Believe the hype: flexible working isn’t just going to make your accountancy practice better now – it’s going to make it fit for the future. It could be thinking about how long your employees’ workday is, where they’re working from or even how many of them are sharing a job.
Many of today’s most successful and ambitious accountants realise that by being flexible about how their company gets work done, there’s real potential to develop a more dynamic company.
But there are plenty of challenges accountants might encounter when trialling more flexible ways of working. Below we’ll tackle not only some of the key benefits of redefining what a “day at the office” looks like – but also some of the common pain points that can follow.
1. Maximise productivity when it counts
Chances are you’re reading this having recently put another quarter of reports to bed. Working outside office hours during “busy season” like that isn’t a benefit for many accountants, it’s a necessary evil that clients sometimes take for granted.
So one benefit of flexibility that will strike a chord for many accountancy practices is the ability to focus productivity when it’s really needed. This could be broken down into weeks or even months of the year when you know your practice is going to be swamped.
“During those quieter periods, accountants can take advantage,” says Olivia Hill of the Association of Accounting Technicians, “on the assumption that when it comes to year end, they’re much more prepared to put those extra hours when it’s needed.
“It’s that flexibility both ways: if we’re more flexible with our staff, they’ll be more flexible with us.”
Olivia Hill, Chief HR Officer – AAT
It might be as granular as hours of the day when your firm struggles with a workload from clients in other time zones. With a little give and take on flexibility with your workers, your clients can experience the full suite of your services – rather than skeleton staffing there to “hold the fort” until the cavalry arrives at 9am.
By allowing your employees flexibility at quieter times of the year (shorter work weeks, freedom to leave early) you can achieve more buy-in from workers to give their all at times that are notoriously demanding. Transparency is key though, as employees used to flexibility at other times of the year may bristle when told that those privileges aren’t as easily available during crunch periods.
2. More effort from employees
The shift in what employees want to be judged on is clear. 89% of workers questioned for an extensive Deloitte survey said that flexible working would boost their productivity, with one AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) study suggesting that working hours actually increased for more than 20% of workers who switched to flexible routines.
When PwC launched its Flexible Talent Network, which lets applicants detail their preferred work pattern when applying for roles, the company was clear on the commercial benefits that increased flexibility offered.
“We’re likely to see a rise in people transitioning in and out of work throughout their careers and those organisations who responsibly support their people to do this will ultimately gain a competitive advantage.”
Laura Hinton, Chief People Officer – PwC
For some bosses, that’s not enough to convince them to break traditional working patterns – so it’s vital to find ways to measure productivity that everyone can agree on. Establish those KPIs and then trust your employees to meet them or go beyond them. Oh, and make note of those times when you know they’ve gone the extra mile. When someone’s worked late to sign off a key document, send them a note of thanks.
3. Don’t lose those key staff members
It’s not just crucial for accountancy practices to attract the best employees – keeping them is equally important. Once employees have experienced flexibility, studies show the majority value it hugely.
As well as flexible hours, supporting employees who want to work remotely can be a great way to show you’re taking their needs into account. We’ve all experienced periods where life admin or personal commitments make our daily commute a nightmare.
But be aware too that flexibility presents some unique challenges in employee retention. It’s not uncommon for workers who don’t do 40 hours a week (or more) in the office to believe they’re at risk of being passed over for promotion due to decreased visibility.
Managing that fear is not impossible for bosses: simple changes like video meetings for remote workers can maintain team bonds. Our Head of People, Jessie Scheepers, has written about how to make sure remote working actually, well, works.
4. More diverse accountants
The more flexible working options an accountancy practice can offer, the more diverse a talent pool it can attract. By being open to new ways of working, you’re showing that you can find ways to work around people’s unique situations and preferences.
The classic case of this is parents, particularly mothers, returning to work after a prolonged time away. The vast majority of accountancy and finance professionals believe that flexible working options have helped to improve the representation of women in leadership roles. An instant drop back into the 9-5 might not be what many new parents want, whereas a more personalised pattern could see them more content to be back on duty for your practice.
Wider research says that the accounting industry is still struggling with diversifying its workforce. An Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales survey found more than half of accountants had witnessed discrimination in the workplace, with 18% saying they had personally experienced it. Flexible working is one clear way to show a real commitment to doing accounting differently.
5. Speak to millennials
Yes, we’ve reached the point of the article where we state how important it is to be aware of what millennials want from work.
Flexible working has long been cited as a key motivator for this much-discussed demographic. CBI research says that outside of pay, work-life balance is the top factor in career decisions for 32% of the UK’s young workers.
Look specifically at finance and the benefits of being flexible are even clearer. 71% of millennial accountants and finance professionals rate flexible working as important or very important to their career choices.
With so many options available to school-leavers and graduates now, it’s key to maximise all the benefits at your disposal. The idea of accounting as a “job for life” appeals less to millennials than previous generations, but other aspects of flexibility will.
An accountancy practice that asks the question “why not?” instead of “why?” in relation to flexible working can boost its appeal to those potential younger employees. Keep your eye out for how many job ads fail to mention flexible working – it could be the thing that makes your notice stand out to a younger jobseeker.
6. Profit from your employees’ interests
There’s a fascinating nugget in the advice on flexible working drawn up by the ICAEW. “Employees should be encouraged to pursue their passions… Value judgements around the reasons why people choose to work flexibly should be avoided.”
By supporting employees in their interests outside of work, whether that’s hitting the gym before work or volunteering after it, practices can use flexibility to demonstrate trust and support in their workforce.
It can also spark interest in other team members and build bonds between employees –before you know it, there may be a running club operating out of your office that meets at 6am for a jog and is at their desk sorting out forecasts by 7am.
7. Be at the forefront of cultural change
Despite all the discussion of the advantages of flexible working, some workers maintain a fear of even opening the conversation about it with their boss.
In one poll, a striking 42% of workers said they thought asking about flexible working would have a negative impact on their career. Meanwhile, the ICAEW report on diversity in the workplace found many accountants speaking positively about flexible working but also reporting that managers were failing to lead properly on the issue.
So there’s an opportunity here to do better, with some campaigns gathering real traction in the UK.
By putting flexible working to the forefront of company values, accountancy practices can bust the myths some people still have around flexible working. And they can do it while working from their kitchen table, or at 11pm on a Friday night, or halfway up the Austrian Alps.