Mobile working is becoming the norm for accountants
The CA magazine analyses the best apps, how accountants are using mobile workers and what software suppliers are doing to make things easier for their customers.
Mobile working and online, cloud technologies are becoming more common for accountants. And using mobile tech can boost your firm’s morale, profits and work-life balance.
The benefits of the technologies can include flexible working − enabling employees to balance the demands of family and personal life with work − being more accessible to clients and increased efficiency.
‘Always on’ and coping with client demands
Most of us have got used to being able to work from home or a café, outside office hours, if necessary. But can this flexibility have a downside for accountants if their clients expect them to be accessible at all hours?
Accountants say that it’s important to be clear about what times of the day or week they will respond to questions from clients.
Hilary Dyson is Cloud Accounting Senior Manager with Anderson Anderson & Brown, a CA firm based in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and London. She says: “It is important to manage expectations, and this should be done in the early stages of any client relationship.
“It’s also important to remember that just because a client sends you a query when they are working at midnight, they probably don’t expect an immediate response – they are just sending the question through when it’s fresh in their mind.”
Rod Petrie CA, Director of Edinburgh-based Sense Accounting & Bookkeeping, says: “Our clients really appreciate the fact that they get more visibility regarding their numbers [but] this can be a double-edged sword.
“On the one hand they feel that they have more insight and can get a better handle on where their business stands. What we often find is that when a client gets more visibility, they often start looking for further insights which gives us opportunities to increase the scope of our services.”
Some clients can get “worked up” if they log on and feel there are too many transactions outstanding on their accounts, Rod says. “The irony is that they have previously had no visibility and now they start to try and micromanage the process.”
Increased risk of cyber-attacks?
The increased capabilities of smartphones and other personal gadgets mean that staff are increasingly “bringing their own device” to work. But may they inadvertently be making their firm more vulnerable to cyber-attacks?
Toby Woodhead is Head of Technology with Armstrong Watson, an accounting firm with offices in the north of England and Scotland. He reckons that about one third of the firm’s work is done outside its offices – and that figure is growing.
The firm’s employees have Windows 10 laptops and Apple iPhones. An increasing amount of the firm’s software is run in the cloud, rather than on its premises. His aim is to make staff working outside the office on laptops feel as “little friction” as possible.
Staff can connect to the firm’s IT systems using a virtual private network (VPN). That can be useful if, say, an employee needs to do some work while away from the office. They can go to a café, connect to the firm’s VPN and work securely.
With staff accessing more cloudbased IT, it can be tricky to remember to close their IT accounts when an employee leaves an organisation. Armstrong Watson uses software from Okta to manage passwords and access to IT systems. “[We] use it for single sign-on. All our cloud providers need to integrate with Okta.”
When Armstrong Watson deletes an employee’s active directory account, it is automatically updated in Okta. “For most of my career IT security has been very simple,” Toby says. “It has all [been] about a big, very thick and high wall with guards on the door. If you saw someone was trying to climb over the wall and get up to no good [the guards would stop them entering].”
Now, it’s about making IT flexible and easy to use when staff are outside the office − without sacrificing security.
“We also package an application and deliver [it] as a shortcut on our local desktop but the software is running on our central server,” Toby says. “For us that’s where IT is moving. [We are] trying to get closer to a consumer experience without exposing us to a security risk.”
Software suppliers say they are making it easier for customers to keep track of who is accessing their systems. Glen Foster, Director of Accounting Partners with Xero, which makes accounting software, says: “Xero encrypts all data passing between the user and server with industry-standard Transport Layer Security coding.”
He adds: “We also have 2SA [two-step authentication], a Xero dashboard you can check when you last logged in, and the location of those logins, including IP address – to give customers further protection against security incidents.”
AI-powered digital assistants
What new types of mobile technology are accountants likely to start using in the near future? Voice-activated searches (rather than typing text into a search engine), “chatbots”, artificial intelligence and fifth-general mobile networks are likely to become more widely used by the accounting sector over the next two to five years, experts say.
“We’ve seen an increase in voice search and even introduced the AI-powered QuickBooks Assistant for some of our customer base recently,” says Shaun Shirazian, Head of Product with Intuit QuickBooks UK.
Customers can talk to the digital assistant and ask it questions or type queries into a chatbot. “Customers can get answers very quickly on some of the most common questions they have [such as] “who owes me money?” Shaun says.
“These are questions small businesses have had for years, but they were clicking into reports or asking their accountant. It was taking a lot of time and answers may be hard to find or not always be clear … we hope it will save the accountant even more time.”
Sense’s Rod Petrie is seeing more businesses using blockchain technology to improve security and to track transactions. He says: “AI and big data will no doubt be the same and as more data is collected, we will require more AI to analyse and make sense of it all.
“The key is being able to distil meaningful and useful information that allows businesses to make better decisions than they were previously able to do. Clients are demanding this information is delivered more quickly and with more insight than ever and this is where I see mobile technology can help.”