As accounting professionals become more mobile, they are in turn discovering devices and technologies that enable them to move more of their work out of the office and discover new, more flexible ways of serving their clients.

For the most part, accountants who have discovered the benefits of being what some perceive as a "virtual" CPA are doing so piecemeal, by running some aspects of client service or practice management via hosted or purely cloud-based means. Many of the firms that have taken such steps have started by going paperless and utilizing all the tools that come with doing so.

Three years ago, CPA Aaron Dawson left large regional firm Clark Nuber and purchased a smaller practice in Vancouver, Wash. He took his experience in going paperless to what is now Opsahl, Dawson & Co., but that was only the beginning. The firm is on a path towards operating more virtually through its use of hosted and cloud-based applications - a move Dawson said was not entirely well received by some of his original staff.

"This was already an established firm that I bought into, but some [staff] didn't see things the way I did and they're not here anymore. We turned over half of the professional staff since I came in," said Dawson. "One big thing about running a virtual office is you have to have trust with your employees, and I think we have that now."

The firm currently has 23 employees, many of whom are working more outside the office, including Dawson, who said he has one young child and twins due in April. Outside of employee trust, the key, he says, to running an efficient office from home is having the right technical systems and tight procedures in place.

 

PUTTING A PLAN IN PLACE

Specifically, Dawson's firm uses Right Networks to host QuickBooks for accounting work, CCH Client Portal for all client documents, CCH ProSystem fx Scan for client 1040s, and ProSystem fx Engagement, which he claims has helped save the firm nearly 500 hours over the past year. In addition, the firm - which has two offices - is investing in a digitalized phone system where each person can receive faxes and voicemails to their e-mail inbox, no matter which office a call or fax comes to.

Conversely, while Dawson's firm maintains two offices, others are making moves to do away with having to operate between the proverbial four walls altogether.

Technically based in Greenville, S.C., Blumer & Associates currently serves 300 clients around the country utilizing cloud and hosted applications. The four-year-old firm is entirely paperless, has nearly all of its employees working remotely, and is preparing to close its physical office by the end of 2012.

The path has been challenging, involving selective employment of staff and even "firing" some of the firm's clients, according to managing partner Jason Blumer. Now, he says, his firm is ready for the next step in virtual accountancy.

"When I took over my father's practice four years ago, I saw a strategy where we could be 100 percent cloud and virtual, but the products weren't entirely there and even now the tax products are just getting there. At the time, I said if I can do this, the world can be my marketplace," said Blumer. "I sat down with my team and said if we can learn to live digitally, I think we can be competitive in ways we can't even imagine. It has taken four years of planning. It wasn't an overnight thing."

Blumer also stressed that he's selective about his client base and the kind of work his firm conducts, which, in addition to the tools he employs, helps the firm to exist. The firm primarily works with "creative and entrepreneurial companies," acting as a virtual back office and business consultant.

Blumer's firm no longer accepts any paper documents from clients, and instead utilizes scanners and SmartVault to store documents. All accounting work is conducted using QuickBooks Online, hosted QuickBooks from Right Networks, and cloud-based accounting and bookkeeping service Xero. Tax work is performed using Intuit ProSeries Tax hosted by Right Networks, while all firm workflow is tracked using cloud-based XCM. In addition, client payroll work is done through Intuit Online Payroll, while Bill.com is used for all firm and client invoicing.

 

REAPING THE BENEFITS

The trend of running more of a firm's operations virtually has been a boon to the mobile and SaaS-based product lines at the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters, according to vice president of strategic marketing Scott Fleszar. He claims that the demand for more flexibility in how firms work is coming mainly from younger practitioners, and from firms' need for employee retention.

"Retaining good staff is so important for practitioners, so when they have someone who needs to move away or work from elsewhere, especially proven staff, [cloud and hosted products] eliminate the need for them to be in the office full time and you can keep them," said Fleszar. "These days, instead of clients coming to your office, they can think about meeting virtually or at a location of their choosing. The role of the office and having clients coming in will change. There are practitioners that are further embedding themselves into the businesses and high-net-worth individuals they serve to be more of an advisor without the in-office meeting."

Secure hosting companies such as Right Networks and Xcentric are also seeing a notable rise in their business. Right Networks, for one, saw twice as many new users in 2011 than the year before, and in January reported more new users than in all of the first quarter of 2011, according to founding partner and chief technology officer Phil Romine.

"Technology is all transitional, and more people than ever want to get in the cloud now, but not everything [that CPA firms] need is in a pure Web application yet," said Romine. "The way we see the world now, there are Web apps, as opposed to a desktop app that is running on a hosted server. An increasing number of the pieces of that suite are the Web apps you can run from the browser, but not all of them, so getting in the cloud can be hard to do unless you have a hosted desktop."

Xcentric, which attributes the majority of its business to CPA firms, is seeing more customers working from outside a firm's home state, again allowing the employee to remain with the firm and work from where they need to. The company currently supports 1,800 seats at 75 firms around the country.

"We're booked out for at least six months for cloud implementation work," explained Xcentric's director of consulting services, Roman Kepczyk. "We are building virtual environments, tax and audit workflow for them and they need to be as efficient as they are in the office. One of the keys to a virtual office is having the data in a central location; from a security perspective firms should be going this route. If you have a tax reviewer at home and you have Citrix set up right, you can have two to three monitors at home and do all you need to do. The key is getting a virtual environment set up properly - the platform won't matter."

 

A LIFESTYLE CHOICE

Having flexible time is among the key factors fueling the need for a virtual office, one that is affecting more firms as well as individual CPAs who want to remain in the profession, but serve clients on their own time. Many of those who have made this lifestyle choice recognize the discipline needed to work outside of an office environment, but find it preferable to commuting and reporting to an office every day.

CPA Anita Kiehl-Quarles had worked at Deloitte for five years as an auditor, mainly for "growth-oriented, mid-market companies," but in June 2010, she left because she needed more flexibility in raising two young children while still supporting her family. She started Aqua Consulting Group from her then-home in Houston, which focused on business process outsourcing work and consulting for the same type of clients she served at Deloitte.

Kiehl-Quarles recently moved to North Carolina to help care for an ailing family member, but still maintains a small, subleased office in Houston, as well as a staff of five - all of whom work virtually. All but two of her dozen clients are outside of Houston as well. Her firm is able to do all of its work utilizing QuickBooks Online or a hosted version, ShareFile for secure file transfer and data storage, GoToMeeting for conference calls, CCH's online audit and accounting database Accounting Research Manager, smartphones and iPads, and Sage Accpac via remote desktop for accounting work.

"It's really amazing how you can do a lot with relatively little in terms of expense. My clients don't care where I am, as long as the work gets done efficiently and effectively and they get the responsiveness they need," said Kiehl-Quarles. "It's all about getting the work done; that's how I've been able to build the practice. I still talk to those who work in traditional firms and are overworked. I will say one pitfall of the virtual environment is managing your time, but you can tell quickly if things aren't going to be done."

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