Fundamentals of the truly virtual firm

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Whether your firm wants to improve margins, retain a highly skilled professional or develop a new technology-focused niche, the right technology strategy and solutions can get you there. The challenge for many accounting firm leaders is how to get started the right way.

The right approach for each accounting firm requires more than choosing a tool or solution. It starts with the leadership team’s vision for operating as a truly virtual CPA firm.

Agree on your vision

A virtual CPA firm is just as much a mindset as a practice. It isn’t that simple to move from a culture where everyone is in the office and working specific hours to a culture of remote offices and agile schedules. It is possible if leaders embrace the competitive advantage for retaining great talent and increasing productivity.

Imagine a culture shift in letting people know it’s OK to work from anywhere and that you don’t measure productivity by the hours spent at a desk … only outcomes. Are you feeling anxiety or excitement at that possibility? Maybe a little of both? This conversation must happen among the leaders who will champion your firm’s virtual framework.

Maybe your firm has already gone down this path and you are embracing remote work as an option at least part of the time. This is the right mindset to start taking small steps toward the virtual CPA firm vision.

Start small

I’m still not talking about tools. The next question I like to ask is directed to your teams: How does each of your people work best? If a service team works well in collaboration part of the time and then needs quiet spaces for analysis or reporting, then their work environment and tools should support how they work best throughout the week. If your firm has several offices, then there should be options for collaboration between offices that improve communication, client service and professional satisfaction.

Often in our IT assessments, we find that firms have many tools in place that are working well, including some cloud-based applications. They may just need assistance migrating other preferred apps to the cloud. It’s not usually necessary to build a whole new system, just to enhance it.

Assess how your team works best, how they collaborate or work solo, what you’re using now and what could immediately enhance the working environment. This is how to slowly build your ideal virtual framework. I also recommend creating an IT committee to take the lead on this initiative, made up of tech-savvy and tech-curious professionals as well as any dedicated IT staff. This group will provide the best insights to work with outsourced consultants or IT solutions providers. Their recommendations will inform and support leadership team decisions.

Build the infrastructure

The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it provides the primary elements of a competitive and productive tech stack for virtual CPA firms. Each firm will be different, and leaders can pick and choose from a variety of solutions in these categories. Also, keep in mind that these tools are evolving all the time as new players come into the industry to solve common problems.

  • Hardware: We recommend large, 43-inch monitors that really offer the power of four monitors in one. Consider convertible tablets for immersive work and ease of mobile use. Smartphone selection should be determined by individual preferences and need — paired with a monthly stipend and mobile device policy. Add a great wireless headset for video-conferencing.
  • Secure connectivity: We are finding that solutions like Google Wifi are providing the best home office security, speed and coverage. You’ll also want a reliable primary and backup internet connection, which can be fiber, LTE, or DSL. Pair your connectivity solution with adequate firewall and malware protections, as well as monitoring.
  • Cloud-based software: Your software will fall into a few categories, from sales and marketing apps to operations apps, collaboration apps and finance apps. You’ll also want an email service provider and a video platform enabling you to send screen capture videos to clients. A primary goal with software is to choose solutions that easily automate repetitive or tedious tasks for you, everything from email marketing to auto-response systems and even appointment scheduling. In the relationship or collaboration area, there are also solutions for networking and business development that keep your team accountable to developing and building business relationships aside from client work.
  • Operational solutions: Once you’ve won new clients, you want to deliver great service. Part of that process may be cloud-based tax preparation and audit tools, but also platforms that range from instant messaging to custom client dashboards that keep the team and the client informed on business intelligence and action steps.

Enhance by use cases

With your initial IT infrastructure in place, your team and clients will likely guide your next move. For example, you may have an employee moving to another city or state, but you want to retain them as a remote employee. The technology you set up will build the platform for remote professional recruitment and retention.

You could also use the same mindset for seamless collaboration tools with remote affiliate or non-competing CPA firms. This may lead to growth opportunities through cross-referrals — with the client simply experiencing great service.

Having a solid infrastructure in place makes future enhancements less complicated and eases the employee onboarding process. That goes for easing a team member back to work after paternity or maternity leave, or integrating your IT infrastructure with a recent firm acquisition because individuals can start or continue working remotely if they are unable to come into the office.

Apply to client service

Ultimately, the development of your virtual CPA firm is about building firm value and keeping your team competitively positioned for growth. Don’t wait for your employees or clients to ask for new technologies. That’s a risky position to start from, but no different than when technologies like email and company websites became the norm. You still have time to get ahead of the technology wave, and do it strategically for competitive advantage.

We are moving toward a future where CPA firms will be consultancies with advisors who optimize the finances, communications, and outcomes of their clients. That’s where everybody wants to be, with an infrastructure that is scalable and resilient. There are many great technology solutions out there, but the real winners in the accounting profession will not only implement the right technology, but also make sense of it for their clients. There is no better time than now to move toward your virtual vision.

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