Beyond the cubicle: Virtual office workers look to new technology to enhance mobility and efficiency

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By Deanna C. White

When Mark Freedman left the Maryland accounting firm he had worked with for more than thirty years to establish his own accounting practice in Cave Creek, Arizona, he discovered a newfound freedom as the proprietor of his own business.

But despite striking out on his own, Freedman said there was still one aspect of his new business that kept him firmly tethered him to the ground. He realized that dated technology better suited large accounting firms than his relatively small independent office, N. Mark Freedman, CPA, LLC.

"I can remember the days when I had to lug these bulky laptops to clients' offices. I had to maintain my own data networks and security networks, and sometimes, I even had to travel all the way back to the office to access my office computer", Freedman said. "I was always willing to try something new in terms of technology to make things work better."

That's why Freedman and many other practitioners working in independent or satellite offices turn to technology specialists like Byron Patrick, CPA, CITP, and cofounder/CEO of Simplified Innovations in Baltimore, Maryland. Technology specialists help remote practitioners take advantage of the latest technology in the accounting industry.

Freedman said the innovations Patrick recommended, including cloud computing, have revolutionized the way he does business. With cloud computing, he can use an outside information technology firm to maintain his company's information on a remote and secure server, and he can access that information via his desktop, laptop, iPad, and smartphone.

"I'm much more efficient than I've ever been", Freedman said. "I can do things more quickly, and my information is secure because it's stored and backed up on a remote server. I basically have my office with me wherever I go, which gives me more time to get more business."

Patrick, who recently hosted the Operating the Virtual Office seminar at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' inaugural E.D.G.E. seminar in New Orleans, said he is passionate about teaching financial professionals how to use the latest technology to work beyond the cubicle.

"We have a lot of people in the industry now who are either working from home or working from a satellite office, and because they don't know what's available to them, they're not as efficient as they could be", Patrick said.

Patrick said his firm specializes in assisting smaller practitioners, who normally have between fifty to sixty clients, with upgrading their technology. Many work from remote or satellite offices and are simply unfamiliar with the new technologies that could streamline their businesses. It's a population that is growing exponentially.

Patrick said technology and the strained economy are making it easier and more viable for employees to work from remote locations. He cites Virginia's Telework!VA program that helps companies offset the cost of starting up or expanding a telework program.

He also said some firms have gone 100 percent virtual and others are recruiting stay-at-home moms, who previously worked for the Big 4, to work from home. Both innovations help companies reduce overhead and attract top talent.

But many new generation remote professionals are unaware of, or perhaps even a bit intimidated by, the technologies that could enhance their business. "They're so busy handling their own practices, and there are so many new tech tools out there that are constantly being introduced, they just can't keep up", Patrick said. "It's usually just not on their radar."

So what are some of the hottest technologies Patrick advises his clients to use to bring their remote or satellite offices up to speed?

He recommends taking advantage of collaboration software, like Google Docs and Microsoft Office 2010 SkyDrive, which allow multiple parties to edit one file at the same time. "It's so much easier than the old send the e-mail to fourteen people and get fourteen different versions back approach", Patrick said.

He also recommends the use of information sharing programs, such as Skype and GoToMeeting. These programs enable people to attend cross-country or international meetings as well as share desktop presentations via the Internet, thereby eliminating the expense and hassle of travel. Patrick says Dropbox is another useful tool that lets people share files securely through the Internet.

Patrick's advice to remote practitioners goes beyond software recommendations and cloud computing services. He believes managers and employees need to readdress the way they govern their relations with each other in this new virtual world. "Managing a remote staff poses definite challenges", Patrick said. "When managers are working with a remote staff, they can sometimes have a meltdown if they don't know their employees are out there and they're working. They need to know there is a presence there."

To eliminate that frustration, Patrick said managers need to develop a results-orientated management style. They should deliver clear and detailed instructions to employees, set firm deadlines, and hold employees accountable for meeting those deadlines. Managers should avoid fishing for status reports every hour, as long as goals are met. "If work is getting done on deadline, you don't need constant status reports", he said.

On the flip side, employees should send updates or requests for clarification in concise e-mails and always separate those e-mails by subject. "People tend to send a lot of e-mails to their managers that bundle all types of information together", he said. "They should just send each question or update separately to get a quick reply."

And, as for those technology curmudgeons who are hostile to doing business in a new way, or for those who are intimidated by the process of incorporating new technology, both the preacher and the practitioner offer the same advice: take baby steps.

Patrick and Freedman both believe using new technology in small increments paired with already familiar systems, allows people a sense of comfort when stepping into the unknown.

"I tell people to try the new technology simultaneously with what they're already using", said Freedman. "You'll see the benefits, and you'll also see how quickly you'll be willing to drop the old way."

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