Comment: work from anywhere

by Gary Turner

20 Jan 2010

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Online accounting is a bit like Marmite. Some practices have embraced it wholeheartedly; others view it with hesitation or reluctance. But love it or loathe it, online accounting is here to stay and is set to have a profound impact on working methods in the profession.

In the same way that the mobile phone revolutionised the concept of availability, the ‘anywhere anytime’ aspect of online accounting is doing the same. For example, a colleague was talking to an accountancy practice in Swindon the day before the very heavy snows were predicted. However, the practice was not worried, because they knew that the team would be able to carry on working from home, thanks to online access to clients’ records.

That was of course an extreme situation, but technology has the power to change the way we work on a daily basis. Imagine running a practice where there is an excellent female partner who decides to start a family. Rather than lose her skills completely, online accounting tools enable her to continue to work remotely and part-time.

Geography becomes irrelevant: I know of one practice that, thanks to the adoption of online accounting, is now supporting clients in a specialist niche area from the North of Scotland to the far South of England. There is no need to visit clients’ premises and understand their systems. Online accounting means that as long as there is internet access – and that even includes on mobile phones – the savvy professional can have visibility of the client’s books anytime, anywhere. Practices could even adopt a virtual approach by not having conventional offices and thus reduce running costs even further.

Of course, people have concerns. If team members are not in the office, they may be concerned about lack of visibility affecting their position in the company, especially in the current economic climate. Not everyone embraces flexible working: many traditionalists would shudder at the thought of moving away from the nine-to-five business model.

But, arguably, clinging on to old-style accounting could mean being left behind. The impact of technology on the accountants’ world stretches beyond daily working practices to the business model itself. Already, some forward-thinking practices are using new technology to automate routine tasks, freeing up more time and enabling a move away from the time-based costing model.

Instead, they are charging pay-as-you-go or fixed monthly fees, which cover a raft of services including online accounting. They are repositioning themselves as ‘value-added’ business consultants, which will help them compete, particularly against the threat of commoditised offshore accounting services. Some accountants are even prepared to be available out of hours using web-based technology, which fits well with the working-day of many SMEs. It’s a ‘brave new world’ and it is here to stay.

Gary Turner is managing director at Xero Ltd

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