An accountant's guide to remote work

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by Kevin Salter

Remote working will mean different things to different people. “Remote” can mean accessing data from practically anywhere in the world. It could also be simply taking data from the main office systems onto a laptop and working on it at another office or at the client's premises. “Working” could be simply dealing with emails, writing notes or reports or actually working on or looking at client data held in the office whilst out on site. One person's idea of work is likely to be quite different from another person's.

This short article cannot cover all aspects of remote working - instead it looks at the topic from the perspective of a typical accountant.

The first thing you need is an internet connection. Internet access points are available in hotels, train stations, cafes and on other "hot spots". These will vary in cost, and are occasionally free. I use a 3G data card plugged into the laptop, which gives me access almost anywhere.

Sending text messages via the telephone always seems to take me far too long. Having three or four letters on one key causes problems and predictive text is not something I get on with. So the ability to use my laptop keyboard and make use of the text messaging facility provided with the 3G software is a real plus.

Staying in touch with the office while away is a priority. So using a VPN (virtual private network) enables me to connect to my desktop PC. I use realvnc - a downloadable free system. Once connected, I can see the office PC as if I were sat in front of it and can control it from my remote location. I can deal with e-mails, view all the documents in my electronic document management system, accounts, tax data...anything at all.

Another really useful facility of remote working is providing assistance to clients. By linking directly to their PC, I can view their screen and control their PC from my desktop. This can avoid costly and time consuming trips. Again there is a wide choice of software available - my current favorite is Crossloop. This is only a small file to download and can be configured within minutes. A recent example demonstrates how useful it can be. I got a call from a client who was having problems with his accounting software and was unable to restore his backup. Within minutes we had connected via the internet and I was able to load the accounts software and restore the backup for him.

Instant messaging can be useful especially for communication within the office and once more there are many programs available that provide this feature. Skype has instant messaging as well as voice over internet for phone conversations. There are also many other add-ons for Skype - two of my favorites are the ability to use Skype over my mobile telephone and to send text messages to Skype users.

There is a voicemail facility to record messages when out of the office, or the ability to forward incoming telephone calls direct to a mobile phone or other landline. It also allows the transfer of files.

Whilst out of the office at a client's premises, our document management software allows me to “export” all the records relating to that client and view them on a version on my laptop. So there is no longer a need to carry bulky paper files around - and the data is still safely held on the office server. Our accounts software - Digita AccountsPro - also has the ability to export a client (Go mobile in the menu terminology) from the main server database to a laptop version and process it out of the office. It is then re-imported on return to the office.

The benefits of accessing client data and sharing it remotely remotely has driven the increasing popularity of web-hosted accounting packages such as AccountsIQ, Liberty Accounts, Twinfield, Winweb and, more recently Sage 50 Accounts Professional Online 2007. These "software as a service" systems let the client run software usually without any large up-front costs compared to buying it, and without the problem of having to worry about backups and disaster recovery, as all this is taken care of by the web based suppliers.

Web-based accounting software can be accessed from anywhere there is internet access, and we can access it from our office. This enables us to identify problem areas, assist with problem solving and work more efficiently. There are again several providers in the marketplace, documented extensively on AccountingWEB by Nigel Harris in his online accounting services buyer's guide.

The software as a service model on the internet also extends to “office” type products. Google, for instance, has documents and spreadsheets online to which you can import and export Microsoft Excel and Word files. BT, meanwhile, is now offering a Workspace area, where you can work and share documents with other project members, and Tradespace, a "social computing" site with blogging tools and upload areas for photos and videos - think of it as a MySpace page for your business or practice.

The rapid spread of these new generation products and services will make it even more convenient to collaborate with people, wherever they are situated.

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