Since early 2020 I have held the view that we are seeing a potentially seismic shift in societal attitudes about the amount of time we spend at work, where we work and when we work. I think it has been happening for some time and COVID accelerated it. Arguably it is being driven by the younger generations looking at those going before them and seeing the impact that work has had on quality of life, particularly health and relationships, and saying “I don’t want that”. Even where the monetary rewards are great there seems to be a sense that it may not be worth it.
During COVID, people in Sydney and Melbourne in particular, discovered they had so much more time without the commute and appreciated more family and leisure time.
I believe this broad change across society is reducing the size of the pond you are fishing in for employees who are prepared to work the way they might have previously worked, or how you have worked in the past, and possibly still do.
The goal of this article is to remind you of what “flexible work” is and where I think this has ended up in respect of accounting firms.
What is “flexible work”
I believe there are three elements of work that are now very much up for negotiation. Most of my accounting firm clients tell me that these are always raised by candidates applying for roles inside firms. The three elements are:
- Total time spent working
- When we work
- Where we work
Let’s unpack these and draw on my experience as an accounting firm coach, consultant and mentor to share what I am seeing across firms.
Total time spent working
I think there are two things to consider, with the first being full time versus part time. There is no question in my mind that the proportion of part time employees in accounting and advisory firms has been increasing. I reckon this has been driven by the shift in societal attitudes I refer to above and also accounting firms being more open to take on part time employees in an employee friendly market. My view is that while part time employees may not always be ideal, if you are not considering part timers you are most likely missing out on some outstanding people. For example, some of the best and brightest accountants I have known have been young mums working part time. My experience is that clients are generally very understanding of part time employees so long as expectations are made clear up front. So please, be open to part time employees.
The second thing to consider here is the amount of discretionary time team members inside firms are willing to give to work. If you create a strong culture and deliver on the things that drive engagement, then my view is you are more likely to get some extra time from your people, because they genuinely want to contribute. Again, I also think the societal changes I refer to above are leading more people to want to more tightly limit the amount of their time allocated to work. And let’s not forget that some people do just seem to be more natural driven / motivated than others.
2. When we work
This is about the time of day that we work, and not necessarily in one single block. For example it may suit parents with young children to complete some work in the evening when the children are asleep in addition to “sprints” during the day between child intensive periods.
There is one very persuasive argument that says if we set goals based on outputs rather than inputs and those output goals can be met, then it doesn’t matter when the work is done. I am inclined to agree with this, with some important caveats attached. Those caveats relate to the importance of team members in an accounting firm being available to collaborate with, support or lead other team members, and to meet the accessibility expectations of clients. This will be role specific and as a broad proposition I reckon the more senior you are in a firm, the more likely you are going to have to spend a fair chunk of your time in “core business hours” to be accessible for other team members and clients.
If a team member wants to do all their work between 5pm and midnight for example, that probably doesn’t work in fulfilling accessibility needs of others. There is no one size fits all here and I encourage you to look at each situation its merits. For some roles that might work but I suspect for many it would not.
3. Where we work
The COVID pandemic of course forced a large proportion of people in accounting firms to work from home, at least for some time. Post COVID (are we really there yet?) it is clear that a complete return to where we were prior to COVID is just not going to happen. The majority of firms have some form of policy on work from home (WFH). As part of some firm benchmarking I did recently with 30 firms I asked about WFH policy. 25 of 30 firms said they allow WFH and this ranged from 1 to 5 days each week. The most common situation is for either two or three days to be WFH. My view is this is a sensible approach and most firms are not going to return to 5 days in the office for all team members. There are some firms who have done this but I just don’t think this is going to work for the majority of firms any more. Basically, employees for the most part no longer accept this.
This change is also having ramifications for how firms think about their office space. Some are of the view that they can decrease the space needed on the basis that not everyone will be in the office on the same day. For example an 80 person firm might elect to have space for 60 people on any given day.
In November 2021 I wrote an article asking the question – does an accounting firm need an office?
In summary, what I concluded was:
“an office provides an environment where socialisation, collaboration and learning flourish. These are good for your people and good for your firm. On the other hand, I think there is an argument that at least some work is more effectively completed away from the office, or in a special place in the office, that allows true focus to occur.”
I believe that conclusion remains valid today and encourage you use the link above to re-read the article.
One of the comments I am hearing from firms owners is “we know that our less experienced team members benefit from being in the office but what we are finding is that the people who should be with them to guide them and develop them, are not so keen to be in the office.” That’s a problem!
Marc Rosenberg and his colleague Amanda Lilley, of Rosenberg Associates in the USA, wrote an interesting piece on the topic of working remotely versus in the office. It’s worth a read and you can find it via this link:
The world has changed and to ignore the employee driven demand for more flexibility in respect of total time spent working, when work is done and where it is done, is very much a head in the sand approach that will not serve you well. My view is that most good firms will:
- Support part time workers
- Have some flexibility on when work is done, leaning on the concept of some “core hours”
- Have a culture and systems that support some work from home or other non-office location
And for each of these, the individual circumstances of each person and the firm, will be taken into account.