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Time to Fully Embrace the Digital Workplace

Implementing a digital workplace may be far easier than you think--and the best investment you will ever make.

Benjamin Brown and Helen Modly, CFP, CPWA, 10/16/2014

With products like Microsoft SharePoint Online and Office 365, implementing a digital workplace where employees can work and collaborate from anywhere in the world may be far easier than you think. At a staggeringly low cost, it might just be the best investment your firm will ever make.

For many, the dream of a paperless office optimized with the latest collaboration and knowledge-management tools seems too good to be true. The sheer magnitude of multiple projects designed to implement the technologies required can feel overwhelming, if not prohibitively expensive, particularly for smaller firms. As a result, many of us in the RIA world are content to rely on email and poorly organized shared drives to support our day-to-day operations.

But what if there was an easy, cost-effective way to find and share documents and knowledge within your firm across all devices and locations? What if employees could get their work done from any device and any location?

Enter the Modern Digital Workplace
Many advisors have at least some experience trying to drag their firm into the 21st Century. Perhaps you've reduced the amount of paper floating around the office with an efficient scanner and the use of digital client forms with services such as DocuSign. Or maybe your employees will occasionally work from home on their own computers.

These are great first steps, yet today's digital workplace demands more of us. Thankfully, the technologies we rely on to create our virtual offices have become both advanced and intuitive enough to enable truly consistent user experiences regardless of where we might be working or what device we might be working on. Instead of having to worry about jumping between different systems, the modern digital workplace enables us to seamlessly pick up where we left off, collaborate with coworkers, and easily find the information we need to do our jobs.

With the right tools, working on your laptop or iPad feels just like working on your office desktop, finding and sharing a client document is a breeze, and reviewing the latest version of your firm's new client onboarding procedure has never been easier.

Why Make The Leap?
Emailing yourself some files to work on later in the evening or using remote desktop software from home to access the computer sitting on your office desk might get the job done, but is it the most effective way to do so?

Anyone who has tried can tell you, the experience is hardly consistent. You may not have the same version of the applications you use at the office on your device at home. Or you may not have the applications at all, instead relying on completely different software. And good luck trying to get a full workday's worth of productivity out of a mobile device.

Capitalizing on today's best digital workplace technologies can lead to far more continuity and efficiency in your workday, with fewer disruptions from inconsistent software and filing practices, and greatly improved employee engagement. It could even result in more flexible remote work policies and happier employees.

This is especially important as Millennials join our ranks in the financial-planning profession. With the average age of financial advisors in the United States currently over 50, succession planning and the means by which we can attract new, younger talent has become a vital topic of discussion. Compensation, a well-defined career path, and mentoring opportunities are key to any succession plan's success. But more than any other generation before them, Millennials value workplace flexibility and have a unique understanding of how we should get work done. As a generation that grew up using technology, they expect their employers to leverage it to their advantage and enable them to produce their best work possible.

Get Started by Leveraging Tools You May Already Be Paying For
With the advent of cloud computing technologies and the continued drive to push our content to online services, many firms may be closer to a truly digital workplace than they think. Microsoft's Office productivity suite is ubiquitous in the business world, and RIAs are no different when it comes to their first choice for productivity software. Many of us are using the latest versions of the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications we know and love on our desktop as part of an Office 365 Business plan.

Yet some of Office 365's best and often underutilized features are those that could have the most significant, positive impact on our firms. In addition to the desktop applications we're all familiar with, apps now exist for a plethora of mobile devices. With Office Online (included with any Office 365 subscription) advisors can create, edit, and share Office documents using any supported Internet browser. Microsoft's Lync application enables your firm's employees to host or join online meetings with HD video conferencing, instant messaging, and screen sharing. And with 1 TB of OneDrive storage (the Microsoft equivalent of Dropbox), your files are always with you wherever you have a connection to the Internet, and can even be synced to devices for offline use.

Taking Things To The Next Level
Also included with an Office 365 Business Premium plan, or available as an add-on service for only $5 per user per month, is SharePoint Online. Microsoft's latest online version of SharePoint makes it easier than ever to create your firm's own intranet, efficiently manage documents, and organize institutional knowledge. Gone are the days in which a sophisticated SharePoint intranet was primarily used only by large Fortune 500 companies, and implementing one required an expensive server and dedicated IT team.

Imagine starting your workday by opening your web browser of choice and being greeted by your firm's own internal website tailored to match your business structure. You could catch up on the latest news from your coworkers or check your firm's social calendar on the homepage, navigate to the Operations site to review your end-of-quarter compliance procedures, then find the cost basis document you were working on yesterday and start editing it instantly in your browser just by typing a few characters into a search box. What's more, you could access this website from any device.

Harnessing only a fraction of the power that a SharePoint intranet brings to the table can result in huge payoffs when it comes to workplace continuity and flexibility. More complex features might require some homework prior to implementation, or the help of a SharePoint pro. If yours is a small firm (under 25 employees), keeping it simple and making use of out-of-the-box features may be your best option. Thanks to SharePoint Online, that's never been easier.

Putting It All Together
Any effective digital workplace will incorporate your firm's culture, devices, and specific business needs. Although cloud tools like Microsoft's Office 365 and SharePoint online are only one potential aspect of any virtual office, they're highly suitable to the needs of financial advisors. With proper planning and only a modest investment, you could be well on your way to a truly digital workplace.


Next month: 5 Keys to a Successful SharePoint Intranet Implementation

Ben joined Focus Wealth Management, Ltd. as an associate in April 2014, after three years of providing design and support services to small businesses looking to migrate to the cloud. He is currently pursuing an Executive Certificate in Financial Planning through Northwestern University in addition to his CFP® certification.  

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