Ways to keep your talented CPAs

Flexible scheduling can ward off burnout and help retain staff.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Holding on to good people is a challenge, especially in the accounting profession, where the demand for skilled CPAs is high.

To help with that, many firms have policies on the books allowing employees to control their own schedules and shift away from the long, rigid workdays that for decades defined many CPA careers.

The Kane Firm CPA, a small accounting firm outside of Buffalo, N.Y., switched to flexible scheduling four years ago, after practice manager Laura Kane-Punyon arrived and observed how run-down everyone in the firm was after several months of 60-hour workweeks during the spring tax season.

“It wore everybody down,” she said, adding that work product improved once workflow systems were in place to reduce the amount of overtime people were working.

She began managing the workflow at the 10-person firm, created a goal of 55-hour workweeks, and did away with mandatory in-office Saturday hours during tax season. Staff could decide when they were working in and out of the office as long they got their work done.

The changes to the schedule helped keep people’s energy levels up during tax season, Kane-Punyon said.

“It’s much more sustainable,” she said.

The ongoing shift to more employee-friendly policies like flexible schedules may be working, with the accounting profession as a whole experiencing lower turnover than it did just two years ago, according to a detailed, biennial survey the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) conducts of firms to gain insight into practice management trends.

Retention is up at most firms, especially smaller ones, according to the AICPA’s National Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) survey of more than 1,500 firms during 2018. Smaller firms, those that collected less than $1.5 million in net client fees for fiscal year 2017, reported a median turnover rate of 0% in the 2018 survey (the median rate being 0% indicates that more firms reported no turnover than firms reported turnover). Those numbers went up slightly for larger firms, with median turnover of 6% for firms with $1.5 million to $5 million in net client fees and 9% for firms with $5 million to $10 million in net client fees.

Large firms with more than $10 million collected in net client fees saw median staff turnover levels of 10.7%, according to the MAP data.

Not every firm approaches flexible schedules and retention the same way. Here are tips from several accounting professional leaders about what they find works:

Believe in your people. The boutique accounting firm ATKG LLP in San Antonio figured out several years ago its biggest asset was its people, said Teryn Grater, CPA, a partner and co-owner at the 50-person firm. A huge part of the firm’s focus is now on keeping its staff satisfied and engaged with extensive training and skills development programs, generous leave policies, and flexible scheduling.

One popular firm benefit called a WalkAbout is a requirement that staff of all levels, including administrative staff, take off at least two consecutive weeks at five years of service and a month when they reach 10 years of service.

The mandatory time off has a twofold purpose: making sure these staff can truly step away and recharge and making sure that the firm can shift responsibilities to cover the work of any staff member who is gone and still meet clients’ high expectations.

“It helps the client know we’re a team here and the relationship isn’t dependent on any one person,” she said.

Grater still faces some resistance at accounting practice conferences when she talks about ATKG’s people-first approach, but she said it has proved to work — her firm has little turnover, is so popular with clients that it has to turn away some client prospects, and has recruited high-performing managers who were ready to leave the profession because they were so burned out from the long hours at other firms.

Blaming Millennials for expecting a more reasonable career path is unfair, and having a healthy work/life balance is important for all, regardless of the generation, she said.

“Who would want to work 70 hours a week?” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they [younger staff] don’t want to do it.”

As a partner, Grater said, she loves her career but also cherishes being at a firm that allows time for her to eat dinners with her family and engage in pursuits such as marathon training and international travel.

Give employees a say. One approach Kane-Punyon has seen work at The Kane Firm is having employees keep track of their overtime hours during busy season.

Employees are paid for 80 hours of work every two weeks. Then, at the close of the tax season, staff can either choose to convert those overtime hours to paid time off for an extended vacation or have the hours paid out to them.

Staff can decide what is the biggest benefit at the time, she said.

Make a business case. Grater, the ATKG partner, said she sees employee retention as a business case. Training people is expensive, and losing a top manager can be costly to a firm.

Grater also recognizes the client side of that. ATKG, which has a $30,000 minimum fee, has clients that joined after becoming frustrated by the turnover at other accounting firms, where they were assigned new CPAs every few years.

“Every year they had a new team of people,” Grater said. The clients were sick of training the CPAs as to what their needs were.

It’s not as if ATKG never has turnover. From time to time the firm hires someone, usually out of college and new to public accounting, who isn’t a good fit.

“We absolutely will counsel people out that can’t do the work,” Grater said. “We try to be open and honest about everyone’s skills and strengths.”

Change is constant. Kane-Punyon said she has a discussion with CPAs and support staff every year about their schedules and what type of flexibility they might need in a given year. What works one year may not work the next.

“People’s lives change,” she said.

The firm also has several experienced CPAs on a flexible seasonal schedule. They come in to work during the busy tax seasons but can take the summer off for long vacations, other projects, or simply to relax.

“They’re part of our brain trust, but they’re not looking for those crazy hours year-round,” she said.

That setup works well for the firm, both for the experienced CPAs to pursue some of their own interests and for the firm to tap into their insight when needed.

— Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA’s editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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