Editors: Steven F. Holub, CPA, MBA, and Kenneth M. Parker, CPA
Achieving work/life balance is a very personal goal that is unique to each associate, especially at a time when many firms are expecting associates to take on expanded roles (do more with less). A situation that one associate may consider to be a perfect balance may be completely wrong for another. This column outlines suggestions for helping a firm’s associates achieve a work/life balance that is appropriate for them.
Why Should Accounting Firms Be Concerned With Balance?
Accounting firms have a goal of making money, and one way to reach that goal is to have associates work as many hours as possible. However, if a firm expects too many hours from associates, it risks burnout and fosters an environment of disengagement. Associate morale is a key factor in retaining the firm’s top talent. If associates are miserable, they may look elsewhere for employment, and it is often the firm’s best associates who are the most vulnerable.
It is expensive for firms to hire new associates, especially considering the time it takes to conduct multiple levels of interviews and for new associates to learn the corporate culture and expectations. Disengaged associates affect productivity, and they infiltrate the firm’s entire culture.
Generation Y Associates
Generation Y associates have different communication styles and expectations than Baby Boomers and Generation X associates. A higher proportion of Generation Y associates (or Millennials), born in the early 1980s, grew up with divorced parents. They might wish to provide a life for their families different from what they experienced, and they may place greater emphasis on work/life balance. Generation Y associates also want a collaborative work environment. For Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) to create an engaged workforce, as managers they should obtain training about generational differences within their teams and how to adapt their management style to connect with the values and needs of Generation Y associates.
How Can Firms Help Associates Achieve Work/Life Balance?
Some alternatives that accounting firms could consider include part-time hours, flexible hours, a paid-time-off (PTO) bank, alternative partner tracks, work-from-home arrangements, mentoring, health club memberships, busy season perks, “road warrior” perks, volunteer opportunities, and camaraderie-building activities. This column looks at each suggestion in more detail.
Accounting firms have come a long way in the last 20 years in their willingness to hire part-time associates. Firms realize that many talented people would like to work—but not in a full-time capacity. These individuals may have other commitments such as younger children, or outside interests that compete for their time. The key to a successful part-time arrangement is to establish clear expectations on both sides. For example, the firm may want associates to be available extra hours during peak work periods (e.g., in March, April, September, and early October for tax professionals). The associates may want to work fixed hours per week over the course of the year with the understanding that the extra hours worked in peak seasons can be taken later in the year as paid time off.
Some associates may hesitate to agree to a part-time schedule because of the fear that the “part-time” job will evolve into a full-time job, but with part-time pay. This can easily happen if the associate is not comfortable saying no to extra work or if management loses sight of the part-time arrangement. In addition, assigning part-time associates to demanding clients that expect immediate access to their service team could be a recipe for disaster for both management and the associate because the client will be unhappy and the associate will be frustrated. Communication between the associate and management is critical in making a part-time arrangement work. It is also important that firms consider the needs of childless associates (both male and female) who wish to have part-time hours for work/life balance since the firm should not be perceived as favoring parents over other associates.
An alternative to the regular eight-hours-a-day workweek is to offer flexible hours. In the summer, associates may appreciate being able to work four nine-hour days and a half day on Friday or four 10-hour days and take Fridays off for a long weekend. Other associates may prefer to get into the office earlier than the standard start time and work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The key to this arrangement’s success is for management to fully outline and communicate the program rules and guidelines prior to officially implementing the program. This ensures management can be confident that there is not a negative impact on client service. If management begins to feel that the arrangement is being taken advantage of, a discussion needs to be had with the associate before too much time passes so corrective steps can be taken. Management should also not let the problematic actions of one associate taint the possibility of flexible hours for other associates.
A Paid-Time-Off Bank
Instead of having a fixed number of vacation days and a separate number of sick days, accounting firms could offer a combined number of paid-time-off days. By having one bank, associates are given flexibility on how to use those days. If an associate is rarely ill, he or she could have additional time to take a day off to visit an art museum or see a child’s school performance. On the other hand, if an associate has children who tend to get sick frequently, he or she could save days to stay home to take care of them.
Alternative Partner Tracks
For associates who do not care to spend lots of hours outside of work doing marketing, there should be an alternative path to partner. Accounting firms could have the traditional path that requires new partners to have an established book of business before being promoted. Firms could also have an alternative track that still has the management responsibilities of a partner, but acknowledges that not all of their talented associates want to invest the time in marketing and cultivating a book of business. The alternative partner track could be a fixed-salary position rather than one that shares in a percentage of the firm’s profits.
Work From Home
Associates have many opportunities to work from home, including using laptops, cellphones, hand-held devices, and remote login. In public accounting, it is difficult to work exclusively from home because of the need to work with other professionals in the office, but sometimes days at home can be efficient because of fewer interruptions compared to the office. Associates also appreciate the ability to work from home during snowstorms or other times when the commute is not safe or if it is terribly long. The key is to have effective security measures in place on technology devices to minimize concerns about lost or stolen laptops or smartphones and other potential security breaches. To have management’s confidence that work is being done, an associate may need to be accessible by email or phone for status updates or questions. Both sides need to set clear expectations and processes so that there is management “buy in” to the concept of working from home.
