It's no secret that telecommuting or working from home has been on the rise over the last ten years, particularly as high-speed Internet connections have become a ubiquitous part of our lives. Everyone knew that this was the way of the future - thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, "the future" arrived quite a bit faster than most people probably expected.
According to one recent study, at the highest point of the pandemic in May of 2020 roughly 35% of people found themselves working from home indefinitely. A significant percentage of them are expected to continue to do so long after the pandemic has passed us by.
Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Another study estimated that working from home has the potential to increase productivity by as much as 13%. About 77% of respondents to one Stanford study said that working from home at least a few times per month increased their productivity, allowing them to do more work in less time. It also improved employee satisfaction, while cutting attrition rates by as much as 50%.
Working from home does bring with it its fair share of challenges, too - especially for organizations dealing with inherently sensitive information like accounting firms. All the productivity and performance benefits in the world ultimately won't mean a thing if employees are suddenly sharing and working with confidential information in an insecure environment.
Recently, the team at M-Files did a survey with Accountancy Age on data security-related issues that accounting firms in particular face when having employees work remotely. The survey's findings paint a vivid and important picture about how far telecommuting has come, where it all might be headed, and the challenges we'll need to face along the way.
The Issue With the "Old School" Methods of Communication and Collaboration
Obviously, it's critically important that accounting professionals have the ability to create, share and collaborate on data with one another - regardless of where they happen to be. When everything shut down and people suddenly found themselves working from home indefinitely during the onset of the pandemic, firms turned to a number of "solutions" to help make this possible - with mixed results along the way.
According to the aforementioned study, some firms took to sending important documents and other pieces of information through the postal service to get it all into the hands of the people who needed it the most. The issue here is that it simply takes too long to get items to employees who depend on it to do their jobs - to say nothing of how this method makes collaboration essentially impossible.
Not only that, but a sudden delay in postal deliveries - like the ones experienced during the last half of 2020 - could grind productivity to a stop. Early on in 2020, three-day USPS mail service was already taking an additional four or five days to reach 99% of recipients. Flash forward to the end of the year, and it was taking an extra 14 days. This, coupled with the potential that a sensitive item could always be lost in the mail with no way to recover it, make this method essentially a non-starter.
Other firms turned to email - a tool that they've used successfully in the past. This, too, brings with it a number of issues - chief among them being confidentiality. It's simply far too easy to click one wrong button or mistype a character and send sensitive client information to the wrong person.
If you're trying to collaborate on a project with other employees, this too is less than ideal because it creates too many unnecessary steps. If three people need to sign off on a document before it can be approved, Person A has to send it to Person B - at which point the waiting begins. Maybe Person B gets to it today, maybe they don't. Regardless, Person C literally can't do anything because they're waiting on someone to act on an item that this individual may or may not have even seen yet.
On top of it all, emails are inherently insecure. Unless you can guarantee that all remote employees are using advanced security methods like two-factor authentication - which you can't - there is always the potential for an email account to be compromised, exposing all of the proprietary and sensitive information that has ever passed through it at the same time.
Finally, the working from home revolution has exposed a major issue at the very core of many accounting firms - namely that they're using far too many applications or systems to manage and share business and client documents to begin with. According to the M-Files study, 23% of firms use at least three such systems on a daily basis. This can include things like email folders, files and folders across shared network drives, CRM and ERP systems, a dedicated accounting solution, file sharing applications like Dropbox and more.
At that point, simply knowing where to find an essential document becomes a uphill battle. Likewise, if something important is stored on a local shared network drive and you're now working from home, how do you access it? The answer is clear:
Tearing Down the Old School to Build the New One
Thankfully, there are modern solutions built with this type of data security - not to mention communication and collaboration - in mind. It's simply up for accounting firms to embrace them.
A document management solution like M-Files, for example, can consolidate all data across an enterprise into a single, easy-to-use system. It allows accounting firms to organize information based not on where it is, but on what it is - all while giving people the chance to access it through a single view without needing any expensive or time-consuming data migration.
Keep in mind that if information is being shared among employees with a private tool like Dropbox, firm leadership suddenly has no control over what it is and what is being done to it. It can easily be lost or compromised in some way and this is actually a major source of duplication and version issues. But with M-Files, you can leverage features like dynamic organizational permissions and permissions-based content and context to secure documents and folders based on who needs access to them to do their jobs. For the right person, that information is easier to find than ever. For the "wrong" person, they're totally cut off from it - exactly as it should be.
In the end, working from home isn't going away anytime soon - and that can very much be a good thing under the right conditions. Trying to manage sensitive accounting firm information using methods that were designed for a time when everyone was still in the office is only inviting disaster. Instead, true document and content management is needed and tools like M-Files can help bring it to accounting firms everywhere in the easiest and most cost-effective way possible.
For more deeper analysis and information, read our recent report: The Evolving Perspective of Post Pandemic Workplaces.