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Remote control

The possibility of a flu pandemic may mean that businesses need staff to work at home to cut the risk of infection.

For most adviser firms, this should be relatively easy to achieve with just a couple of software applications and the good news is most of these can be accessed for free.

I think this demonstrates not only how much more flexibility technology has provided to our industry but also that it offers the opportunity to review whether new ways of working can be more effective on a day to day basis, not just in emergencies.

Thinking back to the people factories our industry used to operate just a couple of decades ago, it is hard to see how the prospect of expecting all staff to work from home would not have bought the whole industry to a standstill.

Today, universal broadband access and a range of remote access technologies should mean it will be possible for almost all businesses to operate for extended periods with only a few staff in the office.

Basic remote access tools which enable users to log in to their office computers are embedded in just about every version of the Windows operating system – look for Remote Desktop under accessories and follow the Wizard.

Alternatively, for dedicated remote software packages LogMeIn, Go To My PC or Laplink Everywhere offer easy to use remote access solutions to enable staff to access their office computers remotely. The first two are available online as monthly subscription applications, with the latter offering boxed software for those who prefer to have some physical media. I believe the online options offer greater flexibility and LogMeIn does actually offer a free option designed for home access to office PCs.

Remote access products provide the ability to use office-based systems from home but it would still be essential to meet clients. Do such meetings have to be face to face? An increasing range of web meeting products can enable advisers to conduct meetings online.

This is usually achieved by both parties logging on to some form of screen-sharing software which enables them to be looking at the same information while discussing matters over a phone call. Users can exchange control of their respective desktop and even keyboard which can make such sessions ideal for completing online forms and using illustration tools.

GoToMeeting, Webex and Microsoft Live Meeting all offer a similar level of functionality. Microsoft appears to be by far the cheapest, with its online productivity suite being available for just £10.04 per user per month. This includes a range of other tools such as Microsoft Exchange (its email system not to be confused with the Vertex-owned life quotation portal), SharePoint Online for centralised resources and workflow management and Office Commun- ication, its professional Instant Messaging service.

Some of these solutions offer the ability to include a webcam but, as someone who uses this sort of software day in day out, in my experience, there is no need to do this. You usually know what the other person looks like and it is the content of the presentation and the dialogue that matter, not looking at people’s faces.

One tip I would recommend for anyone trying to use these technologies is not to get multiple people around a conference phone, ask participants to use one handset per person. Introducing a single conference phone can substantially degrade the audibility for everyone on a call. It is far better for individual users to dial in separately.

The latest entrant to the remote conferencing market is Adobe with its Connect Now, Acrobat Connect and Acrobat Connect Pro products. Connect Now is free of charge in beta format for meetings involving up to three people so it may be all some advisers need for a conferencing solution. I am planning some extended testing of the other two products and will report on this in a future column.

These conferencing solutions are an excellent way to address short-term challenges but to limit their use means missing a major opportunity.

Most face to face meetings involve more travelling time than the meeting will take. Unless the client comes to the adviser, this is going to seriously limit the amount of people that can be seen in a day. The client’s time is valuable too. By conducting at least some meetings online, it is possible to meet with more clients, more frequently.

My own company’s experience is that we are able to meet with far more adviser firms by conducting sessions using these types of technology. If you are asking someone to be at their desk for an hour or so to discuss key issues, you are far more likely to persuade them to dedicate the time than if the meeting will involve a couple of hours travelling time.

All the products mentioned in this week’s columns can be easily sourced by a quick web search of the product.

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