How CPA firms are evolving to meet Millennials’ desires

Younger professionals want flexibility and trust from their managers.
By Teri Saylor

As CPA firms across the U.S. relax their dress codes and other policies, managers are recognizing that their Millennial employees expect flexibility and trust in all areas of their workplace. Today's younger CPAs want to work at a firm that rejects rigid rules, and they desire to define their own workday, including how they dress, the number of hours they work, and where they work, as well as having a sense of community with their peers and greater opportunities for professional development and charitable work.

Ayanna Coleman, CPA, commutes by train an hour and a half each way from her home in Newburgh, N.Y., to her job at Friedman LLP in Manhattan, where she is a quality review manager. Because her firm allows her to work at home one day a week, she can tolerate a long train ride on the other four days. It is an arrangement that fits her lifestyle and a professional perk employees of the Millennial generation not only appreciate, but demand.

"At our office, we are on the forefront of employee satisfaction," she said. "We don't sacrifice quality work, but we keep our employees happy."

At 27, Coleman fits neatly into the Millennial generation, made up of those born between 1982 and 2000. According to U.S. Census figures released in July 2015, Millennials number 83.1 million, representing more than a quarter of the U.S. population, and they are entering the workforce in droves.

In addition to flexibility at work, this youthful workforce seeks opportunities for advancement and constant engagement with their peers. In the process, Millennials are blurring the lines between life, work, and play more than their Generation X and Baby Boomer forebears ever thought about.

In 2013, PwC joined forces with the University of Southern California and the London Business School to produce a two-year global generational study of the attitudes of Millennial employees. The study identified the forces that drive employee recruitment and retention and revealed that work/life balance is a powerful factor for the Millennial generation.

According to Anne Donovan, people innovation leader at PwC in Los Angeles, employee attitudes have shifted over the last seven years. "Millennials are into feelings," Donovan said. "They want to be appreciated and supported, and they want flexibility."

The study drove PwC to make significant changes.

"We made our environment more appealing on a day-to-day basis to entice younger workers to stay," she said. "Our major changes have been flex schedules, relaxed dress codes, greater communication, and more transparency."

The survey also caused PwC to change the whole conversation, according to Don Christian, a PwC partner and U.S. assurance human capital leader at the firm's Washington, D.C., office. "Today, the intersection of work and life is important to helping people feel they can thrive," he said. "We are mindful of how our employees' personal lives intersect with their work lives, and we get investment and support from everyone."

Human resources professionals at CPA firms are catching on. Karleen Mussman is chief human resources officer at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP and works in the firm's Chicago headquarters. She estimates roughly half of the firm's 2,700 employees are Millennials. "The nature of the workplace is ever-evolving. Attitudes are changing more than ever before, and we need to change accordingly," she said. 

So Baker Tilly circulates an annual employee survey to gauge attitudes and inspire open dialogue. Most recently, the firm instituted a "dress for your day" policy in response to employees' survey responses.

"We created a PowerPoint presentation that provided visual guidelines that has proved helpful for staff to determine what appropriate dress is," she said. "Self-monitoring is a big part of this initiative, and that has gone over well with our employees because everyone wants to preserve this privilege."

Theresa Kutz, CPA, a senior accountant at Baker Tilly in Minneapolis, said she appreciates her firm's dress code. "I dress business casual during the week but sometimes wear jeans, and I love it," she said. "Minneapolis trends toward casual, and in some cases, casual dress is appropriate if our clients dress casually."

Kutz calls her firm "employee-centric," with a focus on flexibility and trust. "We care about flexibility and balance in the workplace and in our personal lives," she said. "We aren't willing to sacrifice one for the other."

Ron Weiner, CPA, is celebrating his 50th anniversary in accounting this year. The 70-year-old is chairman and president of Perelson Weiner LLP of New York City. He describes his organization as an "old-fashioned, turbo-charged CPA firm, client-centric, with a diverse staff." Weiner has 70 or so employees, about a third of them under 30.

"We search for the smartest and nicest people we can find," he said, allowing that he has learned some lessons during his career. "I used to manage through control," he said. "Today I would rather manage the firm culture rather than control it, and I hate to micromanage people." He offers flexible hours and part-time arrangements, and during the summer months, from Memorial Day through October, employees dress casually if they are not seeing clients.

"We don't have a specific dress code, but we do ask our employees to be reasonable and to not let it get out of hand," he said. "In the end, it's what the client thinks of you that matters."

Companies from all over the country are looking at ways to recruit and retain Millennial employees and focusing on a number of criteria their employees are requesting:

Flexible dress codes: While Millennials and older workers alike appreciate relaxed dress codes, they most appreciate the opportunity to structure policies that reflect their specific jobs, which has led to "dress for your day" guidelines. Jessi Engelhard, CPA, a 30-year-old manager in the Assurance Group of the Clearwater, Fla., office of CBIZ MHM LLC, said she never even wears a suit and believes her clients prefer it that way. "The Millennials at our client's offices are driving clothing trends, and we reflect them," she said. "You make people feel more comfortable when you dress like them."

Work/life balance: The PwC study found that Millennials believe excessive work demands are not worth sacrificing their personal life, even when they are promised salary increases. They also want to name their own work hours, and believe productivity should not be measured by the number of hours worked, but by the quality of work performed. They also expect management to trust their professionalism. "Choice and how much we trust and respect our employees are very important," Mussman said. "We want to create a workplace that is engaging and responsive to all our employee needs."

Interesting and meaningful work: Coleman, who is president of the New York State Society of CPAs' Next Gen Committee, said Millennials want to fill all of their life buckets. "We want to feel satisfied both personally and professionally," she said. "We want to work at places that are charitable. We spend a lot of time working, and we want gratification on the job."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C. To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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