Profiting From Scheduling Alternatives

Can flexible schedules enhance productivity? Many CPAs have found they do.
BY ANITA DENNIS

For Minnesota sole practitioner Leota Goodney, the use of flexible and part-time scheduling for employees is "the way Ive been able to survive." Like many other tax practitioners, her workload is concentrated during the first three or four months of the year, so she does not need full-time help in the slow season. By recruiting staff who are willing to adjust their schedules at different times of the year, Goodney has been able to match her salary overhead to her work requirements. Her two employees work full-time during busy season and each comes in three days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. the rest of the year, when the firm is open only during those hours. Goodney, who also reduces her schedule during the summer, has two rules: Someone must be in the office during its official hours and work must be done on time. "All of these employees sought the work either because they had small children at home or because of other personal or professional reasons," she says, noting that three of the last four people to work for her in these positions were men.

Reduced or alternative scheduling has become widely accepted among the largest firms and corporations. But is it an answer for small practitioners? And does this option work for every firm? Several practitioners describe what it takes to make their policies work—and in one firms case, why it didnt. Because some procedures are applicable in firms of various sizes, the experiences of larger firms have been included. (Definitions of various kinds of flexible schedules can be found in the sidebar on this page.) (See another firms experience in "New Incentives: Alternative Career Paths," JofA, Sept.97.)

Definitions of Terms

All of the firms in this article used one or more forms of alternative work arrangements, which encompass many different programs. Here are some examples:

  1. Flextime. Employees work full-time but choose their starting and quitting times within limits set by management.
  2. Compressed workweeks. A standard workweek that is compressed into fewer than five days by working more hours each day.
  3. Part-time. Employees work less than a full-time schedule on a regular basis. Compensation is adjusted accordingly.
  4. Job sharing. Two employees each work part-time and together do the work of one full-time employee.
  5. Telecommuting. Firm members work some or all of their time from home, communicating with the office by phone, fax and e-mail.
Adapted from Flexible Work Arrangements: A Guide for Public Accounting Firms , by Barney Olmsted, published by the American Institute of CPAs.

DOS AND DONTS

  • Be flexible. Many firms, even larger ones, dont have written policies because each arrangement can change based on the people, circumstances and firm. "Our unwritten policy is basically that requests for flexible schedules should be directed to one person in charge and will be considered on a case-by-case basis," says Bonnie Russ of 23-person Mahoney Ulbrich Christiansen & Russ in St. Paul, whose firm leaders saw no need to put this approach in writing.

    Firms want to set some limitations on schedules, however. "Weve learned that it doesnt make any sense to have someone who is working 16 hours a week come in 8 hours each on Monday and Tuesday, because he or she will leave at 4:30 on Tuesday and receive a phone call at 4:45—and the person wont be back for five days," reports Gary Shamis, managing partner of Ohio-based Saltz Shamis & Goldfarb. At the firm, which has 25% of its 130-person staff on various alternative schedules, "we dont allow them to bunch their time, and we insist they call the office regularly and check their voice mail." The firm pays for home office equipment and phone lines to hook remote workers to the office.

  • Solicit ideas from staff. Kenneth McCurry, the managing partner of six-person McCurry & Associates, in Johnson City, Tennessee, has been able to rely on his staff to iron out any wrinkles in his flexible policies. "When I have a problem, I tell the staff and they find the solution, because they like this schedule so much."

    McCurrys firm has been divided into two groups: the managing partner and two clerical staff in one group and the other two partners and one clerical person in another. Each group works four 10-hour days per week. One group is off on Mondays and the other on Fridays; this arrangement is switched every week. As a result, each group gets a four-day weekend every other week.

    This plan, which has been in use three years, starts in May and ends the week before Thanksgiving, when the firm returns to a five-day week as a transition to tax seasons six-day routine. Schedules have been arranged to ensure the firms core hours—from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.—are covered, but firm members can start as early as 7 and leave as late as 7.

    McCurry cites two major benefits to this approach:

    1. Everybody gets more time off. "We feel were getting something in return for those tax season hours."

    2. Its easier to work during quiet times. McCurry believes productivity is up as much as 10% because workers have time in the early morning or after core hours to concentrate without having to answer the telephone or suffer other interruptions. Clients also are pleased to find they can drop by before or after their own work hours and find somebody at the firm to help them. The firm has also changed its tax season schedule to enhance productivity. Firm members work 12 hours a day during the week, then 8 to 5 on Saturdays, but they take off every third weekend. "During tax season, you can become so tired, you lose focus," McCurry says. "This way, when they have that weekend off, they come back more alert." The normal necessary revisions to staff work during tax season have dropped by 60% since this schedule was introduced two tax seasons ago. "Productivity has really increased."

    Bonnie Russ also asks staff to supply ideas when they seek an alternative schedule. "We ask the employee to come to us with a proposal that answers some important questions: What are you trying to accomplish personally and professionally? How many hours do you want to work during busy season and outside it? When do you want to be in the office? We ask them to formulate what they want; then we go through the proposal to see if it will work for us." For one audit manager who wanted to work a reduced schedule after her maternity leave, the firm decided it was acceptable for her to work a four-day week. "We set up a specific schedule of billable and total hours based on our expectations for a full-time manager position vs. what she was willing to work; then we came up with a percentage to adjust her compensation." Some of her audits have been reassigned to other staff.

    This year-long arrangement has worked well for the firm. "Auditors are often out of the office—its hard to catch them in"—so neither clients nor other firm members have complained about the schedule.

