Whether you or your staff work from home or anywhere away from the office, the realities of managing an increasingly mobile workforce are ever-present, as are the questions related to technology use or simply staying connected to rarely seen employees.

Like it or not, the current world of the CPA revolves less around a physical office with all the usual comforts of hardware, paper files and office mates. Moreover, most clients expect their accountants to be available to them with whatever they need to help grow their businesses, so sole practitioners and growing firms alike need to not only select the proper tools for the job, but maintain some social connection as well.

CPA Jennifer Katrulya spent several years serving clients without the need for a physical office and is known as one of the pioneers of the virtual practice. She and her cross-country staff worked from laptops and other mobile devices, storing files in the cloud and serving clients through the latest tools and applications. These days, Katrulya maintains an advisory business, but can mostly be found building an outsourced bookkeeping and payroll service for H&R Block as its small-business accounting operations director.

One of her main points of advice for remote practitioners is about having the right systems in place prior to branching out of the four walls of an office. “One critical point in terms of managing work remotely is that if you are a growing practice, you can’t exist without putting your faith in a good workflow or practice management system,” she explained. “In the remote world, you aren’t eavesdropping or walking by someone’s desk to know where they are with their work. You need something with cloud capabilities and it needs dependencies so when a person finishes a task, it automatically notifies the next person in the chain; otherwise, as a manager you have to keep making sure of who is next or what the timeline is.”

In addition, Katrulya recognizes that the social interaction that typically happens in an office environment needs to be maintained. She recommends setting up virtual or video-related meetings via WebEx or Google Hangouts. Katrulya is also a fan of Squiggle — a free, open-source LAN messenger that practitioners can leave on all day so that real-time chats can be initiated between remote staff.

“Culture is the hardest thing to replicate, so tools like these are important,” she said. “Not that you shouldn’t schedule real-world meetups like retreats and conferences, but in my experience these work well too.”

 

IT WORKS IN PRACTICE

When CPA Leasa Magnuson left a larger firm to start her own just under two years ago, she took with her “a lot” of clients and a desire to work more independently — and remotely. Realizing she worked better on her own than in a group or larger office, she started NoCo CPAs, based in Fort Collins, Colo., and quickly found herself with more work than she could handle on her own.

In response, she hired two staff and kept connected to them remotely, as she felt she was “not so good at micromanaging.” Magnuson also selected staff who preferred working remotely, as well as being seasoned tax professionals in their own right.

With one staffer in Oregon and the other just outside of her home state, Magnuson has them all access a desktop server, which contains all the necessary electronic files and programs, via virtual private network. They communicate via e-mail and instant messaging, and save e-mails to client files. They also use Excel for practice management and workflow purposes. All client documents are sent in via client portal, and she and her staff e-mail questions to clients when they need to or speak by phone.

“We do a lot electronically; some clients I have never physically met. I will do personal meetings when needed, but everything else is done electronically,” said Magnuson. “Last year was so busy I couldn’t answer the phone and clients didn’t really like that. Now I can and most questions are answered via e-mail from my assistant or other staff.”

Magnuson acknowledges that she is fairly tech-savvy, but when it came to setting up her practice for remote staff, she enlisted the help of her brother, who conducts IT consulting for a large company. “The way this all works really has little to do with technology. It all comes down to the staff: Some do well on their own, while others need more hands-on management,” said Magnuson. “I’m not sure what the magic formula is. I think you need to find people that are organized and have the drive and can do the work when they need to, as long as it’s in by deadline.”

 

NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN …

Like Magnuson, Penelope Wood, owner of Paw Paw, Mich.-based Green Dot Accounting, also realized that she worked better on her own, so she set herself up to work remotely with Richland, Mich.-based Barry Associates as their corporate tax preparer.

Distance and weather can’t keep her from her work, as she also has VPN access to the firm’s server, where she can log in securely and work as if she were in their office, which is 45 miles across the state from her.

“We are in a severe snow belt here; last year we had over 13 feet of snow and I drive a small car, so getting around is not easiest during tax season,” she said. “In December, we got set up with a remote server and we can connect. ... We have the same programs and most clients don’t know I am not there at the office.”

In terms of technology, Wood recommends GoToMyPC or LogMeIn for remote access to a desktop or server. She is also a fan of Office 365, “a good scanner,” a cloud-based client portal, and Microsoft OneNote for digital note-taking.

Larger firms like Birmingham, Ala.-based Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith started working remotely over 10 years ago. It has been a progressive move that started with simply wanting to be better connected with a sister office across the street.

Overall, the firm has one main office with over 80 staff — all of whom currently have the ability to work remotely, with nine employees working full time from outside the office in other cities.

With the availability of cloud applications, file management, and mobile products and applications, the firm did not find remote work too technically challenging. But staff management in an increasingly mobile world remains a daily struggle, admitted firm administrator David King.

“At some point in our work week we’ll have people out working from somewhere; not everyone is here at once. Really, the biggest thing to manage is the full-time remote workers and staying personally connected,” said King. “Most times it’s just trying to get them to physically come in, maybe every few months we do need to schedule personal time. We put them up in hotels, especially at busy times.”

King also noted that there are occasionally technology issues that come in to play that have to be dealt with. “Sometimes Internet speed where our staff are is not as fast as a carrier promises or what we get at the office itself,” he said. “A person working remotely has to learn a bit more about tech than they originally knew, but we work through it with our IT staff. We are a one-office firm, but it’s like we have 10 at least if you look at our at home staff.”