How to remote-proof your accounting firm for the pandemic and beyond

Adam Hale, CPACo-Founder and COO, Summit CPA Group

Establishing and maintaining an effective remote working strategy requires just that: strategy.

Since going fully remote at Summit CPA in 2013, hearing about the (numerous) remote working roadblocks many businesses and their employees experienced in the early parts of the pandemic was not surprising. 

If you go in blind, expect to have trouble. Conversely, if you create a plan for your technology and working environments, you’ll start wondering why you didn’t adopt remote work sooner. 

Here are a few technology tips we at Summit CPA have learned along the way that should help leap right over common hurdles that exist with hiring and working remotely. 

1. Make reliable, high-speed internet a priority for hiring and working

This may seem callous at face-value, but stick with us here: Don’t hire workers who don’t have access to high-speed internet.

Remote work doesn’t exist in today’s age without the internet. Workers who don’t have fast, reliable internet can’t work. It’s as simple as that.

Remote work doesn’t exist in today’s age without the internet. Workers who don’t have fast, reliable internet can’t work. It’s as simple as that.

Take Zoom as an example. Zoom has now become a significant part of firms worldwide. According to Zoom, you need 2.0 Mbps up and 4.0 Mbps down for dual screen Zoom sessions. Triple screen sessions need up to 6.0 Mbps down. Zoom doesn’t even bother mentioning how much you’d need if you’re trying to host a Zoom session with four or more people. 

And those are just minimum requirements to get Zoom working. Higher speeds are necessary if you want uninterrupted video conferencing without buffering issues. 

2.0 Mbps up and 4.0 Mbps down doesn’t sound like much, but there are still large swaths of the US that rely on dramatically slow satellite internet services. Meanwhile, some workers may have access to faster speed, but also have very limiting data caps that reduce speeds below what is workable with video conferencing software. 

Have you ever experienced what it’s like to have workers who have poor or spotty internet? You’ll spend far too much time listening to audio crackling in and out. It’s a drain on everyone’s time and patience. Even the best employee could be the worst employee if you can't communicate in a remote environment.

It’s critical to  establish a baseline for the speed your future workers need to have. Any current employee who wants to work remotely should prove they can meet that standard. During the hiring process, verify that potential employees can also meet this standard, even if you have to ask them to send screenshots of their internet speed test results.

2. Either budget for standardized technology or give a workers a tech stipend

With your internet situation figured out, technology is going to be next on the list of priorities. 

Remote work is tech-dependent; there’s no getting around that. This also means that if you’re hiring remote workers, you’ll either need to budget for the tech they’ll need, or you can do what we do, which is offer a tech stipend that allows workers to purchase their own technology.

Regardless of your approach, it’s important to have some criteria. For example, if you’re budgeting for technology, research what everyone on your team will need, then purchase and send the exact same set of equipment to all employees. That would likely include computers (laptops or desktops), cameras, microphones, and internet technology equipment, such as routers. 

Creating a standardized criteria will work for a stipend approach, but you’ll be better served if you give workers wiggle room to buy tech that’s more fitting to their style. Just create a minimum spec requirement to ensure everything integrates. The stipend approach helps you cut out the administrative costs necessary for approving tech purchases.

3. Scope out internet availability before moving or traveling

Remote work lends itself well to a digital nomad lifestyle. Several employees at Summit CPA regularly travel while working for our company, and it works out well—most of the time. There have been plenty of hiccups along the way, but they often relate to internet availability. 

You should encourage your workers to take advantage of the remote work lifestyle that is conducive to working from anywhere. But that also means ensuring everyone understands the need to scope out internet availability before either relocating to a new city or before traveling to an exotic location to work.

Recommended reading: What to consider before escaping the city to work remotely

This is something our team member Angie Douglas discovered while roaming the US in a van and working from different locations with varying internet quality. 

“I pay for three forms of internet,” she explained in a recent interview for the Modern CPA Success Show podcast. “I spend more than $200 a month on internet because no one wants to hear that I don't have a connection if I'm out camping in the desert.”

Ultimately, this means building in enough contingency time when moving or traveling. Account for the possibility that you’ll show up to a location only to discover the internet access you thought you’d have doesn’t exist.

Angie experienced this in practice during a trip from North to South Dakota: “We got there on a Saturday, and we tried five different campgrounds that weekend and realized we couldn’t find an internet connection, but we still had time to drive a few hours to get to a hotel that we knew would work.”

Scope out the internet situation before you leave or move. Internet availability will always be essential to making remote work possible.

4. Don’t buy cheap technology and tech resources (but don’t overspend, either)

This advice is for remote companies establishing technology budgets, those offering stipends, and employees who are buying their own personal tech. Going cheap feels great in the short term, but you’ll quickly find you have to spend an ever-increasing amount of money to replace or repair those tech resources when they fail. 

This applies to almost any technology you plan to buy, from cameras to mobile devices to internet routers. 

