The 10 key drivers of employee engagement

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Welcome to 20 Days to a Better Firm!

While accounting firms have made tremendous progress in turning themselves into employers of choice in the decade or so since Accounting Today first launched its annual Best Firms to Work For list, recruiting and retaining top talent remains a top priority.

Over the next few weeks, this series of articles will share strategies and insights on finding and keeping top talent that AT’s editors have gleaned from the 2018 class of the Best Accounting Firms to Work For -- the 100 small, midsized and large firms with the best workplaces in the country.

To kick things off, this article will explore the qualities that accounting firm employees value most in their workplaces.

AT-092918-Best Firms Top Drivers
Two-thirds of a firm’s score in the Best Firms ranking is determined by the results of an anonymous employee survey that dives deep into their attitudes about their workplace. In addition to determining the individual firms’ rankings, the survey also offers a great guide to what really matters to staff, in the form of a set of 10 key drivers to employee engagement – the attributes that matter most to them.

This year’s 10 key drivers are listed above and explored in more depth below – and many of them will come up repeatedly over the next 19 days, as they touch on a host of ways that firms can improve their game when it comes to engaging employees.
2018 Best Firms - Kearney Awards
‘Quality is a top priority with this organization.’
The accounting profession as a whole is dedicated to quality, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that placing a premium on top-notch work was the most commonly reported among the key drivers, with 97 percent positive survey responses among the Best Firms overall (and 99 percent positive responses at the best small firms).

The Best Firms are quick to note their dedication to superior work – but they’re also quick to recognize and reward it, whether it’s with frequent public praise, cold cash, or major awards like the ones pictured above, which demonstrate how the pursuit of quality is a bedrock principle: They’re given out by Alexandria, Virginia-based Best Firm Kearney & Co. to employees who demonstrate outstanding leadership, teamwork and professionalism, all “while maintaining a high quality of work.”
2018 Best Firms - Cornwell Jackson breakfast
‘I have confidence in the leadership of this organization.’
Engendering a feeling of trust among employees is critical, and the Best Firms do it in a number of ways, starting with providing regular access to and communication from managing partners and partners, as well as giving staff a clear sense of the direction of the firm. (Many of these pay off in supporting other drivers, too, particularly in building a sense of shared goals.)

It need not go as far as trusting the partners to cook breakfast for staff, as they do at Plano, Texas-based Cornwell Jackson (above), but it couldn’t hurt … .
2018 Best Firms -- Cassady Schiller volunteer
‘I like the type of work that I do.’
It’s not necessarily that the Best Firms do a different type of work than other accounting firms – but they are able to gin up a higher level of enthusiasm for it among their staff. Doing that involves a number of approaches, from clearly communicating the value of any particular task, to minimizing grunt work, to building strong teams that make any kind of work more enjoyable.

As Cincinnati-based Cassady Schiller (pictured above), puts it, “When you love what you do and who you do it with ... it shows and the result is an amazing culture that you have to experience to fully understand.”
2018 Best Firms - Miller Grossbard costumes
‘This organization treats me like a person, not a number.’
From mentoring and development plans that are custom-tailored for each employees, to frequent awards and recognitions and personal callouts, to regular employee surveys and opportunities to implement initiatives and serve on committees that actually have an impact, the Best Firms are full of ways to make employees feel seen and appreciated for themselves and their own contributions.

The goal, according to Texas-based Best Firm Miller Grossbard (pictured above), is for employees to be able to say, “I’m not just a number or a cog in the big machine.” And they clearly aren't.
2018 Best Firms - Frankel Zacharia - Christmas
‘Most days, I feel I have made progress at work.’
A sense of forward motion is a major driver for employees, and the Best Firms strive to provide that with clearly defined goals and benchmarks, frequent assessments and feedback (a quarter of them do performance reviews more than twice a year), and long-term career development help.

At Nebraska’s Frankel Zacharia, for instance, “We have a mentor program that revolves around goal-setting for our staff,” the firm reports. “It allows them the ability to create goals that fit for their chosen career path.”
2018 Best Firms - Barnes Saly stairs
‘My supervisor handles my personal issues satisfactorily.’
Open-door policies are extremely common among the Best Firms, encouraging staff to share concerns with their managers – and for managers to listen and respond appropriately. Openness, flexibility and the genuine desire to make employees’ lives better are important hallmarks of a Best Firm.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that this isn’t always about big things; it can be simple policies that make things easy, like the practice at Pennsylvania-based Barnes Saly & Co. (pictured) of automatically honoring 100 percent of time-off requests.
AT-093018-Best Firms working to shared goals
‘I feel part of a team working toward a shared goal.’
A sense of common purpose – and a clear understanding of what that purpose is and whether it’s being achieved – are critical to keeping employees on board, and is one of the major differentiators between those that made the Best Firms and those that didn’t (see above).

Provided they are transparent and include meaningful details on the goals and progress of the firm, the same kinds of communication that build confidence in leadership – frequent staff meetings, messages from the managing partner, and so on – are a great way to build the sense that everyone is pulling together in the same direction.
2018 Best Firms - Whipplewood Axe throwing
‘At this organization, employees have fun at work.’
If anything, the Best Firms have too much fun: with in-office putt-putt tournaments; purpose-built game rooms; birthday parties, costume parties, Tax Day parties, holiday parties, and lots and lots of cocktail parties; outings and barbecues and field days, as well as ski trips, cruises, visits to Disney, and more, often dreamed up, planned and coordinated by in-house Fun Committees.

Not every firm needs to go axe-throwing, like Colorado-based Best Firm Whipplewood CPAs (pictured), but they’ll need to come up with something that’s at least as much fun … .
2018 Best Firms - Wilson Toellner Lake
‘I feel I am valued in this organization.’
Awards, rewards and other forms of recognition are thick on the ground at Best Firms, as they aim to demonstrate how much they value employees, but they’re also sure to solicit – and act on – staff input, to offer plentiful opportunities to affect the direction of the firm, and to invest in each individual’s development.

Summing it up, Missouri-based Best Firm Wilson Toellner aims for its staff (above) to feel like, “Management listens to me. I have clear opportunities to grow, and a voice that can impact my own development.”
AT-093018-Best Firms Benefits satisfaction
‘Overall, I’m satisfied with this organization’s benefits package.’
Many of the top drivers speak to employees’ feelings of self-worth or their emotional engagement with their employer, but this last one is about facts: To be a top workplace, a firm must be competitive in terms of pay, vacation and time off, health and dental insurance, retirement plan benefits, life and disability insurance, and other benefits.

This is one of the biggest differentiators between practices that made the Best Firms and those that didn’t, with spreads of almost 10 percentage points between the two groups in terms of employee responses (see chart above).