As CPA firms grapple with ongoing staffing challenges and the norm of a “traditional” workplace begins to erode, management must be more flexible and innovative than ever.

While people are still showing up to work and plugging in with ambition, it’s the how and when that’s evolving.

“A partner in one of our locations had a director who was a very high performer and he came to him and said, ‘I think I’m going to have to leave, I just don’t have the flexibility I need,’” recalled Teresa Hopke, director of work/life strategies at RSM McGladrey in Minneapolis. “‘I need to be able to spend more time in the afternoon at home with my ...’ and the partner thought he was going to say with his kids or his wife or something, and he said, ‘my dog. My dog just isn’t getting enough attention from me and it’s really impacting our relationship.’ And this old-school partner is sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this guy wants flexibility to be with his dog, this is ridiculous.’”

Because of RSM’s business-based flexibility strategy — where employees submit a proposal focusing on how the work-style change would affect others in the firm and how they will mitigate that impact — managers are encouraged to support requests that have a neutral or positive impact on the business, even if the decision makes them feel uncomfortable.

“We don’t ask anyone what their reason is,” Hopke said. “We don’t think we should be judging the reason. What we want to know is what impact it has on the business and on your clients and on your coworkers, and we want to know how you are going to redesign your job to get your work done in an effective and efficient manner.”

Ultimately, the partner accepted his director’s request for more afternoon time with his dog — and has benefited from his decision, as the director has become an even higher performer than before.
“When people are doing something they don’t want to do, they eventually will leave,” said Steve Erickson, a CPA and national consultant to CPA firms based in Albuquerque, N.M. He added that he found that most high-valued performers usually leave their positions when they hit the three-to-seven year mark, though many may still enjoy the work they’re doing. “We’re losing our stars. For women, that’s about child-bearing years. A lot of these folks, even if they’re great accountants, they are looking for alternatives, a way to manage their life,” Erickson said.

“I don’t think there’s any official definition, but anything that falls out of the 80-hours-
a-week, face-time traditional career model, which is the paradigm that has brought the profession to where it is, is considered an alternative career path,” said Cheryl Leitschuh, Ed.D, president of Leitschuh Leadership Consulting in Minneapolis.

Through her work as chair of the American Institute of CPAs’ Work/Life and Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee, Leitschuh said that there are a number of variables pointing to the need for alternative career paths, and they all lead to the same understanding: Those firms that offer flexible working arrangements are more attractive from a recruiting and retention perspective.

“We always in our committee say women have been the canary in the coal mine, they’ve been the ones that have forged ahead in trying to work out alternative career paths just because of the logistics of being a mom,” explained Leitschuh. “More than 50 percent of the population coming into the profession is female, but we also have the demographics where the younger generation, the majority of them, have dual-career families. It isn’t that there’s one person at home handling everything. Then, there’s a workforce shortage, so people can look for things that are going to meet some of those values that the younger generation is coming [in] with. They are coming with a strong value ethic, whereas the Baby Boomers came with a strong work ethic. How they both think about careers is very different.”

Most experts agreed that though women have tipped off the discussion regarding flexibility and alternative career paths due to juggling their careers and motherhood, they aren’t the only ones who need the change — even though that’s how the shift within the firm often starts.

At BDO Seidman, it took a firm-wide assessment prior to developing a women’s initiative approximately three years ago to really discover the issues that were buried among its staff.

According to partner and general counsel Barbara Taylor, 93 percent of the firm’s employees were looking for work/life balance, or what they currently term as “work/life fit.” Less than half, Taylor said, felt that they were getting it.

“As we dug deeper into those numbers, what we discovered was our men were struggling more than our women, and our single people or our married people without children were struggling more than people with kids,” Taylor said. “That’s when we knew we had to pull this out of the women’s initiative, that this was really a business issue needing to be addressed. Corporate America was used to working moms saying, ‘I would like to work from home.’ But corporate America was not used to hearing from the 55-year-old male whose mother was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and what he needs to do to cope with that. That was being ignored.”

As a result, the firm is getting ready to roll out its “BDO Flex” initiative to employees this summer. Described as a business strategy, not a human resources initiative, the program was fueled by the current fast-paced, high-tech global culture and because younger generations “work very differently than prior generations and have an expectation that they are going to integrate their life into their work.”
“It was really looking at all of those things that led to the creation of a flex initiative to help people look at their own situation and figure out what works for them and figure out if what they are looking for also works for the needs of the business,” said Taylor.

Examples, please!

“I think alternative career tracks are the result of the requirement for a more flexible approach that is driven by the fact that some employees want to work in a different way than others did in the past. Also, because of lack of flexibility, firms have had many of their talented people leave public accounting and never look back,” said Gale Crosley, president of Atlanta-based consultancy Crosley + Co. “[Firms] are doing it because it’s a good business decision, not a social program. There’s a compelling business case and that makes it sustainable. We don’t have to worry about the sustainability of it, because for at least the foreseeable future, these firms need accountants desperately, so they are going to find ways to make this work.”

