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Staying connected whilst working in isolation


What tools are we using to stay connected when working from home? Maddy Christopher investigates the public's top communication tools for the office of isolation.

30th Mar 2020
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Until the evening of 16 March 2020, working from home was a trend confined to digital pioneers and a minority of "virtual" organisations. Now that working from home (WFH) is the norm, many people working remotely are encountering new risks and issues that accompany working in isolation.

Freemium models, naturally, are a focal point as a growing business need in this current COVID-19 financial crisis. Ever since Boris Johnson’s “work from home” plea last week, AccountingWEB members have been sharing tips and advice on how to cope with the new working scenario. 

To help accountants adapt to these new challenges, this article surveys the available tools that cater for employee needs and flexible working from home.

Communication, communication, communication

Slack is often the communication preference for instant chat. With a strong design, a well-organised sidebar, and an adept chart search function, it is a popular among many firms:

Slack is often praised for its file-sharing capacity – which has a considerable 1GB upload limit. But its unique feature is Slack’s automatic self-chat conversation, which is great for using as a filing, storage system, sending files between devices, and a virtual notepad.

Slack also has a comprehensive variety of integrations with other apps that other instant chat apps lack. However, only parts of the software adhere to the freemium model, such as restrictions on storage that mean old conversations automatically disappear as storage runs out. Up until recently, the video chat functionality wasn’t free. But, along with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Zoom, Slack has made services such as these temporarily free to assist with COVID-19 related WFH demands. 

A word of warning: Those kitchen chats that have now moved to DM’s “may be just as visible to your boss and [HR] as anything you post in a channel to other users,” said cybersecurity expert Tarah Wheeler (OneZero). Check your Slack settings to view your administrators and privacy policies.

Google Hangouts: Instant chat and video calls

Unlike Slack, Hangouts has no search function, has a 200MB upload limit, and is a web attachment to Google Mail, rather than a freestanding platform. Hangouts largely receives its audience through convenience in being part of Google’s overall communication platform. However, if Google apps are taken as a whole, there is a solid variety of communication to put it on top.

Hangouts does its job reasonably well, although it is not the most secure, nor has the strongest or functional video call function, but its real power comes from being part of the mighty Google ecosystem.

Hangouts also struggles to change accounts when the browser is set up using a different Google account, which can cause Hangouts to revert to original credentials. Users should always check the account in use when using work communications from a personal device.

Microsoft Teams

Teams was one of the first communications to experience outages, buckling under the sudden inundation of self-isolating workers at home as it jumped from 20m to 44m daily users. Still a long shot, however, from the 200m+ Office 365 users. 

Down Detector was reporting major Microsoft Teams outages from 3 February, reaching a high of 3085 outages before self-isolation was being brought into force across the UK.

However, since then, Microsoft has been upgrading its capacity to support the viral usage influx. Microsoft has since responded to demand and released several updates. 

Updates include improving instant and email messaging during periods of low bandwidth and offering Teams completely free for the entirety of NHS workers. And for its video call function, Teams now includes a ‘raise hand’ to speak function and noise suppression feature for those loud video call typists who can’t speak without hammering that keyboard.

PERMON: With Teams my testing is that the other party can join in the browser if using a PC/laptop but they need to download the app for iPad or similar usage. One thing I did like in Teams is the option to blur the background so the other party doesn't see the wallpaper in your sitting room!

Gainsborough: Teams has been invaluable to me this week. Used it for a lot of group meetings and also to teach an accountancy class. Relatively easy to use, even for a non-techie like me.

Video: Nothing to see here

Video conferencing tool Zoom, often cited as the preference above other video calling tools has seen increases in its “rate of a hundred billion annual meeting minutes”, according to Zoom CFO Kelly Steckelberg. It has also buckled under the pressure of the sudden user influx, with notable outages.

In keeping with other services, Zoom has responded to COVID-19 demands by lifting video time limits for its free versions in China, Japan, Italy and the US – and for schools in the UK.

Reviewing Zoom’s service, AccountingWEB user Eden said, “I just had a 30 minutes management accountants presentation with [a] client now via zoom and it went well. [The] client seems to be happy with the communication via zoom. We used to do it [via] telephone, but wanted to walk the client through the forecasts, so presenting it via zoom was better.”

Whilst a video calling favourite, many users are unaware of its attention-tracking feature that alerts call hosts when attendees look away from the screen. And although this feature is confined to screen sharing, there is no notification of this feature for unsuspecting users. 

It is worth noting that those WFH might benefit from undertaking some privacy checks on their trusted communication tools, or checking out some warnings offered on the internet’s vast expanse.

If you are using a standard communications tool that wasn’t covered in this article, feel free to ask any relevant questions in the comment section below and we will endeavour to provide answers.

Next up, we're going to look at specific tools for managing accountancy practice workflows.​


Replies (1)

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By Triinrast
31st Mar 2020 00:36

Thank you for the insight, Maddy!

We have a team of 12 people and use Google Hangouts for daily stand-ups. It generally works really well and doesn't require any downloads from anybody.

Also, we use Slack for communications which we love. #random channel has definitely become more active and few new channels have been created to keep up the team spirit and casual chats we used to have in the office.

Thanks (1)