CPA INSIDER

Make your firm's flex options stand out

Accounting firms continue to become more flexible on when and where work gets done, but opportunities for improvement remain.
By Jennifer Wilson

I started writing about the need for more workplace flexibility in the profession 13 years ago. Back then, my ideas seemed radical. Today, I am happy to report that many of those ideas are commonplace practices in most firms.

And the envelope continues to be pushed in flex. Last month, we released the summary of our 2018 ConvergenceCoaching LLC Anytime, Anywhere Work Survey, in which 175 firms, ranging from sole practitioners to firms with more than 75 CPAs, shared best practices and insights about their flextime and remote work practices. In this article, we'll share three big insights we discovered as we evaluated our respondents' flex practices. As you reflect on these findings, compare your firm's programs and identify areas to potentially expand your offerings and increase your differentiation as an employer of choice.

The three big insights from the survey include:

Insight No. 1: Virtually all firms offer some kind of flex benefit, which means that saying your firm offers flex is no longer unique, special, or different.

99% of survey respondents allow remote work in some form.

  • Almost half (47%) of firms allow team members to choose their place of work as part of a consistently applied firmwide remote work program (versus 52% saying they allow remote work inconsistently or on a case-by-case basis). This is up from 45% with a "real" remote work program in 2016.
  • 70% of firms surveyed indicate they offer day-to-day anywhere flex, a policy that allows team members to work from someplace other than their "normal" workspace to meet personal obligations that are nonrecurring (like working from home to take care of family business).

96% of survey respondents offer at least one of the following flextime options: part-time, early/late start, day-to-day flex, reduced off-peak hours, compressed schedules, and zero overtime. Three of those options are very popular. Among the firms surveyed:

  • 85% offer part-time options (which is the only flex time option that results in less production).
  • 83% have an early/late start program offering team members the opportunity to choose a start and end time that better fit their lifestyle.
  • 83% allow for day-to-day flex of time, offering as-needed flexibility to attend doctor's appointments, for instance, and other nonrecurring obligations.

Insight No. 2: Remote work is on the rise!

Firms are starting to embrace permanent remote workers in geographic areas where the firm has no other presence, with 63% of firms saying they employ at least one team member in another geographic area, up from 57% in 2016.

  • 82% of firms with remote employees have at least one employee who moved to a different geographic area, up from 42% in 2016.
  • We were very happy to learn that 41% of firms with at least one remote employee hired a new employee in another geographic area in 2018. That's up from only 15% in 2016.
  • Why the big jumps in the percentages of firms that have remote employees? Lots of reasons! Firms are willing to try a remote relationship when their best people move. Comfort with that is building a willingness to start recruiting people remotely as well. Many recruits still come through relationships and networking but on a wider, nationwide scale. Companies such as Accountingfly are really pushing remote hiring, remote temp labor, etc., and that's helping fuel this increase. Also, low unemployment has created a super challenging recruiting landscape that has firms willing to try new approaches to provide the right level of service to clients.

The Gallup 2017 State of the American Workplace Report found that 37% of employees would switch to an employer that allowed them to work off-site at least some of the time.

54% of firms surveyed are conducting at least some remote audits (which we defined as audits where 50% or more of the work is completed away from client's office). I predicted in a prior column that your NextGen clients will expect you to deliver more services remotely. I am pleased to see that firms are seeking ways to perfect more remote service delivery.

Insight No. 3: There are still many opportunities to enhance flex in the profession and within your firm.

We saw a big increase in the number of firms that no longer mandate Saturday office hours, which jumped from 39% in 2016 to 58% in 2018. Even so, we can't think of a less popular policy in firms than mandatory Saturdays. Mandatory Saturdays hurt our profession because they:

  • Feed the "sweatshop" story about our profession that competing professions use to lure our accounting grads away;
  • Illustrate a lack of trust in our people when we mandate where or when they will get their "extra" production done;
  • Cause people to miss out on important social and family activities with so many of those being held on Saturdays.

Communications around flex practices and expectations in firms can definitely improve, with only 54% of firms having a written flex policy and just 64% of those firms with a policy updating it at least annually.

Other places to innovate and lead in flex include:

  • Offering some sort of Fridays off during the summer benefit. Only 50% of firms said they currently do so.
  • Moving toward an unlimited or open paid time off policy. The many benefits to doing so are enumerated in this blog. Because only 11% of our respondents offer this, you can really stand out by doing so.
  • Closing for the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve, which only 6% of firms surveyed are doing. We have done this for many years, and our staff loves it. While there can be value in being available to clients in the last week of the year, it could provide more value in staff recruitment if they know they'll have holiday time off.

More than half (56%) of the leaders we surveyed see flex as a strategic advantage, and we know that NextGen talent and clients value flexibility, too. To maintain flex as a competitive advantage, keep advancing and transparently communicating your offerings.

How will you progress flex in your firm in 2019?

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at convergencecoaching.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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