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How to outfit the high-tech office; office design, electronics and furniture make the office more productive.

To qualify for a high-tech label in the 1990s, an office needs most of the following: computers, printers and color plotters, a copier, a facsimile (FAX) machine, modems, an electronic library, an optical storage system and audiovisual and bar-code equipment. An accountant's office, to operate at peak efficiency, is likely to be equipped with most of these items.

(Because communication technology--both telephones and computer networks--is a complex issue, the Journal plans to publish a separate feature on that topic in December.)

While outfitting a high-tech office is a challenge, in many ways designing the office to accomodate all this equipment creates even more of a challenge. Also challenging is the choice of furniture. (For more on ergonomic furniture design, see the sidebar on pages 58-59.)

Decor is important, too, for aesthetics and to convey the right image to clients. A CPA's office shouldn't look too opulent or the firm may appear extravagant; yet it shouldn't be so austere as to give a firm the appearance it's not successful.


Whether a CPA firm is building its office from scratch or renovating an existing space, the design should be done by an architect with high-tech office experience. CPA firms that try the do-it-yourself approach or let a contractor handle the design, in an effort to save money, usually regret the decision.

Designing the office should be a two-step process. First, an architect should be hired, on an hourly basis with a preset upper limit, to assess the site suitability. Then, after the site is selected, it's wise to contract with the architect, for a fixed fee, to design and oversee the work. Under a fixed-fee contract, the architect assumes full responsibility and spends whatever time is necessary to do the job. It's best to avoid contracts that tie the architect's fee to total construction costs; such arrangements provide little incentive to keep costs down.

Once the work is under way, it's wise to try to keep alterations to a minimum. Changes incur extra charges and can add up to a significant amount. However, the architect should act as the firm's representative with the contractor, ensuring the work proceeds according to specifications.


Lighting deserves special attention because poor illumination contributes to office discomfort and low efficiency. A firm should insist the architect pay special attention to lighting needs early in the design phase.

Unfortunately, many clients instruct designers to save money by using the least-expensive fluorescent lamps. Although such fixtures provide ample general illumination, they are not good for task lighting. Unless lamp louvers are added in the ceiling to disperse the light, such lighting is glaring and makes computer-screen viewing especially uncomfortable. Also, the "cold" color of fluorescent bulbs is distasteful to many.

As a cost compromise, the architect should be asked to consider a dual lighting system--fluorescent for general illumination and incandescent for task lighting. Some of the new fluorescent bulbs produce a "warmer" ambience.

In addition, the designer should be asked to add rheostats to the lighting controls so each user can adjust illumination intensity in a room or over a task. Rheostats cost only a few dollars each and provide a convenient personal touch to a work space.


Computers are the heart of the high-tech office. The well-equipped office should have an assortment of them: a small mainframe or a powerful personal computer (PC) to operate a network of computers; PCs or workstations at the desks of most staffers; laptops or notebook PCs for those who travel; and portables for accountants who visit clients and need a computer with more capacity and screen clarity than their smaller cousins. The newest laptops offer power and screen clarity comparable to both lugables and desktop models.

While many older desktop computers--the 8088, XT and AT models--still work well for most limited applications, clearly the high-tech office should be buying either 386s or even the newer and more powerful 486s for speed and to run advanced application software.

Portable computers should be equipped with built-in or portable modems (and optional FAX circuit boards). In that way a traveling accountant can dial the office and tap into its memory bank for files, updates or even a special software program.


A high-tech office should have at least four types of printers:

* A laser printer for generating tax returns, graphics (for reports and presentations) and extra-sharp images.

* A high-speed pin (impact) printer for speed. Such machines are so inexpensive (about $250), it's almost worth linking one to nearly every computer. Most produce good-quality letters, general ledgers and graphs.

* An inexpensive ink-jet or bubble-jet printer for high-quality and graphics printing. Some bubble jets are portable.

* Color plotters for graphics, spreadsheets, cash-flow analysis and overhead displays for presentations.


For safety's sake, an accountant's office should provide for data backup in case of a fire or a power failure. The following should be available:

* Software and hardware to ensure fast and accurate backups of all data. Magnetic tape, not disks, provides the best choice for large amounts of backup data.

* An outside facility, in a building other than the CPA's office, in which to store computer data. In the event of a fire or other disaster at the accountant's office, the backup data will be safe.

* A "hot site"--an off-premises office. In the event of a disaster, the staff can be up and running on borrowed computers. The firm should check with computer consultants for such services, or it should consider making an arrangement to use a client's facilities in the event of an emergency.

* Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). The simplest and cheapest UPS kicks in automatically the instant the power goes off--giving the computers just enough time to shut down without damage or loss of data.


In selecting an office copier the real choices are performance, price and optional features. Today's technology is so advanced that few machines suffer frequent or long downtimes.

Before selecting a copier, the first step is to determine the office's peak volume (in many cases, it's from January to April) and then to compare that figure with the capacity ratings provided by vendors. Buyers should rely on those guides.

If a low-level machine (capable of generating fewer than 30 copies per minute) meets a firm's need, big bargains are available. Sales of such machines have been so slow manufacturers are offering deep discounts to stimulate business. A typical machine is selling for $2,000 less today than it did five years ago.