Executives in midsized firms researching and developing their own types of strategies point to Deloitte & Touche’s “Mass Career Customization,” a program that introduced the horizontal lattice as an alternative to the traditional corporate ladder. The AICPA has found more than a handful of initiatives — stemming from a 2005 focus group summary prepared by Leitschuh, highlighting strategies to advance women — that have also worked.

Aside from flexible work arrangements, where schedules are created on an individual basis and can include a compressed or reduced work week, successful plans include telecommuting; part-time options to partnership; off-ramp considerations, or keeping employees connected to the firm when they are away on leave through CPE training, access to e-mail and inter-office communications; creating policies to support work/life effectiveness for both men and women; and offering choices in career direction.

Lastly, a strategy that seems to be catching on is implementing “project teams,” rather than a single client contact. This allows for client responsiveness while still respecting employee needs for flexibility and work/life balance, according to Leitschuh’s committee.

“In order for public accounting to avail itself of the workforce that we have now, we have to start looking differently in our practices and have client service teams,” Erickson said. “We would have a group of individuals that would be serving the client, but what would happen? Because we have a team environment, we could use a lot of alternative career path people, we could use people part-time because we would have more than one person familiar with a situation with a client.”

At RSM, where Hopke’s position became an outgrowth of the firm’s women’s leadership efforts four years ago, the work/life strategy became a dual approach. “It was looking at what programs we could put in place to help employees, but also what cultural-change pieces we could put in place,” she said, adding that the firm currently has about 700 employees taking advantage of some sort of flexible work option. “A lot of companies that start to focus on this put daycare centers in and onsite gyms and a lot of programs. We didn’t have a lot of money to do that and we didn’t believe that that’s where the biggest bang for the buck was. We thought if we could evolve the culture and start conversations about work/life and give people the support they needed, that that’s what was going to make the difference.”

As a result, the firm started to implement work/life goal-setting, which encourages employees to write a work/life goal in addition to their business goals every year as part of their performance management process. The goal gets discussed with their performance management advisor, who then tries to keep them accountable to their goal.

In addition, Hopke said, her firm has “every permutation of flexibility you can imagine,” including an option called “flex career” where employees can leave the firm for up to five years to pursue personal interests. While away, the employee can still remain connected to the firm and receive subsidies for learning and professional development. “We want to try to keep the people we’ve invested in and make sure they’re connected so when they feel they want to come back, they can,” she said.

For Lori Nelson, principal of human capital at Ehrhardt Keefe Steiner & Hottman PC in Denver, the approach to work/life issues isn’t built into the firm’s formal policies. However, discussions with employees do take place within performance development meetings to gain a better understanding of what their aspirations are.
“We ask our employees, especially at the manager and senior manager level, what their goals and aspirations are longer-term. Specifically, do they want to become partner?” Nelson said. “If this is a goal, then we work with them to provide the resources, tools, training, coaching and mentoring to assist them in accomplishing that goal if that’s something they are set out to do. We want to groom and develop those folks to basically replace partners that will retire, so we have continuity into the future. It is our goal to be a second-, third- and beyond-generation firm.”

The firm, which has been named a Best Place to Work in Denver for three consecutive years, has grown from 100 to 360 people in the last seven years and has about 30 people on some kind of flexible work arrangement. And for those who work traditional full-time schedules, the firm offers an 11-month year, an option that allows staff to trade compensation for additional time off.

“We want and need talented and skilled professionals within our organization to be able to serve our clients,” Nelson said. “So certainly if somebody is coming to me as an existing employee or in the hiring process and is proposing some kind of reduced schedule or alternative work arrangement, we would certainly take a look at how we can make the situation a win-win for the employee/candidate and the firm.”

Forward tracks

“There are so many approaches you can take to this topic,” said consultant Crosley. “CPA firms were built by men for men before women arrived in large numbers in the profession. There’s a lot of catching up that firms are trying to do. We’re really in our infancy in figuring it out. Competencies versus time and grade are understood by firms that are more advanced.”

The first step in implementing an initiative is to educate the partners, Crosley stressed, adding that many firms come to her after a program goes sideways. Once the firm’s leaders are on board and understand the importance of offering alternative career tracks and flexible time arrangements as a business strategy, the next step can be as varied as a firm’s culture. The trick, Crosley said, is to do an internal assessment and find out the most pressing issues for the firm. Is it a lack of a certain policy? Stress management? Or is it really work/life balance?

“The issue is different in every firm,” Crosley said, adding that though the initiatives need to be part of the firm’s business strategy, it’s the human resources department that will actually be rolling up their sleeves to implement the programs. “It’s its own little nuance. A consultant can help the firm with identifying the issue and designing solutions through facilitation, surveys, interviews, roundtables and other methods.”

The Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee is currently working on a business case in an effort to help senior leadership realize the benefit of looking at alternative career arrangements and how it will affect their bottom line, according to Leitschuh. She anticipates that the research will be done in a few months, with possible workshop offerings available in the fall. 
“The business case is about what is the return on investment,” she said. “It’s not a social service agency, it’s a business. How do you go about implementing that? That’s the big head-scratcher right now, because this is a different model than what we’ve been used to, so we’re changing the paradigm.” AT

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