The last two years have been a time of tremendous disruption and uncertainties in all our personal and professional lives. It’s no wonder that mental wellness considerations are top of mind for many of the practitioners I speak to these days. And they’re not alone. A total of 89% of respondents said their workplace wellbeing had declined during the pandemic, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review. Their reasons included increased work demands, isolation and a lack of connection, growing disengagement from work and home/life concerns. As we look ahead to a new year, there are a few ways that firms can alleviate stress for their people and help improve their sense of wellbeing.
Set remote work guidelines. Despite the large number of firms that successfully switched to entirely remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, I’m still hearing a great deal of uncertainty about where to go next. Although the arrangements may have worked during the height of the pandemic, some firm leaders worry that staff may not perform as well as time goes on. However, with 30% of employees saying they would likely switch jobs if they had to return to working fully onsite, according to a McKinsey study, it’s important for firms to focus on flexibility. Some employees may want to remain remote, others may welcome a return to a collegial office atmosphere and some may prefer a hybrid arrangement. Fortunately, smaller firms are well positioned to adapt to a variety of needs. It may be challenging to juggle different arrangements, but doing so should offer advantages in productivity, recruitment and retention, and employee engagement and wellbeing. Get started by developing and communicating a clear plan for work arrangements. Even if the plan is to address each issue on a case-by-case basis, it will be less stressful for all firm members if they understand what to expect.
Drop the timesheets. Are you worried about how many hours remote workers are putting in? You can solve that problem by eliminating timesheets and judging performance based on output. There are many benefits to this practice, for both your firm and your people. Among other things, it gives staff greater control and decision-making power over their time, resulting in less stress and higher morale. It also cuts down on the administrative burden of tracking hours, which gives staff and managers more time to focus on higher level work. Another important benefit: It can be one step in a shift in your relationship with clients, in which you set fees based on the value of what you are doing for them and not on the hours your people have worked.
Focus on communication. This is always good advice, but it becomes even more important when circumstances and expectations are changing. For remote and hybrid workers, both the firm and employees will likely have more satisfaction if firms make full use of technology—such as cloud platforms and online meeting tools—to ensure there are as many touchpoints as possible. This can help employees feel more connected and allow firm leaders to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Offer opportunities to decompress. Some firm leaders I’ve spoken to have actively encouraged staff to take leaves of absence. More than just a few days off, the leaves can stretch up to a couple of weeks or a month so that firm members really have a chance to leave their emails behind and disengage. During the summer, one firm actually offered to pay staff to take time off by giving them an additional day of compensation if they took five paid time off days in a row. Firm leaders really wanted to motivate them to take a break. It made a world of difference, the owners told me, for the staff who participated. Consider expanding time off opportunities for staff once busy season is over.
A top issue
Employee mental health and wellbeing were among the top 25 concerns for firms with six or more professionals in the 2021 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey. No one mental wellness suggestion will suit every firm and it may take time for the steps you take to make a difference. In the meantime, though, you can rely on some of the things small firms do best: Be flexible and stay connected with your team.
This will be the last issue of Small Firm Solutions until May 2022. In the meantime, I wish you a happy and healthy new year and a great busy season.
Carl Peterson, CPA, CGMA is the Association’s Vice President of Small Firm Interests. Have questions for Carl? Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-252-4618.