whether he is on the beach or coaching a baseball game, James Bourke will always answer a client's phone call or email within 30 minutes.
"I can get the firm's bills done on a weekend morning or, if an issue pops up, I can solve it remotely from home, another location, or a client site," says Bourke, director of MIS at WithumSmith+Brown.

Bourke answers client emails from the road via his Treo 600 handheld and all phone calls are answered using a Nortel telephone system, which forwards calls to cell phones and home phones when employees are not in the office. "This allows me to be extremely responsive to the needs of our clients," adds Bourke.

WSB has more than 300 employees in eight offices in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Partner Insights

Bringing It to the Clients

Robinson Grimes isn't just using wireless systems to run its own business. It is offering its technology knowledge to help clients conduct their operations.

One client, a principal owner of a business, took a year off to go sailing.

"He wanted to stay in touch with his business via email through a local wireless network," says Craig Rhinehart, the director of IT services for the Columbus, Ga.-based firm. "We made sure the local wireless network on the boat connects to the boat's satellite Internet access device." To minimize bandwidth usage, the client accesses email via Outlook Web Access.

Robinson Grimes has provided wireless services to 12 clients and the engagements are done on a time and material basis. A simple wireless implementation without VPN connectivity to the office may require $250 in equipment and $500 in services. To add connectivity to the office would increase the overall cost between $1,000 and $1,500.

The firm uses various off-the-shelf wireless access points and routers to help service clients in their homes. Most recently, it used products from Buffalo Technologies, but sometimes the client selects the equipment. The firm typically uses a SonicWall firewall/Virtual Private Network device that connects to a similar device in their clients' business.

"The firewall device [at the residence] provides firewall protection for all the computers in the house, and also provides secure Internet connectivity to the business network. Behind the firewall, we install access points," says Rhinehart.

For security, the firm utilizes the available security mechanisms of the products being used, including service set identifiers, media access control, address filtering, static Internet Protocol addresses, and high encryption.

"Being wireless allows us to share staff between offices. For example, if we need staff in our Princeton office, and the New Brunswick office happens to be over-staffed, they can easily send staff to Princeton, and they can hook right into the system," says Bourke, who is based in the firm's Red Bank, N.J., office.

And when the weather starts to get warm, Bourke can sit on his porch with his laptop and access the network through a Virtual Private Network.

Bourke has always jumped at adopting new technologies, and it shows with the firm's use of mobile and wireless technologies. "Over the last five years, we've been investing dollars in technology, and we're reaping the rewards," adds Bourke.

Between home offices, client sites, hotels, and airports, there is no shortage of places where CPA firms want to get work done and collaborate with colleagues.

Many accountants are working outside the traditional office. Having access to teammates and important company documents is easier and more cost effective than ever, and firms are using a combination of Wi-Fi, PDAs, portable computers, and paperless systems to respond more quickly to clients, making work easier for them.

"It's clear that CPAs are becoming more mobile, and the general use and acceptance of wireless technologies is increasing," says Randy Johnston, vice president of K2 Enterprises, which provides consulting services to accounting firms.

Wide Access
Columbus, Ga.-based Robinson Grimes initially tested wireless networking in its office in 2002, and has been using it ever since.

"Our entire building, including the conference rooms and courtyard, are covered by using six access points," says Craig Rhinehart, the firm's director of IT services. In addition, the firm began wireless networking in the field in 2003 on a limited basis, and then moved to use it on a regular basis last year. The firm also uses the Wi-Fi 802.11g standard because "it's inexpensive."

"Technology is a cost we can't afford to avoid, and email has clients trained to get a faster response," says Scott Voynich, partner and former chairman of the American Institute of CPAs. In fact, Voynich began using wireless technology heavily to stay in touch with his firm while he was traveling extensively during his AICPA term, which began in October 2003.

The 55-person firm issues its staff Dell and IBM laptops with built-in network cards. "When more than one auditor is performing work in a client's office, having their computers interconnected is beneficial because they can share updated workpaper information through the use of CCH's ProSystem fx Engagement's synchronization features," says Voynich.

Better Safe Than Sorry

Fears about the lack of security of wireless technologies and other mobile technologies may deter some organizations from implementing them. But experts say all it takes is a little patience and planning to keep information safe.

"Security is a concern among some firms, but it's more hype than anything. Encryption is easy to turn on, and it's easy to teach people to lock down," says Roman Kepczyk, president of InfoTech Partners, a Tempe, Ariz.-based consulting firm.

In fact, networks in the office and in the field represent no greater a threat than cable installations. "When we connect outside of our organization there is no guarantee that we're 100 percent secure, but we can limit the risk. Firms need to choose a standard and then enable the security features available," says Doug Brady, CIO of the Mich.-based firm Plante Moran.

The firm monitors the number of unauthorized attempts to access the network, and also monitors rogue access points. "We're convinced if we actively track security, the risk is manageable," adds Brady.

Similarly, at WithumSmith+Brown, shareholders who have wireless access at home are provided with lock-down services from the firm's internal IT team.

Meanwhile, cellphones are also causing concern. According to Chicago-based U.S. Cellular's small business unit, which specializes in cellular etiquette and wireless road rules, firms need to think first before airing business matters over a cell phone while in airports or riding a train.

Although conducting business in public isn't always avoidable, firms should encourage employees to practice discretion when it's necessary. For instance, conversations including stock information, client names, prospects, budgets, and sales strategies should be off limits outside the office, suggests U.S. Cellular. Cellphone users could use the cell phone's text messaging function, or communicate via cellphone-based email.

The wireless connection also eliminates the need to string network cables in the workroom, and plugging network hubs or switches into AC power.

"By using wireless networking, our auditors can spread out a little more than when using wired networking. They aren't limited by the length of network cables," adds Voynich.
WSB's implementation rests on a combination of wireless technologies, portable computers, hand-held devices, and an ASP platform that helps them respond to clients' needs faster as well as creating a better work/life balance for employees.

Each staff member has a dockable Dell Notebook, which is set-up for wireless access, while 30 managers also use hand-held devices. The majority of the laptops have built-in wireless cards, but some older laptops have wireless PC cards that slide into the PCMCIA port.

"With the Treos, we feel we get a bigger bang for our buck. Our managers are keeping in touch with instant email in the field and they're able to respond quicker. In fact, there is no reason not to respond to clients or other staff members," says Bourke.

The firm also uses Verizon's Synch Express feature for its "push" email feature. Users can back up contacts and calendars to their own Web portals, which can then be easily accessed via any Web browser.

"So now, an administrative assistant can make changes to my calendar and the next time I get a 'push' my calendar on my Smartphone is updated and synched," says Bourke.

It's no surprise that WSB is an early adopter of wireless technologies; it was one of the first firms to use RIA's Web-based tax software GoSystem RS. The firm is in the process of implementing Immediatech's GoFileRoom, a Web-based document management system, in all eight offices. It expects to complete the implementations by next year. The move to paperless has resulted in the firm purchasing each staff person a scanner, while installing a production scanner for heavy-duty work. It also invested in dual monitors. Bourke says, "Staff can now have Outlook open on one screen and be working on a tax return on the second screen. It makes multi-tasking and answering clients more efficient."

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