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Facing the tech problems of working from home

Remote work schedules were omnipresent in practice management advice for years – until about six months ago, when the pandemic turned the notion into a mandatory business model.

The internet and other technology is about all that’s kept any portion of the economy going since spring. But as usually happens with emergency methods, surprise problems cropped up.

“Switching to a predominantly remote work force is no simple task. One of the most important matters now, more than ever, is constant communication with colleagues and clients,” said Timothy Schuster, a senior manager in Top 100 Firm EisnerAmper’s Private Business Services Group, in Iselin, New Jersey. “Technology has helped … but it also comes with some challenges.”

So how did firms adjust?

Ready, set …
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A big part of some smooth transitions began early. “Before going remote, our IT group tested the bandwidth of our systems to make sure that we could sustain nearly all of our employees working outside the office,” said Kimberly Dula, a CPA and partner at Top 100 Firm Friedman in Philadelphia.

EisnerAmper — “fortunately,” Schuster said — began switching to paperless, secure delivery of clients’ key documents before the pandemic. “We had a robust online client portal in place, which we have expanded the use of in recent months, both for document delivery and receipt. This helped immensely with the transition to remote working,” he said. “From a hardware standpoint, working mostly paperless requires multiple monitors, which many employees didn’t have at home. We helped fit out the home offices of our employees. USB monitors are a great option and don’t take up much room. We greatly increased our virtual meetings, using cameras, which adds to the sense of comradery. For internal communication, we also utilize instant messaging.”
Home is where the server is
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“Our biggest problem has been the failure of the internet during storms,” said Michael Raiken, a CPA and senior tax manager in the Cranbury, New Jersey, office of Top 100 Firm Prager Metis. “Most of our homes don’t have backup systems and this has created days where work couldn’t be completed.”

“Even though we have updated our WiFi at home during the pandemic, we still have some outages. [Once] our wired connection wasn’t working and I had to reboot routers, check wires and TV connections for almost an hour until finally it all came back up,” said Brian Stoner, a CPA in Burbank, California. “This happens once in a while and is very annoying.”
The paper e-chase
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Some have said the pandemic and work-from-home has been a long-awaited chance to finally get reluctant clients to go paperless. But the biggest tech problem for Enrolled Agent John Dundon, president of Taxpayer Advocacy Services in Englewood, Colorado, has been “really an introspection into human nature” — convincing established clients of the safety of encrypted file transfer portals and applications for e-signing. “My older clients prefer to conduct tax form review and signature in person and it’s been an uphill struggle,” he said.

Raiken said Prager Metis also had an issue with coordination with staff to ensure that packages to federal and state agencies are properly put together. “Working with administrative staff and coordinating when far away is difficult,” he said. “We have, however, been able to effectively use software to put the packages together virtually and send complete ones for mailing.
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“The lack of in person meetings with clients is a detriment,” said Paul Gevertzman, a CPA and partner at Top 100 Firm Anchin in New York. “With all the problems my clients have been facing — business interruption, CARES Act matters, Paycheck Protection Program considerations and so on — the need for client meetings has increased exponentially. Virtual meetings have really helped, to a degree. It is much harder with newer clients that we’re still getting to know.”

“We’re finding that online meetings are taking much less time than when we meet with clients face to face,” added Bruce Primeau, a CPA and president of at Summit Wealth Advocates, in Prior Lake, Minnesota. “Not sure why exactly, as we’re typically covering the same amount of material regardless of meeting preference. Perhaps it’s less chit-chat at the beginning or end of, or more focus during, an online meeting.”
Time off
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Remote workers are of course available pretty much 24/7, “a problem but also a benefit,” Anchin’s Gevertzman said. “Learning to shut off is paramount for good mental health — but within reasonable limits it can be helpful if something comes up that needs to be dealt with.

“A few days ago I received a call from a client asking if I was still in a software program on their site that I had access to,” he added. “I thought I had logged out but was still in the program so they couldn’t access what they needed to do. It was 10:30 p.m. Had my laptop not been in my remote office I would have had to consider whether I should drive into the office to log out … a minimum round trip of an hour and a half. Instead it was a minute-and-a-half trip upstairs to log out.”
Time to be tech-forward
Analytics
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“A firm needs to be flexible and ready,” said Friedman’s Dula. “A helpdesk that can remote in to someone’s computer and troubleshoot problems, access to IT team members at all times since traditional work hours don’t really exist in these circumstances, and equipment like portable scanners that allow employees to do almost everything as if they were in the office: all examples of what allows a firm to continue to service clients.”
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