Not Your Fathers CPA Firm!

Mary Kay Humfeld talks about a new employment model.
BY MARIANNE HEARD

Today’s CPAs come from very diverse backgrounds and have very different expectations from the employees of a generation past. Students and new hires in the accounting profession have made it very clear they value balance in their lives—and workplace flexibility is a necessary component. Workplace flexibility, once considered a female issue, may have been only the canary in the coal mine in the past. But in today’s world, the desire to find a work/life balance is gender-neutral and actually may be a generational theme.

In a 2002 Catalyst study of men and women aged 25 to 35, 37% of respondents said they used flexible arrival and departure times and an additional 46% said they wanted this option; 6% worked a compressed workweek and 67% said they wanted to do the same; 17% telecommuted and 67% hoped they could; 4% worked reduced hours, 36% said they wished for the same option; and 4% had had a leave of absence, which another 43% wanted.

Smart organizations and associations are addressing the needs and expectations of employees and implementing flexible work arrangements. In May 2003 the first Work/Life Conference held by the AICPA, the American Woman’s Society of CPAs (AWSCPA) and the American Society of Women Accountants (ASWA) brought together a diverse group of accounting professionals to discuss flexibility in the workplace. They discovered that work/life programs and policies were not luxuries.

Deloitte & Touche conducted a study of why women were leaving and found it was to go to more flexible firms—unfortunately for Deloitte & Touche, they took their training with them.

It’s generally agreed that it costs 150% of a person’s salary to replace a good employee.

Employee dissatisfaction has a negative impact on a firm’s bottom line. In 1999 workplace stress cost American business $3 billion, and that figure continues to rise. Kathy Lingle of the Alliance for Work/Life Progress says, “Researchers have found that people who have little control of their work life have a 70% higher risk of dying from heart disease than those who can decide what they will do and when.”

Studies show that as employee satisfaction and loyalty increase, so do service quality and value. Customers and clients react favorably to employees who are satisfied. Even more telling is that 73% of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” had higher-than-average return on investment.

A recent study by Sears found that a 5% increase in employee satisfaction led to a 12% increase in sales.

Cutting-edge firms are recognizing these facts. Many now are putting together business plans that include flexible work arrangements and setting goals to become the “employer of choice.”

But change is difficult. Many decision makers have built very successful practices using old accounting employment models in which face time is key and 80-hour workweeks standard if people want to advance. Such decision makers may be reluctant to embrace a model that is significantly different. However, as Tom Meador, CEO of American Express Tax & Business Services Inc. (TBS), says: “The metrics will force change. We must balance the needs of our employees, the needs of our clients and the needs of our shareholders.” Satisfied and loyal employees go a long way toward making this balancing act work.

In the last decade those wanting to advance their careers used informal rather than formal flexible work arrangements. Linda Bergen, CPA, of Citigroup says while she was in public accounting she used the accumulated overtime of busy season to take care of her children in the summer. Respondents generally believed that formal arrangements still could negatively affect a person’s career path.

In a survey conducted by TheLadders.com , 62% of men in top income brackets said they would put their careers on hold to become stay-at-home dads.

We are now on the cusp of a new employment model. Progressive firms are discarding rigid career paths. Technology allows us to work virtually anywhere, anytime. Several of the top- and middle-tier firms give employees the opportunity to take leave for a period of time and then come back into the firm at their same level. TBS calls this the “Time Out for You” program. Bergen’s informal summer model now has become a formal model called the modified work arrangement or teacher model and top management in many firms is pushing its acceptance. Firms are holding seminars and educating their top decision makers. Over time output will be more valuable than input. Value to the firm no longer will be measured by the amount of face time or billable hours but rather by productivity and the quality of the work product.

Our profession is changing on many fronts. The change to a more flexible employment model can make better employees, better managers and ultimately more satisfied performers. These arrangements are a true success story of our generation.

—Marianne Heard, CPA, director, Boston region,
American Express Tax & Business Services

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