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An accountant's guide to remote working. By Kevin Salter

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2nd May 2007
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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 whilst 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 emails, 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 favourite 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 favourites 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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About the author
Kevin Salter is a partner with Glover Stanbury & Co and the director of BBS Computing. He is the author of Remote Working, a practical guide for accounting professionals (£40 PDF download). Kevin also produces AccountantsPowerTools, an online collection of gizmos, gadgets and software specially relevant to the accounting profession, which includes software for remote working. A small monthly subscription is payable for this service.

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Replies (9)

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By AnonymousUser
03rd May 2007 08:12

Remote working - HR point of view
From an HR point of view remote working has some important considerations which include the security aspects discussed.

Although remote working can avoid the constant difficult trek into the office with increasing levels of traffic on the roads/crowded trains etc creating more of a work life balance there is the potential isolation factor. The management of a remote team requires careful management to ensure communication and involvement are maintained. Regular meetings at a central point can improve this situation.

Likewise if targets are to be met these need to be carefully managed particularly where there is a problem by implementing a capability process with ongoing monitoring and support to encourage improvement. If this is not forthcoming then the disciplinary process needs to be invoked.

With home-working situations there should be a health and safety risk assessment done to ensure that the work station area is compliant. Documentation should be completed and kept on file to demonstrate actions a company has taken in this respect.

Sandra Beale FCIPD
SJ Beale HR Consult Ltd

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By pmtate
02nd May 2007 18:43

Security
What security software do you use to ensure the realvnc sessions cannot be snooped on your internet connection?

As I understand it realvnc passwords are sent in clear text?

Paul

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By appacc
03rd May 2007 02:15

Remote working
A timely article considering I am sitting in the sun in Sarasota, Florida right now checking my emails. As a sole practicioner, it is useful to spend half an hour just acknowleding emails from clients.
I have been able to connect to the office and look up a simple query on a clients Line 50 file just as eaqsily as in the office.

A couple of problems someone might be able to comment on though.

One is that if you use a hotel internet PC in the lobby, they dont seem to allow https connections which stops you using Webmail connection to Exchange Server or any online services such as Companies House.

The other is that if the hotel connects you to the internet via its website (ensuring they charge you for a days usage) then the vpn does not seem to work. At this hotel, they just gave me a password and it worked fine but at two previous hotels it did not.

My conclusion is that you cannot rely on everything working as expected but does anyone have any advice on what to watch out for?

Trevor Green

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By tomtrainer
03rd May 2007 07:54

Realvnc and Crossloop
What is the difference between Realvnc and Crossloop?

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By djw090
03rd May 2007 09:03

Reliability
Trevor has touched on the issue of being able to rely on remote access. I find that having 2 alternative methods is best.

Currently I am working at a clients and I can access my email by either my mobile phone or by my laptop (if I can find a wireless hot spot).

As has been said typing on a mobile is a pain. So the logic is check the email using the phone. If it needs a detailed reply find a hot spot.

The office phone calls can be transferred to my mobile as well. So the gap is post and, on the rare occasion someone uses it, the fax.

Rather than loging into an office computer I carry a copy of the office data on my laptop. I am interested in moving to being able to log on to the office system remotely. If I did so the post could be scanned and i could then read it.

So I have a couple of questions:
1) Are 3G data card connections reliable and is the coverage good?
2) Is the connection speed fast?
3) What is the operating cost like?
4) Why does Kevin log onto an office desk top rather than straight into the office network?


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Kevin Salter
By Kevin Salter
03rd May 2007 09:52

Additional comments
Lots of points already raised – so here are a few responses.

I did consider Windows Remote Desktop – but was not successful in getting it to work. An outside IT consultant recommended and implemented VNC for us. I really need to try Remote Desktop again and seek assistance if necessary!

I have to admit never experiencing problems in using VNC from a hotel.

RealVNC and Crossloop – realvnc can be configured and used without anyone sitting at the remote PC. Crossloop requires someone at that end to type in the “code” to enable the connection – so best used for remote support for clients.

3g card – reasonably reliable – but I was in London the other week (cannot remember exactly where!) and could not get a 3g connection! Struggles on the train though! Connection speed – acceptable for occasional use – but I would not want to spend all day working on it- but faster than dialup!! Cost –depends on the tariff chosen – I pay £25 per month for 250mb of data and have never reached anywhere near this limit yet. However using it abroad is expensive – I had a shock after using it in Dublin and then in Paris the following week – bill over £100!

Log in is to the office network – then direct to my PC – but I can also access server or indeed any other PC on the network if I need to.

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Teignmouth
By Paul Scholes
03rd May 2007 10:44

There's more to this than doing the business
Let me say from the outset I have been a big fan of remote working, we make full use of remote access to the office systems and with decent (and cheap) mobile-type Skype phones we can all communicate free of charge, share information, carry out all client work and generally “do the business” from wherever we happen to be.

As mentioned by Sandra however, this comes at a human cost and Trevor’s first sentence identifies it. I shouldn’t have to explain but when I am on holiday I am on holiday. Holidays are not "client denial" time they are my time and if my business is at risk if I take 2 weeks off I'm not running it correctly. Just think of it; sitting on a beach & logging onto Accountingweb ?? I rest my case.

It is also the thin end of the wedge when I find myself saying “I’ll leave that till I get home this evening when I can work on it in peace & quiet”. Given I have other people in my life besides colleagues & clients, this is dangerous.

Obviously there is an aspect of personal failing here in that I should be able to “do the business” within office type hours but like everything around business today the pressure is to cram more into the resource we have and we still have a few hours to go before we hit 24.

So just a word of warning (to me), remote working is just working from somewhere else and can be used to improve work/life balance not jeopardise it.

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Teignmouth
By Paul Scholes
03rd May 2007 14:35

That’s the life for me
Point taken Trevor, you sound like you have it “sussed” as far as making it work for W/L balance rather than against it.

As you'll see from my final sentence I agree that this can be used as a positive force but you have to have the right mindset.

As indicated I do have a battle in this respect and, from discussions with clients and others, I am not in a minority. As with much in ITC the change in abilities and resources can be dramatic whereas many of us are used to the traditional physical differentiation of work & life and are finding it difficult to adapt in a healthy way.

Anyway enjoy your sunshine and I hope you have a converter for your battery charger!

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By appacc
03rd May 2007 12:34

Work/Life Balance
`Paul, you seem to take the line that you are a 9 to 5 employee. But many of us are not.

The technology certainly enables us to work 24/7 but the main point is that it allows us to decide when to work. It does not leave us tied to our desks.

I can work from home and go for a walk in the country or sit in the garden on a weekday in the knowledge that I can respond if required. I can also work at 4 a.m. if I cannot sleep.

It also allows me to take an extra holiday which I otherwise could not justify but keep in touch to give guidance to my staff and answer important emails. I only followd the link on Accountingweb because the subject was very timely.

So, we all have different lifestyles and if remote working improves life, then it must be good.

Anyway Paul, I'm off to the beach on this nice working day!

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