It’s a good news/bad news/good news story.Demand for the services that CPA firms provide is widely expected to remain strong into the foreseeable future.

The bad news is that an impending tide of Baby Boomer retirements will tax accounting firms’ ability to sustain and build the human capital needed to keep up with that demand.

The second bit of good news is that progressive firms are meeting that challenge, setting an example for others to follow with a mantra of programs such as flexible work schedules to lure and retain both veteran and younger employees.

“We like to say that we’re so flexible that we don’t have a flexible work policy,” said Carolyn D’Anna, CPA, partner and managing director of human resources for J.H. Cohn, a Roseland, N.J.-based firm with about 1,000 employees and a heavy concentration in the Northeast.

“We understand that there needs to be that flexibility, allowing people to work from home” when a family or other need arises, she said. Although that flexibility is principally tapped by women, “It’s available to men as well,” she noted.

At Bloomington, Minn.-based RSM McGladrey, flexibility includes the concept of the “flex year.” Teresa Hopke, director of talent management for the firm, explained that some employees can take summers off, but be paid over 12 months. While this opportunity is most often exploited by mothers coping with kids’ vacation schedules, one male employee sheds his CPA identity during the summer to fight forest fires.

WORK/LIFE GOAL-SETTING

But it’s not enough to open the door: Hopke said that employees need to be prodded to think about the possibilities. “In addition to their business goals, we ask them to set a work/life goal.”

Several McGladrey employees have used goal-setting to preserve a little sanity during the busy season, vowing to eat dinner at home regularly, or attend a child’s birthday party. The exercise “forces them to think about the fact that they should have a life, too,” Hopke explained.

J.H. Cohn also has a “professional women’s program.” D’Anna revealed that 60 percent of accounting graduates today are female, and turnover rates are typically higher among women.

ENABLING SKILLS

Other retention-oriented efforts at J.H. Cohn include a learning and development department, which offers both technical training and “enabling skills,” such as communication and networking. Along similar lines, the firm runs a “partner academy” to provide managerial and career development training to high-potential managers.

But what if partnership isn’t an employee’s goal — at least not for now? Recognizing the fact that employees often have varying career objectives led to a conceptual framework that Big Four firm Deloitte calls “mass career customization.”

“You can have 69 flexibility plans, but that doesn’t fix the fact that the whole notion of the corporate ladder is based on a workforce that no longer exists,” said vice chair and chief talent officer Cathy Benko. She avoids the phrase “work/life balance,” because “it implies that these are opposing forces. We prefer ‘career/life fit.’ You can’t just say, ‘Women want it this way’ or ‘Boomers want it this way.’ Each one of us wants to customize careers.”

According to Benko, people’s careers ebb and flow differently, although certain common patterns may exist, particularly at the beginning. For example, the young new hires often are ambitious and put the proverbial “pedal to the metal.” But at other stages, many may prefer to “dial down” their careers — at least for a while, then perhaps crank them back up again.

When Deloitte employees “dial” themselves down to zero and leave the firm, many eventually return. “About 50 percent of the people we hire are experienced, and about a third of them have worked for us before,” Benko said. Deloitte’s Web site includes an alumni networking area to encourage ex-employees to stay connected, and possibly return.

CORPORATE “LATTICE”

Instead of the “corporate ladder,” the career metaphor at Deloitte is the “corporate lattice,” with its horizontal and vertical dimensions, said Benko: “We want people to be where they want to be, instead of the only place they can be.”

Thus far, Deloitte has found that relatively few — about 10 percent — of employees choose to change their career’s dial setting. “But people say it’s nice to know that you can,” Benko said.

Concepts like mass career customization may or may not be feasible for smaller CPA firms. But the central element of being tuned in to what employees think and want from work is key to any retention strategy, according to Rita Keller, a shareholder and the chief operating officer at Brady Ware & Schoenfeld, a regional CPA firm with 125 employees and offices in Ohio and Indiana.

Keller said that she pays particular attention to the younger “Millennial” generation employees (those born between 1981 and 2000), whose retention is generally more of a challenge that that of older team members. “The good news,” she said, “is these people are used to structured lives. They’ve had a lot of support growing up.”

LOOKING FOR A PARENT

What that means, however, is that, “They’re looking at older partners as ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ But we’re not used to that. We used to talk about certain people as ‘high-maintenance.’ But these new people are all high-maintenance.”

These younger workers also like to be heard, she added. On a practical level, that means that more is required than the standard open-door policy. “It’s hard to get the attention of older accountants,” she said. “You’ve got to make ways for the Millennials to be heard,” including regular forums on issues of concern.

Diane Brown, an organizational development consultant in Brownsburg, Ind., noted, “Young people want to know where they stand and how to get to the next level.” And being told “where they stand” must be more than a numeric ratings-based evaluation system, and include a lot of discussion, she added.

BUILDING TRUST

“One of the keys to retention is developing strong one-to-one relationships with them from the start. That leads to the level of trust,” added Tom Porter, a consultant who works closely with Brown.

Formalizing that effort can be accomplished with mentoring and extending basic “on-boarding” programs beyond the initial stages of a new employee’s tenure with the firm, Porter said.

In coaching younger employees, Jules Frankel, CPA, a shareholder with Wilkin & Guttenplan, a 65-employee firm based in East Brunswick, N.J., tells them, “There is more than one road to success.” He tries to help them determine “what’s going to make you happy with what you’re doing at work.”

Frankel also believes that the best way to retain employees is to hire very carefully. “Our philosophy is you date before you get married,” he said. Thus the firm has an extensive internship program to acquaint prospective employees with life at Wilkin & Guttenplan.

Beyond simply pursuing best practices, firms that are serious about retention create accountability mechanisms to ensure that policies are adhered to. For example, partners at Brady Ware are supposed to spend time mentoring younger associates, and are monitored on it.

The successful firms use metrics including engagement surveys and basic turnover statistics to evaluate their retention strategies. Recent exit interviews determined that “flexibility and work/life” are no longer the top reasons employees leave McGladrey, Hopke said.

For more, see “Other paths: Firms find flexible work programs boost retention, productivity,” in the March 31 issue of Accounting Today, on WebCPA.com.

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