Boomer’s Blueprint: 10 tips for working from home

A crisis is often an accelerator, and businesses, especially CPA firms, are learning that people can be productive working from home. Unfortunately, most accounting firms were not ready for “stay at home orders.”

In a recent survey, over 80 percent of firms said that their remote workers were performing better than anticipated. Sadly, many businesses and firms were not prepared and learned that mindsets, skill sets and toolsets are essential when it comes to a remote workforce. Just having the hardware and internet connection is not enough. The learning curve can be accelerated, and it has been for the past few weeks.

Here, I will provide 10 tips for improving the experience, as well as examples from innovative peers and businesses. Please remember that many of the firms in the Boomer Technology Circles have been utilizing video conferencing for 10 years or more. Yet most were not expecting a pandemic where the majority of the workforce was required to work remotely.

The biggest obstacle: paper! Some firms have been struggling to get paper documents into a digital format, so they are accessible from any location while remaining secure.

The biggest advantage: the cloud. Firms who are in the cloud have a significant advantage over those using on-premise solutions. Hopefully, this will prompt the core accounting vendors and lagging firms to focus on cloud-based applications rather than virtual desktops.

The next biggest advantage is employees who were already working remotely. They have the processes and systems in place, plus the required skills.

Fortunately, I have been utilizing video conferencing since 1992 and primarily working from a virtual office for over five years. The equipment back in 1992 was much larger, more expensive, and difficult to utilize. An IT person was generally needed to ensure a successful meeting. The line charges were about $150 per hour, yet it saved travel time and reduced costs. Today, most people have high-speed internet connections. Still, many have not been trained with best practices for group meetings and digital document management. Security can also be an issue with home computers.

Here are a few tips; while they are basic and focused primarily on technology, they are essential, especially if your firm is just getting started and wants to accelerate the return on investment. Remote-worker agreements, 90-day game plans and accountability reviews are also crucial in managing a remote workforce. Lastly, don’t forget about your video-conferencing attire — sweatpants are optional. Think — plan — grow!

1. Bandwidth
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The faster, the better. Many residences can now get 1 GB connections for around $70 per month. Generally, this is faster than at the office, with multiple users sharing bandwidth. Granted, there are areas where these kinds of connections aren’t possible, but do the best you can. Consider reimbursing employees with a monthly stipend.
2. Connection
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Use a hard-wired connection to maximize speed and avoid disruptions. A direct connection to your router usually is best. This is especially important when using video conferencing. As I write this article on a weekend with everyone at home, I am getting download speeds of over 900 Mbps. A wireless connection in the same room on a new MacBook Pro is just under 100 Mbps down/up. Part of the difference is due to Google’s wireless router. This can be improved with an Orbi or Netgear router. I just installed an Orbi Wi-Fi 6 router and satellite, and I am now getting over 900 Mbps down/up throughout my home with over 20 devices connected. Wow!
3. Lighting
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On video calls, eliminate lights that are directly behind you. Front lighting is best, especially if it lights up your face. There are even lights that attach to your monitor for those who want to look their best.
4. Background
Provide a pleasant background and position the camera properly. Systems like Zoom allow users to set up various virtual backgrounds. This can be entertaining as well as eliminate views of your home you don’t want to share with others.
5. Microphone
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Buy a microphone, headset or combination that provides quality audio. Apple systems tend to have quality microphones and speakers. Some older hardware doesn’t have adequate cameras or speakers. I know firms that opted out of the camera option to save costs on their laptops. Some of the least expensive, yet easy to use and affordable options are the Logitech HD 1080p USB combinations or the Blue Yeti microphone. The Blue Yeti has a great sound for podcasts but does require desk space. You can also connect headphones to keep conversations private. The Apple Airpod Pros are another great option, but all-day battery life can be an issue.
6. Camera
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Positioning is critical, and we recommend eye-level positioning. The first mistake many people make when using a laptop is to position the screen so you can view it. Often, the camera focuses on your ceiling. Place the camera so you are in the center of the screen. It’s best to have your head one to two inches from the top of the screen. TwelveSouth makes a laptop stand that will position the camera at the proper angle.
7. Mute or stay open
This is a bit controversial, as the answer sometimes depends on the surroundings in which people work. Background noise is annoying and disruptive. New users tend to forget they are on mute, and then the meeting is disrupted. It depends on the situation, and some brief training can pay dividends. The host or administrator can control participants’ audio and video from their console. We use the mute feature at Boomer Consulting.
8. Interruptions
It is best to not have participants look at their phones or try to multitask during a video conference. This can be eliminated with clear agendas and a designated meeting leader. We utilize Box Notes for agendas and capturing important notes and decisions. This allows those who were not in attendance to quickly view important information and decisions. You can also utilize the “recording” feature or even capture a transcript with otter.ai.
9. Use a desk
The IRS's Virtual Service Delivery videoconferencing technology
Avoid sitting on the couch or in an easy chair. Be in work mode and use a desk chair. Many businesses require certain equipment in their remote-worker agreements to meet OSHA requirements. Some firms provide a home office allowance. This requires a different mindset and new strategies.
10. View
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Set your video conference on “Gallery view” so you can see all participants and any documents being shared. Most meetings have two to five people, yet businesses are conducting “all hands” meetings regularly. The multiple monitor feature is also advisable. You can even break the larger meetings into breakout groups. We have been utilizing this feature for years, and it has saved considerable time and travel expenses.