Fighting Workload Compression to Provide Work/Life Balance 

by Chet Buchman, CPA, CVA, CEPA, CGMA 

In my opinion, workload compression is the number one issue challenging our profession today. As I was building my career in public accounting, a 70 hour work week during busy season was seen as the norm. Now, as my family has grown and developed, I’ve come to realize that simply accepting the impact of workload compression is not acceptable or reasonable. Working under those conditions, I was essentially unavailable to the people who are closest to me for almost a third of the year. Even when I was spending time with my family during busy season, I often wasn’t completely mentally there with deadlines weighing on my mind.

Beyond the personal impact of workload compression is the effect it has on our profession. The traditionally accepted expectations of busy season greatly impact our ability to attract and retain highly qualified professionals. For the last several years, one of the main charges of our firm has been to figure out how we can “fix” busy season. We have a strong focus on fostering quality work/life balance for our employees, while also providing the highest level of service to our clients and operating under the traditional model of busy season really hinders our ability to accomplish these items. After focusing on this aspect of our practice, we have been able to make several small changes that have added up to big results for us. We have made a lot of progress over the last few years and I truly expect 2017 to be our best busy season yet.

Change the Conversation from the Top Down
The first step in mitigating the impact of workload compression for us was changing the perception of the busy season work schedule. For a long time, working an intense amount of hours has almost been considered a badge of honor. There’s a widespread belief that the number of hours you’re working equates to your success. We knew that in order for us to really make a change, we would have to flip that perception completely. We also knew that change would have to begin with the partner group. We forced ourselves to begin coming in and leaving at reasonable times to set the example for our team. Honestly, that was the most difficult adjustment to make. However, once we started doing that it reverberated throughout the firm. Once we shifted that mindset, we were free to start focusing on the adjustments we needed to make as a firm to continue to deliver high quality service in the most effective way, while maintaining this new perspective.
One of the foundations of our firm’s vision is to create and maintain a high quality work/life balance for our team and enabling them to build a career that is both personally and professionally rewarding. In order to begin changing the traditional perception, we began to really communicate that vision throughout the firm. We incorporated  Edi Osborne’s book, Firm Forward into our firm’s reading program. Having our people read this book, which did an excellent job of articulating the vision we had for our firm, helped tremendously with that communication. We also started engaging every part of our team to focus on how we could get better. For example, we have various committees that will meet on a monthly basis to work on improving our processes and procedures. After that initial paradigm shift, we have found that finding even small changes and improvements has been instrumental in reducing the impact of workload compression for our team. Another big change that has been incredibly helpful for us has been working to maintain excess capacity of staff throughout the year. Our firm has adopted the mindset of running one person long rather than the traditional view of one person short. As a result, our firm now hires good people when we find them, and this has had a tremendous effect on our ability to balance workload and achieve reasonable work weeks for our team.

Focus on the “How”
It can be easy to fall into thinking that you aren’t able to change the way things are done because they’ve been done that way for so long. I urge firms to be encouraged and know that change can happen. Once you change the way that you think and start having those conversations with your team, it’s amazing the ideas that will surface. For our firm, it’s been a number of small changes that have come with big results. Take it one step at a time. It may be a challenge, but it can be accomplished.

Also be sure to surround yourself with people who share your vision. One resource that has been instrumental in our firm’s success has been participating in a PCPS Networking Group. These meetings allow us to share best practices amongst our peer group and have been extremely beneficial in helping us improve our firm. It would be great to see more practitioners embracing the idea of change and working together to combat issues like workload compression. A higher level of collaboration in that way would allow our profession to truly blossom.

Swindoll, Janzen, Hawk & Loyd, LLC is a medium firm with offices in McPherson, Hutchinson and Wichita, KS. Chet Buchman, CPA, CVA, CEPA, CGMA is managing partner. 


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