By: Christopher Stark, President & CEO, Cetrom
While the switch from in-office work life to at-home work life was abrupt, most businesses and their employees adapted quickly to telework, discovering new work-life benefits as they settled into this brave new world where you can go for a run in the middle of a busy work day and still be productive.
CPA firm staff members have enjoyed a respite from being road warriors; they have benefitted from increased flexibility and they have been more efficient with their time. CPA firm leaders have, by and large, seen stable if not improved productivity and improved bottom lines from reduced operating costs.
CPA firms are also realizing that what at first seemed like an “experiment” in the first few months is going to be the new normal moving forward. This realization requires a paradigm shift for how firms assess the last year and a half of a hybrid work model and use the knowledge gained during this time to develop a long-term, comprehensive IT strategy and plan.
So, what should CPA firms and their teams have learned across the last year using a flexible hybrid work model? Here are Cetrom’s top five most important takeaways from COVID-19’s impact on CPA firm operations.
1. Effective Telework Requires More Than a Laptop, a Camera and a Headset
Providing the equipment your CPA firm staff needed to work from home was the easiest part of the transition forced by the pandemic. Building the IT infrastructure, deploying new software and adopting new tools — in other words, creating an effective IT ecosystem that empowers efficient and safe telework — was (and still is) the hard part.
CPA firms that resisted adopting a cloud-based IT infrastructure learned quickly, and sometimes painfully, that the cloud was the right approach for this new telework normal. Cloud computing and cloud services improve productivity and efficiency, but they also provide significant risk mitigation against the unexpected, like a pandemic.
At Cetrom, we are experts at building cloud solutions that will enhance your CPA firm’s performance and elevate its ability to remain agile and pivot when confronted with unforeseeable events like natural disasters, cyberattacks, public health threats, and many other risks to business continuity.
Today’s new normal makes it an imperative to have easy access to files and streamlined opportunities to collaborate from anywhere at any time. Virtual Desktops, also known as VDI or Desktop as a Service (DaaS), provides CPA firms the capability to stay up and running in the midst of an unexpected crisis, delivering peace of mind to the business, security to its team and protection for the bottom line. A cloud-based remote virtual desktop solution provides access to the same icons, applications, folders, and files available on desktop computers in your office, making it an ideal solution for remote work.
2. Strong Data Security Is More Important Than Ever Hackers and bad actors adapted quickly to take advantage of security gaps caused by the rapid transition to increased remote work. Instead of having a single network to protect, CPA firms were suddenly faced with scores of home networks accessing the firm’s network, creating new vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit.
To combat this, we’ve helped CPA firms do the following to button up their data security even with near 100% telework environments:
Build a remote work policy that can instruct employees on how to stay safe, as well as hold them accountable for putting the company at risk.
Deploy AI and automation to drastically reduce human error-caused security breaches via artificial intelligence that is always-on, 24/7/365 scanning, and monitoring.
Educate and train employees on cybersecurity best practices, creating heightened states of alert, and awareness that a steady state cannot only exist in a time of crisis.
Improve their data security backup processes by implementing multiple daily backups using different methods like cloud computing and hard drive backups, for example.
Establish, deploy and adjust a company-wide cybersecurity policy that includes:
Clear, enforced password rules
Restricted access and permissions
Protection for all devices
Documentation disseminated to all staff
Remote work/Bring Your Own Device Policy
A security emergency response plan
3. Work Culture and Camaraderie Can Still Thrive Remotely We’ve learned from our own experiences and from our CPA firm clients that workplace culture, collegiality, and togetherness don’t have to disintegrate because of telework.
There are tools and creative ways to continue to keep staff engaged and close-knit; it just takes some effort and a new approach to team building. At Cetrom, we were a remote work company well before COVID-19. We have a deep and close-knit team that’s become even closer during the pandemic; we’ve leveraged this experience to help our CPA firm clients protect their cultures, enabling and encouraging them to:
Hold virtual happy hours every Friday, every other Friday or once a month (the important thing is to keep it consistent so people have something to look forward to). Our clients can hold a virtual happy hour on Zoom or whatever virtual meeting software they utilize.
Create virtual new hire onboarding events like a virtual new hire lunch where your firm pays for food delivery to staff homes and everyone gets together online at the same time to meet and greet a new team member.
Incorporate a segment of standing staff meetings for virtual “water cooler” talk. This time can be used to talk about current events, the latest Netflix shows to binge watch or a variety of other topics of interest that are fun and can relieve stress.
4. Business Continuity and Disaster Planning Is Critically Important The pandemic outbreak should have taught all CPA firms to expect the unexpected. This mindset change is not limited to public health emergencies. Preparing for natural disasters, fires, theft, power failures and other events that can critically and negatively impact operations is essential. If a CPA firm still doesn’t have a formal business continuity plan with a disaster recovery component after experiencing COVID-19, we’re not sure what will motivate them to do so.
Ultimately, we help our clients build IT continuity plans that mitigate all different kinds of risk. In order to mitigate as much risk as possible, your firm needs to actively and unendingly be in risk assessment mode.
COVID-19 likely exacerbated risks you already were aware of, and probably unearthed new risks that you’d never even considered. Again, we encourage our clients to react, assess and then integrate what they’ve learned and are learning during the pandemic into their business continuity plans. Business continuity and disaster recovery planning is not a “set it and forget it” exercise, particularly when it comes to your IT ecosystem; it is a never-ending process of continual improvement that keeps CPA firms prepared for the unexpected. The minute these plans become stagnant is when your risk is highest.
5. The Remote Work New Normal Is Here To Stay
According to a recent study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research between May 2020-March 2021, over 77% of people surveyed would like to work remotely at least once a week. 31% would prefer to work remote all five days. Not every job can be done remotely, but most survey (33,250 respondents) said their jobs are conducive to work from home as least part of the time.
This COVID-19 takeaway is pretty simple. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people work and the way businesses operate. We can’t truly understand the impacts the pandemic will have on the economy, family life, commercial real estate and even the environment. What we can predict with certainty is this: A big sector of your CPA firm will remain remote permanently and your firm needs an experienced IT and cloud services partner that can build, customize, maintain, monitor, protect, and adjust your IT ecosystem to help you mitigate risk and sustain growth.
About the Author: Christopher Stark is the President and CEO of Cetrom, an industry-leading provider of custom cloud hosting solutions for CPA Firms. With more than 25 years of experience in all facets of the IT industry and holding some of the industry’s most prestigious technical certifications, Stark keeps his finger on the pulse of the IT industry and eyes toward the future.