A mentoring program can be effective to help associates achieve the desired work/life balance. By having a mentor who knows about the associate’s life situation and goals, the associate may see that the firm has a vested interest in helping him or her succeed. The most effective mentoring programs allow an associate to choose his or her mentor—usually an individual who shares common goals or who has traits that the associate admires and would like to learn more about. For a mentoring program to succeed, both the mentor and the associate need to work at the relationship and make it more than an annual lunch. For example, by having a supportive mentor, a part-time associate may feel that someone is in his or her corner if the part-time arrangement is criticized by another partner or senior manager.
Health Club Memberships
Some associates may appreciate being provided discounted or reimbursed memberships to gyms in the area or access to on-site workout equipment. By encouraging healthy activity, the firm and its associates will benefit from a healthier lifestyle. Also, associates will have more energy and feel better about themselves than if they have been unhappy about not getting to the gym. This is especially important during peak busy season periods.
Busy Season Perks
During peak work seasons, firms could provide lunch on Saturdays and dinners some evenings during the week. Associates appreciate not having to take time out of the workday to get something to eat, and they may be more likely to stay longer in the evening to get work done.
Another perk that is helpful for associates with young children is to provide on-site baby-sitting. Parents will enjoy the extra time they can spend in the car with their children going to and from work and possibly getting to eat lunch together. By providing on-site baby-sitting, firms can make it easier for associates to come to work on weekends, and the associates will not have additional child care costs.
Arranging for a company to pick up and drop off dry cleaning at the office can save associates valuable time. The same is true for an auto service that provides on-premises auto detailing or takes an associate’s car for an oil change or other routine maintenance.
Since baseball home openers are usually during busy season, it can be fun for employers to provide a television in a conference room or lunchroom and some stadium-type snacks. Associates might enjoy the day even more if they are allowed to wear the team’s jersey and jeans.
Stress relievers during busy season can go a long way to making associates feel human and allowing them to have some fun. The activities do not have to be expensive. A company could allow associates working in the office to wear jeans on Fridays. One of the requirements for wearing jeans could be to donate a nominal sum, for example $5, to a designated charity that changes each week. This perk allows associates to dress comfortably and support volunteer activities at the same time.
Another low-cost stress buster is a contest to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar around Easter or the number of foil-wrapped chocolate coins in a jar for St. Patrick’s Day. The winner could be awarded a nominal gift certificate. Other ideas are to have several partners walk around in late afternoon with a hospitality cart filled with snacks and drinks, have people bring in baby pictures and try to guess the associate, or have a team trivia contest. Firms can get creative with the stress relievers and vary them from year to year.
Rewards for Associates Who Do Significant Travel
Firms should find ways to reward associates who travel a significant amount of time (e.g., auditors who are assigned to out-of-area jobs). These individuals may find their work/life situations out of balance because of the amount of time spent away from family and friends. If extended out-of-town stays are required, the company could provide for travel for a significant other or friend to visit the associate on location over a weekend. Another possibility is to provide gift certificates to area restaurants that the associate can enjoy with a significant other when he or she is back in town.
Many firms encourage management to volunteer on boards of charitable organizations and have leadership positions in professional organizations. Accounting firms should also encourage staff to participate in volunteer activities of various charitable organizations that are important to them, such as organizing a work team to ride bikes in a fundraising marathon or a team to walk in a support march. The firm could support a particular food bank and ask for volunteers to deliver the collected food to the organization. Supporting charitable activities may particularly appeal to Generation Y associates.
Lavish holiday parties including spouses and significant others may be less popular these days as a result of the recent recession. An alternative is to provide a late lunch for associates at a restaurant near the office with the rest of the afternoon off, allowing associates to spend more time that day with their families or on outside interests. Recognizing birthdays, marriages, work anniversaries, new babies, and retirements is also a way for associates to feel important and valued. Acknowledging significant volunteer activities is another way for associates to feel they are appreciated for the work they do outside the office, as well as in the office.
The focus of an accounting firm is to make money while performing quality work and providing excellent service. A key ingredient of that firm’s success is the quality of the associates. Retaining an engaged workforce can be a challenge, but providing a variety of options for associates to achieve work/life balance is an effective way of keeping associates happy and not interested in changing jobs. There are some costs to an accounting firm that encourages work/life balance for its associates, but the costs pale in comparison to the cost of recruiting and training new associates.
Steven Holub is a partner with Cherry Bekaert & Holland LLP in Tampa, Fla., and is former chairman of the AICPA Tax Division’s Tax Practice Management Committee. Kenneth Parker is with Parker and Associates, CPAs, in Jackson, Miss. Mary Cathryn Green is a senior manager with Marcum LLP in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Mr. Parker is chairman and Ms. Green is immediate past chair of the AICPA Tax Practice Improvement Committee. Kristin Waldrop, the Human Resources manager at Cherry Bekaert & Holland LLP in Tampa, Fla., also contributed to this column. For more information about this column, contact Ms. Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.