Collaboration among team members and with clients is a key component in the successful completion of any assurance engagement. Many accountants fall into the habit of using the same communication and information tools that they initially learned when they joined the firm, without further thought about how those tools have evolved to make firm personnel more productive. While many of those in senior management are more comfortable with email or telephone communications and reviewing documents on paper, the production staff coming out of school today favors more instantaneous communication and digital tools that are accessible at their fingertips. This can create a communication gap between the various groups within the practice and hinder collaboration.
Having all firm personnel understand and take advantage of the same communications capabilities will improve internal collaboration. Many of those same tools can also be utilized to work more effectively with clients. It is important for firms to make a conscientious effort to identify and utilize the optimum set of communication and knowledge sharing tools, and to educate all users on how to work together from a firmwide perspective.
Most new staff members are very comfortable using social media and texting technology to collaborate, but firms have often frowned upon using social tools as they were believed to waste staff time and be abused for personal use during work time. The solution is to utilize a business version of those collaboration tools such as Skype for Business (formerly Microsoft Lync/Office Communicator) that can be targeted towards improving internal, departmental communications. This tool integrates individual availability, instant messaging, audio and video chat, screen sharing, and file transfer into one application. Because Skype links with Outlook calendars, each individual’s status changes when he or she is in a meeting or the status can be individually set to prompts such as “available,” “do not disturb,” “busy,” and “out of the office,” to let everyone know of one’s current availability. Firm personnel can group together the team members they most often work with and, with one click, connect for a quick message, request an audio or video chat, and easily add multiple members to the conversation. Skype also allows users to share their screen and to transfer files and links in a live format so they can work in real time for optimal collaboration.
Having all communications centralized in one application makes personnel more efficient, yet many firms have separate systems for accessing email, retrieving telephone voicemail, and receiving manual faxes. Most current multi-function copier/duplicators have integrated fax cards that can convert inbound faxes to a PDF attachment to be delivered to the intended recipient via email. If the firm does not have such a fax-capable duplicator, services such as J2, eFax, and Nextiva can provide this service for under $120 per year. Current phone systems also have the capability to convert voicemail messages to a .wav file and, again, email it to the recipient instead of having firm personnel dial into a separate system to check or forward voicemail.
The primary benefit of digital fax and voicemail is that they are delivered to the recipient within one application (email) that is accessible on workstations, smartphones, tablets, or through the web. In addition, because all communications are centralized, the firm’s IT personnel can back up and protect that information more efficiently so it is nearly impossible to lose any firm communications.
An added benefit of current VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone systems is that many can integrate “soft phone” technology into laptops, allowing accountants to make their phone extensions available when working remotely. Think about an auditor plugging a headset into his laptop and then making his extension “live” so telephone calls can be automatically routed in/out of that extension when he is available to take calls.
Collaboration improves when firms make a concerted effort to capture best practices in a format that is easy for all personnel to access and utilize, regardless of their location. This points to firms capturing information digitally and making it available to employees whether they are in the office or working remotely. Firms have traditionally captured knowledge, templates, and firmwide forms either in network directories (i.e. F:/Knowledge/A&A/Forms), document management applications, or within intranets. Those individual components can today be consolidated into single audit or tax production guides that are saved in a PDF format so they are keyword-searchable and hyperlinked to other files or resources. Written best practices can also be augmented with screen captures and video feeds showing how a process is done, even highlighting the firm’s specific directories and unique naming conventions. Firm personnel should be trained to use the Windows Snipping tool for capturing screen images, and video capture tools such as Camtasia and GoToWebinar can be used to capture best practices and live training sessions, so they are available to firm personnel at the point when they need the specific instruction.
Finally, social media discussion tools, such as Microsoft Yammer and VMWare Socialcast, are also starting to make their way into firms as those tools allow for ongoing topical discussions to be captured, additional information added by other participants, and all of that information to be keyword searched for future knowledge re-use.
While the tools listed in this article are focused on improving collaboration among firm members, many can also be utilized to work more effectively with clients. Firms should make a concerted effort to proactively educate clients on digital tools such as secure email, portals, and remote control capabilities to improve collaboration.
Email remains one of the most frequently used communication tools and, unfortunately, most users transfer files in an unsecure fashion without encryption. Firms should adopt secure email solutions that make it easy for both their personnel and clients to encrypt their email and any attachments. Tools such as Citrix ShareFile, cPaperless SafeSend, ZixCorp, and McAfee Send Secure integrate directly with Outlook, making them straightforward for both the firm and clients to utilize. Better yet, firms should consider selecting a portal solution, which is also more effective at transferring files too large for email and can be used for transferring multiple files and documents. The major accounting vendors have made significant strides in improving the ease of using their portals from a client perspective with the added advantage of linking directly to a firm’s tax and document management programs, making it more streamlined than ever to deliver documents.
One additional collaboration tool that all firms should standardize upon are the remote control tools that allow firm members to access a client computer to provide support, remote training, and even transfer files to/from the firm. Tools such as LogMeIn, TeamViewer, GoToMyPC, and Join.me are easy for clients to utilize and allow the accountant to “take over” the client’s screen (with their permission) in lieu of having to drive to the client site, thus providing better service to clients.
Digital tools that improve communications, capture knowledge, and encourage collaboration continue to evolve and make firms more productive. Firms should review the capabilities of those tools at least annually, standardize usage, and provide training on best practices so everyone can communicate optimally.
This article was originally published in The PPC Accounting and Auditing Update. Copying or distribution without the publisher’s permission is prohibited.