When it comes to tactics for keeping employees happy in their work, by far the most commonly mentioned among successful accounting firms is flexibility.

Once a hallmark of a handful of cutting-edge firms, the willingness to embrace unorthodox schedules and the ability to work from home is now a must-have for any firm that hopes to attract and retain top talent.

And it really is a tight embrace: Where once firms would boast that they allowed staff to leave early for a child’s soccer game, now they practically demand that employees live fulfilling, complex lives that don’t necessarily center on work.

For instance, ATKG, a Best Firm to Work For with 39 employees in San Antonio, said that it “staunchly advocates for flexibility. We work and have a personal life. Excellence in both are valued here.”

Offering employees a range of schedules or, better yet, giving them the ability to establish a schedule of their own that fits their personal needs, is a vital first step. For instance, at McGowen, Hurst, Clark & Smith, a Best Firm with 61 employees in West Des Moines, Iowa, “The flexibility is top notch. We can create our own schedules and set up hours and days that work best for a work-life balance.”

Support for telecommuting and remote work are important as well, and so is making sure the firm is adequately staffed. Berlin, Ramos & Co., a Best Firm in North Bethesda, Md., has embraced all those approaches for its 55 employees, and now, “There seems to be a sense that there are enough hours in the day to complete the job.”

That sense can be both intangible and fragile, which can be a major problem: It’s entirely too easy for a single balky manager to undermine a firm’s reputation for flexibility, so training them and holding them accountable is critical, as are any concrete demonstrations the firm can make. Changing its official schedule – closing every Friday during the summer, for instance, or for a week during the holidays – is a strong demonstration of commitment.

For perhaps the strongest demonstration that an accounting firm can make, though, consider San Jose, Calif.-based Best Firm Johanson & Yau: “We recently reduced (and incentivized) billable hour goals for all accountants -- and eliminated firmwide minimum work hours during tax season,” the firm reported. “These are examples of our commitment to work/life balance.”

For more ways to create a top workplace, see 20 Days: Building a Better Firm.

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