    Dont Forget the Rules

    When firms establish alternative work schedules, its important that they keep in mind the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which governs overtime pay, and other conditions of employment for workers considered exempt from the law. Some organizations have calculated the pay of workers who might be considered "professionals" on an hourly basis. Under the FLSA, that calculation turns an employee who might normally have been considered exempt because of his or her professional status into a nonexempt worker. Working conditions for nonexempt employees are governed by the FLSA.

  • Consider your location. At Saltz Shamis & Goldfarb, a major recruiting advantage has been the fact that "all of our offices are in affluent, professional suburbs," Shamis says. "Because of our location, weve found a lot of people locally who are willing to work part-time schedules, usually mothers with young children who have national firm experience. To work for a competitor who looks just like us but is in downtown Cleveland, a person in the suburbs has to deal with rush hour, take time commuting and pay for parking." For someone who wants to work a reduced schedule, those obstacles can be insurmountable. Five years ago, a woman became a partner in the firm after working part-time for three years. Now a client service partner who runs the firms accounting and auditing practice, she works 50 hours a week during busy season and four days a week the rest of the year. Her base compensation has been adjusted to 85% of partner compensation; her bonus is not affected. "It has worked well and it shows everybody else in the firm that these kinds of schedules wont preclude advancement," Shamis says.

  • Expect professionalism. At Mahoney Ulbrich Christiansen & Russ, where some employees work staggered hours, "we look at all our employees as top-notch professionals," Russ says. "We dont have time to watchdog to make sure that a person really came in at 7 a.m. But our employees arent the types who are going to cut corners on their time. We work as a team and they wouldnt let teammates down."

    Other firms advise against skrimping on what part-timers are offered. "We give part-timers all benefits, such as vacations and holidays, on a pro rata basis, if possible," says Shamis. "We pay them to come to in-house continuing education during the off season. I think its the right thing to do. It hasnt affected profitability and these people come back for busy season loyally every year."

  • Use technology to make it work. In Bonnie Russs firm, "we have electronic calendars on our network and everybody has to use them so we all know where everyone is at any time." In addition, the firm uses Citrix remote access software to stay connected to the office while working with clients, so its been easy to adapt this software for those working at home part of the time. The firm supplies home electronic equipment to staff as needed, in part because a limited number of phone lines makes it impractical to have too many employees calling in to the office at once.

  • Dont make clients the exclusive domain of any one firm member. Tanya Howell, a tax manager of five-person Memphis-based Allison & Chumney, works from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. outside of tax season and "every hour of the day that I can" during the season. In the summer, the mother of a second-grader sets her own hours. This schedule works because "our clients are the clients of the firm, not of any particular person." Firm members share information about clients so others can be called on for help when needed. The firm takes an informal approach to this practice. In a small firm, "we talk a lot," over lunch or in other informal settings.

  • Dont give up before you consider the benefits. Shamis reports that his firm began to drift away from flexible schedules because of the management headaches they caused and other concerns—but then realized that was a mistake. "We went back and looked at the numbers and saw how good it had been for our profitability. We were able to hire people who stepped up hours to give us what we needed during busy season, then stepped down hours when it was over, which helped us during the off season in terms of running the practice profitably."

  • Dont forget the important role of the support staff. "They have to know where people are," Russ notes. "They have to be aware that when a client calls, they cant say, shes at home today. They have to be trained to tell clients that person isnt in the office at the moment."


WHAT DOESNT WORK

Not all firms have had success with alternative schedules. Michael Miller, of the 13-person Miller England & Co. in Little Rock, Arkansas, learned through trial and error that "we are better benefited by a full-time-staff firm. We realize the trend is to allow people to work part-time. We will make every concession possible, but we found the best way to work was by having all of our people here so the partners can understand the flow of work through each staff person every day."

The firm has one part-time secretary, who also handles marketing duties, and her experience has taught the firm about concerns with other staff. "When she completes some work," Miller says, "I may be tied up, and when Im ready to review her work, she may not be there. It can be a week before something is concluded. That can work with duties that arent time-sensitive but not when something has a deadline. You find that you get consumed by the day and all of a sudden you look up and the person you need is gone—and may not be back all week."

Miller notes that the firm has also built a busy off-season consulting practice, managing medical groups and handling other consulting issues for clients. "I need people who can respond rapidly at the right level of competency. With part-timers, its hard to build continuity." In addition, even part-time staff must have a desk and a computer—"and I just dont have the extra space."

Can a firm remain profitable if it sanctions reduced hours? Thats one issue that concerns firm leaders in Russs practice. "One real question is, How many accountants can you afford to have who arent working full-time? Our business is built on hours for the most part. If the standard is 1,800 billable hours for staff accountants and youve got people who are averaging only 1,500, youre giving something up because you dont have a fleet of full-time people. You may compensate them less, but you pay full-time benefits and give them desk space, education; there are other fixed expenses."

Her firm hasnt yet had to change its policies, "but at some point as we grow, this is an issue well have to deal with. If everybody wanted to work 80%, we wouldnt be able to do it."


A GOOD EMPLOYER

For Leota Goodney, accepting flexible schedules is a matter of values. "My philosophy is that family comes first," she says. "Work is interesting and important, but it should not be the top priority."

Bonnie Russ worries, however, about the potential consequences for a firm that puts in fewer collective hours. "Our sense is that as we move into the future, more and more people will be willing to make a financial sacrifice in exchange for more time off, especially if they have young children. But that choice may be in conflict with a firms need to grow in order to provide more opportunities and be a good employer. Its a real challenge."

Shamis insists that profitability is not only possible but also probable when firms embrace alternative schedules. He recommends that firms ease into arrangements in areas where theyre most likely to work—with tax professionals, for example. "Our firm has had flexible schedules for about eight years and they simply have become a part of the culture."

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