On Fridays, 26-year-old Carmela Minnie, CPA, arrives at Cohen & Co. wearing jeans. The leaders of the firm regularly ask her and her co-workers, most of whom are around her age, to give input on major decisions for the company. And she knows that if she has to work late that Friday night, she can do so remotely, from the comfort of her living room.
These are just some of the ways the Ohio-based firm makes sure its employees are satisfied in their roles. As savvy firms such as Cohen & Co. realize, happier employees are more likely to stay with their employers—and retention is essential at a time when firms across the country are engaged in a full-on talent war for the best CPAs the country has to offer. As for Minnie, she enjoys working for her firm so much that she’s been there for six-and-a-half years, ever since she was an intern.
How can firms improve their employees’ job satisfaction? Marsha Huber, CPA, Ph.D., a happiness researcher and associate professor of accounting at Youngstown State University in Ohio, has some answers. She administered a survey on happiness to 1,200 CPAs in various industries, asking them questions about topics such as their satisfaction at work and in life, and whether they found meaning in their work.
Combing through the data, Huber discovered three factors that have the most impact on CPAs’ well-being: having hope, a calling, and autonomy.
Huber said that possibly the most important ingredient for job satisfaction is hope: the belief in a better professional future based on having concrete goals and multiple paths through which to achieve them. She measured participants’ feelings of hope by asking them 12 questions about areas such as their feelings of agency at work and their pathways to future success.
“When you have hope,” she said, “you actually create a ‘memory’ of the future that your mind starts working towards.”
Huber noted that, in many accounting firms, it can take a decade or more for a CPA to move up to a leadership position. The promise of that reward may be too far off to motivate employees, especially Millennials, she said. She recommended that firms create “points of hope” by creating different milestones employees can attain in between major promotions.
Amber Setter, CPA, head of leadership coaching and consulting company Intention Setter, said that another way firms can cultivate hope is to be transparent about the paths to advancement. “Without having that clarity about what’s next and where they are going” staff can be at risk for burnout, she said.
A “calling” is a sense of purpose, excitement, and passion about work that makes a worker fulfilled. People who feel as if they have a calling may say they’d do their job for free. They talk about their work with other people and think about it when they’re not working because they find what they do fun.
People who feel they have a calling, Huber said, “are the happiest across the board.”
She said firms can help employees develop a calling by matching the employees’ interests with their work. If an employee says he wants to do consulting, his firm should consider giving him a chance to do so, she said.
Huber said she once knew a young man who received two job offers—one from a prestigious national firm and one from a smaller company. But the major firm wanted him to do work he wasn’t interested in, so he rejected its offer and went with the smaller company.
“He was smarter than most,” she said. “Most people would just take the more prestigious job, hate it, and quit.”
Setter said another way that firms can help CPAs develop a calling is to make sure they’re exposed to a wide variety of subject areas so they can figure out what they like to do. For example, a firm could give young associates the chance to work in different departments before deciding on a specialty.
“It’s through those experiences that you start to understand what works for you,” Setter said.
Nobody, Huber said, wants to be stuck in a job with no freedom.
“When I look at who’s the happiest, it’s always the people who have the most autonomy, which is generally the people at the top,” she said.
Autonomy means being free to do your job the way you see fit—to make your own decisions and perhaps your own schedule. But most of all, it means not being told every minute of every day what to do, Huber said.
Huber said firms need to find a way to start introducing more freedom into workers’ lives earlier in their careers. CPAs shouldn’t have to wait to make partner before they start to have some self-determination.
And if CPAs have other things they want to work on—passion projects—firms should give them the freedom to pursue them.
“They can say, ‘We hear you. We need you to do x. Hey, listen, if you do x for us for a certain period of time, we’ll work with you to be able to do y’,” she said.
Setter said autonomy may be the most important factor for retention and recruitment. She said Millennials, in particular, are used to having more freedom. They don’t like the old-fashioned way of doing work: punching a clock, putting in your eight hours, and then going home.
One way firms can give employees more autonomy is by letting them work from home, she said. Firms could allow employees to work from home one day a week after they’ve spent a year on the job with a good performance review, she said. Or they could allow workers to do any overtime from home.
What makes workers happy isn’t a mystery. As Huber’s research shows, firms can take definite steps to contribute to employee well-being. A few policy changes can make retention and recruitment easier and help firms win the war for CPAs’ hearts and minds.
Alex Granados is a Raleigh, N.C.-based freelance writer.