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The Tech Take: After coronavirus, maybe we’ll all work from home

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This is the new reality: We are all remote now. It’s hard to see an end date, but it’s even harder to imagine what will happen when all 50 states get the all-clear from our leaders. Will everything go back to normal, just like that?

The coronavirus pandemic has already had a domino effect, shutting entire industries down — restaurants, concert venues — which has already led to the start of an economic recession (during an election year no less). The crisis has also propped other industries up, like video conferencing and medical devices. The last time the U.S. went through a recession, cloud computing experienced a boom. In many cases, companies couldn’t afford expensive on-premise platforms anymore, and started exploring more affordable subscriptions to software-as-a-service solutions. As a consequence, the development of cloud applications was super-accelerated and became a mainstay approximately a decade earlier than predicted. It’s starting to look like 2020 will produce a boom for collaboration tools.

It’s reasonable to assume that this recession will surprise the accounting profession with new technology capabilities we thought were years away. The obvious candidates are providers of solutions that enable telework, like secure video conferencing, chat and other collaboration tools, as well as cybersecurity tools that can provide security to individual workers working at home on multiple devices, unconnected to their office networks.

Cybersecurity industry sees an uptick in business

CEO of cybersecurity provider Clario Alun Baker said that he’s seen an approximate 35 percent increase in business during the month of March (though based in the U.K., the U.S. is Clario’s biggest market). His company provides security services directly to consumers, as opposed to businesses. Clario also partners with NordVPN to provide their users a virtual private network by which to securely access the Internet without compromising their private data stored on their home device. NordVPN has seen a 165 percent uptick in business this March, according to Baker.

“Yesterday, most sensitive work was behind a corporate firewall,” Baker said. “Even then, companies and firms directed staff on how to perform securely in the workplace. But when you leave the workplace, you’re now a consumer. Anything you do exposes yourself to risk.”

While firms are doing everything they can to prepare their staff to work remotely for the foreseeable future, there’s no way to completely control the way staff will work while at home trying to stay safe and healthy, manage their kids who are home from school, as well as manage the household tasks that can distract them during the day. This is why they should be viewed as consumers, not just employees who are still working in a secure office environment — and this is why the concept of “working from home” will be revolutionized during this time of crisis.

Speaking of kids, because most children are home from school and trying to continue their lessons remotely, many staff working at home are also seeing their children accessing multiple different devices on the home network. No matter how well firms manage their staff, they can’t also manage their staff’s spouses and children as well, who may not be as vigilant when browsing the internet. Baker himself has had to rebuild multiple laptops while raising his daughters when they downloaded some extension or app that infected their computer with a virus.

“When you look at isolation, talk about kids in particular being basically super spreaders — they don’t wash their hands, they put their fingers everywhere, but in the same way, they’re super spreaders of risk at home,” Baker said. “You’re now in a confined space with kids on the internet, with no idea what they’re downloading. Children can do damage to the home network and digital environment. We now share our office space with young people.”

Working from home — will it last?

Late last year, a Gallup survey showed that 43 percent of Americans worked from home occasionally, up from 39 percent in 2012. U.S. Census data from 2017 suggested that 5.2 percent of Americans worked from home exclusively. The pandemic hasn’t meant that now 100 percent of Americans are working from home — indeed part of the national problem is that many Americans don’t have the network or device capabilities to do so. But among accountants, a very high percentage, which of course varies by state, are now working remotely, as securely as they can, enabled and aided by tech companies and their firm’s IT departments.

While many firms were well-prepared for this new reality, such as Fourlane which is completely virtual on a normal day, or Cirrus Payroll, both of which Accounting Today has profiled in the past, others are not as prepared. Some firms are finding, for instance, that they don’t have enough software licenses to enable multiple staff to now access their software from multiple locations; or, they don’t have the security in place for accountants to handle sensitive documents from home; or they don’t have the capability to receive direct phone calls that come into the office. But as certain as coronavirus is contagious, firms are finding themselves with no choice but to let their employees work from home (if they can’t, they nonetheless cannot come into the office), and adapt on a daily basis.

Tech providers are doing what they can. Many are offering special deals and free services, opening up their educational resources, and more, to help accountants handle this new reality. If these companies continue to perform well during this crisis, with limited outages and security events (none have been reported so far) it will prove to firm partners that indeed their staff can work remotely, given the right security parameters.

Video conferencing platforms like Zoom are experiencing a meteoric rise in traffic, but are also at the same time facing scrutiny around their security, and whether they can withstand this new uptick in useage. If such platform providers take this seriously, and upgrade and better their security during this time, it will serve as proof positive that it is possible to keep up the social and collaborative aspects of work despite not being in the same physical office, even beyond the pandemic.

But of course, all this remains to be seen. For now, we all continue to do what we can, and from my perspective, the accounting profession, as well as the tech companies that support it, is stepping up to the plate to meet the continued needs of their clients during this uncertain and surreal time.

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