Every piece of technology needs to last as long as possible, but it also needs to work the way you want. Always buying low-end goods is going to result in more frustration and more costs. 

At the same time, there are $2,000 Wi-Fi routers out there that aren’t any better than $250-$300 routers. There’s no need to break the bank with every tech or resource purchase either.

5. Build-in contingencies for tech failures

There’s one thing you can always count on, and that’s tech failing you at critical moments. 

Whether you’re hit with a power outage or a computer virus, tech failures are going to happen. Planning for them will help you minimize the amount of time it takes to get back up and running. And more importantly, reduce the anxiety that occurs when that unexpected situation happens.

Areas to consider building-in tech contingencies include:

  • Back-up computer and conferencing equipment

  • Back-up internet options, such as Wi-Fi routers that switch to mobile broadband networks when the power goes out

  • Power banks that keep internet and computer devices running during a power outage

  • Back-up set of headsets

Remote work is vulnerable to technology issues. Thankfully, working as a distributed team means your tech failure risks are also minimized. One person losing power during a hurricane might not put your entire operation out of business. But it could hurt a new or long-term client relationship, especially if it happens too often. 

Create backup plans for all of your essential technology so you reduce the time it takes to continue operating remotely.

6. Invest in a ‘tech backpack’ and travel light

Workers who plan to travel extensively while working remotely should consider investing in a solid, well-built tech backpack. 

Our team member Mikaela Page has spent most of her time with us traveling to different locations around the U.S. and Europe. A key piece of advice from her experience: “Keep everything condensed”. 

She also recommends investing in a tech backpack, which could be a backpack specifically designed for digital nomads, or a traveler’s backpack with a healthy number of compartments. 

Either way, a tech backpack or easy-to-use carrying case for your technology makes it far easier to adapt to travel-focused remote work. “I know everything has a place in my backpack and I know exactly how to pack it up every single time,” Mikaela explained in episode 26 of the Modern CPA Success Show podcast. “That's my office. If it doesn't fit in my backpack, then it doesn't come with me.”

7. Have a space that allows you to disconnect

Both distractions and proper work-life balance can become thorny issues within a remote work environment. Microphones with too much audio pickup catch blenders in the kitchen. A laptop sitting on the couch almost demands to be opened at 10PM for one more look at that report a client wanted. 

There are two great ways to counteract these types of issues with remote work:

  1. Have a dedicated space with a door that you can close

  2. Utilize technology that reduces distractions

That first point is not always possible. If you (or a team member) is traveling on the road, you may find yourself having conference calls from a moving vehicle. Or working from a table with a spouse because your infant is sleeping in the bedroom of your one-room hotel. Real life gets in the way of the idealistic work-from-home environment, so where possible, find a private work space that minimizes distractions.

We mention a space that has a door not only because it helps reduce background noise, but also because it makes disconnecting far easier. Working from home lends itself to being ‘always on’, but that can be terrible for your mental health. Pick a stopping time, leave the room, and leave your devices behind the closed door. 

As for your technology considerations, your audio equipment can help with that. Noise-cancelling headphones will tune out the background noise. But you should also consider a microphone with noise-cancelling features that block out background noise. 

8.  Don’t underestimate social interactions

Remote work and the digital nomad lifestyle can be a lonely experience. In fact, a Gallup study found over one-fifth of remote workers cited ‘loneliness’ as a common issue with the remote lifestyle. If your remote team members plan to travel, encourage them to travel with a friend or family member/s.

Try to get your teams together, even if they’re heavily distributed. In normal times at Summit CPA, we plan an annual conference for our team members, while we also offer education stipends that many of our team members use to travel together to conferences.

Planned outings and opportunities to get your teams together will benefit everyone, allow your team to feel more connected, and help reduce the complications connected to loneliness, such as depression.

 Encourage your team to always be on camera during meetings. Face-to-face interaction, although not in person, is critical to making people feel connected. With our team, we do more than encourage it—it has been required since day one. It becomes and feels normal very quickly.

Plan for the long-term

Over 40% of Americans were working remotely at the end of 2020, and around one-quarter are determined to continue working remotely in 2021 and beyond. 

Remote work is not just doable, it’s the increasingly preferable option for businesses and workers. But a functioning remote work environment requires thoughtfulness, especially regarding the type of technology you plan to use and where you plan to live (or travel). 

Create the framework for your business, then roll it out to your existing team and new hires. Creating a fully distributed model isn’t easy, but once you’ve done it, you can completely transform how you do business in a very positive way.

Adam Hale, CPA
Co-Founder and COO, Summit CPA Group

Adam Hale is the Co-Founder and COO of Summit CPA Group, the leading provider of Virtual CFO Services for creative agencies as well as one of the largest Virtual CFO firms in North America. He primarily focuses his attention on coaching his team and other accounting firms on delivering successful Virtual CFO Services.

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