Options to consider on all machines are

* Sorting and collating for multipage documents. Machines come with 5 to 40 holding bins.

* Image reduction. This is necessary so spreadsheets and other large documents can be shrunk to convenient sizes (most FAX machines can't handle documents larger than 8 1/2 by 11 inches). Some copiers have only a handful of preset reduction steps; others have a zoom feature that allows reduction in 1% steps.

* Document feeds. They automatically handle multiple pages.

* Reverse auto document feed (RADF). RADFs automatically handle the paper for duplex (double-sided) copying.

* Sheet bypass. This allows report covers, separators, address labels or photos to be inserted during a multipage run.

* Liquid toner. Problems with old-style liquid toner machines ("bleeding" ink on copies) have been solved. In fact, today's liquid toner copiers are slightly more reliable than dry toner models because they have fewer moving parts.

Other considerations are

* Service contracts. Copier companies make unusually large profits from service contracts. Because the average copier has an "uptime" of 99.5%, such contracts usually are not worth it.

* Buying supplies. Despite the claims of copier vendors, the paper they sell is not any better than the paper from any supply house. Any brand is acceptable as long as it passes through the feeder. However, it's advisable to buy toner only from the manufacturer; there can be problems with cheaper, generic formulas.


Preprogrammed laser disks literally squeeze an entire accounting library onto a few feet of shelf space and make all the information available at the touch of a button. No high-tech office should be without such an electronic library.

Accessing the data on the disks, which are the computer equivalent of music and video compact disks (CDs), requires a special drive for the computer, called a CD-ROM (read-only memory).

The data can be researched very easily with the help of indexing software. In fact, since the entire operation takes place on a computer, edited text from the electronic library can be copied into the computer's word processor.


Accounting firms that do effective marketing know the most powerful sales tools are multimedia and graphic presentations prepared by computer. Such presentations include overhead visual projections, 35mm slides, newsletters with graphics and promotional pamphlets.

In addition to a 386 computer, here's the equipment needed to handle those projects:

* Presentation software. There are several popular programs specifically designed to do desktop publishing and to prepare presentation material.

* Scanners. These devices "photograph" images (pictures and text) and convert the images into computer data. The data can be edited, reshaped and stored by a computer. Scanners come in two basic models: desktop and hand-held. It's best to have both, one to do big jobs and the other to scan a few pages of text from a book.

Bonus: Scanned text also can be converted into a word processing format by using optical character-reading software, which means long printed reports can be scanned and automatically formatted into documents rather than retyped.

* Desktop slide recorder. Another optional purchase, this instrument prepares 35mm slides from material stored in the computer. If a firm does not make many slides, it may be more economical to have a photo service process the conversion.

* Data displays. These devices instantly display the color image that shows on a computer screen and project it, via an overhead display, onto a large wall screen.


Accountants are just beginning to make use of optical image storage equipment, which converts images--photos and entire documents--into computer data. The equipment stores the information and indexes it for easy retrieval. Such data also can be transmitted by modem to other computers.

The equipment is similar to the scanning equipment described above; however, in this process the data are stored on laser disks and the equipment is specially designed to handle huge numbers of images.

Prices of the systems range widely. Simple ones cost as little as several thousand dollars, but some of the more sophisticated designs can cost millions.

Accountants who do a lot of litigation work, in which many documents must be stored and quickly retrieved, filnd optical image storage equipment valuable.


Durilng the hectic tax season the comment most often heard iln the office is, "Where is the ABC Co. file?" What frequently has happened is the harried accountant who took the file into his office forgot to sign out for it. In an office with many workers, such an oversight can cause frayed nerves.

A technology originally designed to read identifying codes on retail products offers a s imple solution to the problem. In bar coding, little stripes are printed on a label. When a special computerized light pen is passed over the code, the identity of the item is placed in memory.

In a typical office application, each file is labeled with a bar code, and anyone who takes a file is required to sign out by waving the pen over the label, recording the identity of the file and the person.

The bar-code software and hardware can be added easily to any PC.


The issue that disturbs nost accountants in planning the high-tech office is obsolescence. To be sure, every few years--and sometimes even sooner--new hardware or an updated version of software hits the market, making the current technology seem antiquated. Fear of obsolescence is so pervasive the Wall Street Journal recently published a cartoon in which a psychiatrist tells his patient, "But everyone has obsolete computers they bought last year."

One response to this concern ils that every year a firm puts off investing in high-tech equipment puts it one year further behind the times, making it even more difficult to get on track. However, a firm does not always have to be at the leading edge of office technology. Equipping an accounting office with the hardware and software that best meets the firm's needs should be the primary goal, not equipping it with the latest or most expensive.

The payoff--in work efficiency and effectiveness--is worth the effort.

STANLEY ZAROWIN is a Journal senior editor

Mr. Zarowin is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessary reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Zarowin, Stanley
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Aug 1, 1991
Previous Article:The FASB's proposed rules for deferred taxes; easing the restrictions of FASB statement no. 96 on recognizing deferred tax benefits.
Next Article:Implementing SAS no. 55 in a computer environment; strategies for addressing control risk in entities that use computers to process accounting...

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