At a glance
Chalk up one more momentous change wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic – a revising of technology budgets and buying decisions for accounting firms.
Nearly every office worker in the past year has had to consider working from home for some length of time. For firms that had already embraced cloud software and flexible working arrangements, the transition was manageable. For other firms, it may have required a large increase in spending to cover monitors, laptops and peripherals for home offices.
The concern on everyone’s mind was how to maintain productivity, says John Ellis, Officeworks’ national sales manager, workspace solutions and ICT. He saw this transformation up close when running a work from home initiative for large businesses.
The 30 enterprises in the scheme included telcos, banks and major retailers, all redeploying thousands of employees to home offices across Australia.
Most already had work-issued laptops; the challenge was to find enough dual monitors, monitor arms, chair mats – and thousands of ergonomic chairs.
“I think the absolute essential for working-from-home success is an ergonomic chair,” Ellis says, given the number of hours people will be at their laptops. He also recommends a sit-to-stand desk to vary position.
The question for every company is the same: what is the best set-up for my employee?
Tyler Wise CPA, a tech-savvy accountant, runs a small firm called Wise Accounting in Busselton, Western Australia. He downsized from six staff to two just before Christmas 2019 as part of an experiment to run the business from home – handily, just before the pandemic.
Wise shared his set-up and buying decisions to keep his firm operating at maximum productivity.
What’s on your desk?
The cornerstone of Wise Accounting’s tech strategy are very powerful laptops with the processing power of a desktop. Wise spends A$5000 on his laptop (it includes a high-end graphics card for Photoshop). The staff laptops cost just over A$3000 each – a big cost for a small firm.
“We tried to put ourselves in a position of flexibility,” Wise says. Staff have enough power “wherever they’re working – even if you’re not in the office by choice or requirement.”
“They've got the processing power of a desktop but the full portability of a laptop,” Wise says.
The staff laptops sport the fastest Intel i7 processors and 16 gigabytes of RAM (Wise’s own, graphics-ready unit has 32GB RAM).
Even though most of the software Wise uses is online, he still opts for terabyte hard drives in the laptops for downloading desktop software.
“MYOB is notorious – we've got to keep three or four back catalogues of that going,” Wise says.
“I'd rather have excess space than not enough, because machines can last a long time. Over three years you can fill up a terabyte without a great deal of difficulty.”
Wise is aware that he has “gone overkill” for his laptops and says that accountants can get away with i5 processors and 8GB RAM. Nearly all software runs online and most of the processing happens in large data centres. The majority of the time a laptop’s processor will be idling.
“I don't think the specs of the computer necessarily have a huge impact on our ability to do work,” Wise says.
“But again, when you get the top-of-the-line stuff, you just give yourself that room for error. I like to think there's less likelihood of failure on the hardware.”
While your typical accounting software is easy to handle, video conferencing can create problems. Adding effects such as blurring your background in Microsoft Teams or Google Meet puts a heavy load on the processor. This is noticeable on less powerful machines when trying to share a video, web page or presentation.
Ellis has also noticed performance issues on his laptop when there are more than a dozen attendees on a video call.
Many firms will be asking themselves whether they should buy two desktops, one for their employees’ desks at work and one to use at home. Or should they just buy one laptop that can be ferried between them?
Wise believes in buying a single laptop with the power of a desktop.
This usually means a more expensive machine that costs as much as two desktops. On the positive side, the high-end laptops will usually last much longer than a desktop, and if there’s a problem with it the staff member can bring it into the office. In a small firm where the owner is also the tech support, this is a big benefit.
A single machine per employee also reduces software costs and security risks. Fewer machines to protect equals fewer opportunities for hackers.
One of the first product categories to dry up in the beginning of the pandemic was monitors. Dual monitors at home are very popular for workers wanting to maintain the same productivity levels as in the office, Ellis says.
It also has a useful side effect. “You can have a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation on one screen and email and calendar on the second. It obviates the need to print more when you have more screen real estate,” Ellis says.
When it comes to monitors, Wise believes bigger is better. He uses a whopping 49-inch, ultrawide monitor while his staff prefer slightly smaller, 39-inch monitors, also in the ultrawide format.
Why one big monitor rather than two side by side?
Wise used to have two 27-inch monitors but found it more efficient to work with one big screen.
“On the left hand side I have work papers, on the right hand side up the top I have client data, and on the bottom right I have access to ATO stuff and the browser,” Wise says. “I don't like windows being pushed to the back. I just like to have it all there at my fingertips.”
All late-model laptops are powerful enough to run dual monitors up to a certain size, Ellis says. But if you do want to run a single, ultrawide screen, make sure your laptops can run at high resolution.
A 49-inch monitor is effectively a 4k display. If a laptop doesn’t have 4k resolution and only outputs at 1080p high definition, then document icons, text and web pages will look absurdly large, Wise says.
One advantage of large, high-end monitors is that they typically sport many connections. You can use the monitor as a hub for USB devices such as your mouse, keyboard, external hard drives, even ethernet for faster network and internet access.
Cheaper monitors feature fewer connections. There are however laptop docks that will connect to many peripherals.
Wise’s other notable purchase was a single digital notebook to replace multiple paper notebooks.
“When I was floating between locations, I was losing my notes. I tried to figure out in which notebook did I write my thoughts down? You could never find it.”
Also, while working from home, paper notebooks were sometimes “borrowed” by Wise’s small children.
Wise bought a Remarkable tablet that tries to mimic the feeling of writing on paper. Wise can save the notes to the firm’s document management system.
Wise’s other tip – buy a portable scanner. “You don't realise how many people still give you physical documents.
“If you’re with the client, taking a picture with your phone just doesn't work as well.”
Ellis recommends investing in a small sound system for your home computer to improve the quality of video-conferencing.
He has a 5.1 speaker set-up around his desk for the many video meetings in the average day.
“When I talk to people it’s like they’re there. It provides me with the experience of being in the office,” Ellis says.
The digitisation of work
Here are some things you don’t need to buy your employees working from home – anything from the stationery cupboard. While companies are scrambling for monitors and laptops, requests for conventional office supplies from Officeworks stores have been non-existent, Ellis says. He can back it up with personal experience.
“I would have been lucky to spend $10 in the past six months on office supplies,” Ellis says.
“Working from home has most definitely embraced the move to digital. People don’t have the storage like they do back in the office. They are printing a lot less and trying to keep some semblance of order on their desk at home.”
Employees who struggle with interruptions at the office no longer need to print off documents to read later. Orders for ink and paper have also fallen, says Ellis, who assumes people are happy to read off their screens instead.