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Increase Productivity With Multiple Monitors

How and why to make them work for you.

February 2011
by J. Carlton Collins/Journal of Accountancy

CPAs who use dual monitors are finding that the addition of a third or fourth monitor also pays dividends. As the number of applications CPAs depend on expands, so does the need for more screen real estate. While a CPA’s two primary monitors are typically used to manage core applications such as word processing and spreadsheets, a third or fourth monitor is often used to view prior-year working papers or tax returns in electronic format, access remote computers or communicate via video conferencing. This article addresses the growing trend among CPAs to implement a third or fourth monitor and provides practical advice on how to add multiple monitors to your computer system.

Why Move to Multiple?

Reasons for using a third or fourth monitor vary, but the emergence of the paperless office appears to be a key driving force. In a paperless work environment, a third monitor frequently displays electronic documents, while the first two monitors display the user’s primary applications. For example, a CPA preparing a tax return might display tax preparation software and spreadsheet applications on the first two monitors. The third monitor would display the prior-year tax return for reference, since that tax return is maintained in an electronic format and not on paper. A fourth monitor might display tax research, e-mail correspondence from the client or Internet-based information such as a tax rate schedule. In this example, the ability to organize information at a glance can increase the CPA’s productivity when preparing a tax return.

Paperless technology is not the only reason for embracing a third or fourth monitor. For CPAs who have not yet tried using multiple monitors, the benefits might not be so obvious. A key advantage is that using multiple monitors makes it easier to prepare documents on one monitor while referring to and copying information from, other monitors. In September 2010, I polled more than 400 CPAs attending technology CPE courses in six states and found that 58 percent used at least two monitors and 12 percent of the group used three or more monitors. Other feedback I’ve received from CPAs in CPE courses suggests the following potential benefits of using a third or fourth monitor:

  1. A CPA preparing a professional report in a word processing application on one monitor might refer to accounting system financial reports on another monitor, while using the third monitor to create charts or tables using a spreadsheet application.
  2. Some CPAs who frequently use remote access applications to log in to remote computer systems, such as satellite offices or client computers, said a third monitor is useful for this purpose.
  3. Some CPAs who manage large companies and communicate frequently said it is convenient to keep their e-mail application displayed on their third monitor at all times to monitor and respond quickly to important e-mail messages. For those highly technical CPAs, a fourth monitor might also be used for video calls or for video conferences.
  4. Some executive CPAs in industry said a third monitor is useful for displaying “digital dashboards” or “Web portals” that continuously summarize key figures and critical information from the company’s accounting system, such as sales results, cash balances, backorders or products that have reached their reorder point. This allows the executive to keep a watchful eye on the company’s day-to-day operations.

Other factors leading to the adoption of a third or fourth monitor include lower prices for monitors and graphics cards and improved graphics card technology.

Factors to Consider Before Adding Monitors

1. Ideal candidates for multiple monitors. Multiple monitors work best for CPAs who like to multitask. For example, if you are a CPA who responds to e-mail throughout the day, reads financial reports, manages inventory levels, checks the Internet for the latest news and stock prices, prepares or reviews time sheets and prepares summary information for executives, it is likely you are a good candidate for multiple monitors. Likewise, a staff accountant who prepares work papers and financial statements, while referring to prior-year work papers and accounting data, may also benefit from using multiple monitors.

However, if you are a CPA who seldom uses a computer or conducts just a single task with a computer, then the time and cost of implementing additional monitors may not be justified. For example, if you only use your computer to read and respond to e-mail, then having additional screens will be less beneficial. If you seldom access the Internet, seldom log in to your accounting system or have an assistant type your letters, then the benefits of adding monitors to your computer may be minimal. Further, some CPAs said that using additional monitors to continuously display e-mail and Web browsers can be distracting.

Before adding monitors to your computer, consider your computer habits. If you spend less than 20 percent of your time on the computer, multiple monitors may not be warranted.

This article has been excerpted from the Journal of Accountancy. View the full article here.