This is not a blog about flexible work arrangements. Simply stated there is a talent war. Forces have come together in a way we have never seen before. Baby Boomers may believe this is similar to all the other talent wars they have seen, but research shows otherwise. Millions of Baby Boomers are retiring with significantly less in the pipeline to take their place. An estimated 30% gap. The Gen Y coming up behind our Gen X emerging leaders will provide some relief however we have to keep them in the profession in order to create sustainable firms of the future. Women and Generation X have been saying for quite a long time that the business models created by the Boomers need to change in order to attract and retain the best and brightest future leaders. Now the Gen Y and Z have added their unrelenting voice to this message: change or we will go elsewhere. The profession is faced with losing even more top talent then we have already driven from our ranks, and many are not just leaving public accounting but the entire profession. We have a greater need than ever before for talent with more people retiring from the profession than in the history of the profession combined. At the same time we offer cultures that are unattractive to the very talent we need to survive and thrive.
The number one cultural attribute required by the emerging leaders is flexibility. Men and women report this in their top three requirements for long term career satisfaction. Many Boomers still seem to believe this is about offering “part-time” work arrangements. This is the old school mentality. Offering flexibility in schedules and the possibility of reduced hours has been a requirement to retain top talent for over 25 years. This alone will no longer create retention, and many firms may not have even mastered implementation of these policies. Firms of the future have moved to flexibility philosophies that definitely include policies for reduced hour flexibility but also include much more. The first rule of an effective flexibility philosophy is that it must be a reflection of a strong flexibility culture. Culture shift takes time and the sooner you start the better. Here are some important steps and elements to include in creating your firm’s flexibility culture and philosophy:
Career-Life Integration Introduction Communicate the importance of career-life integration in the firm culture. Why is the firm supporting this, what is the business case for flexibility in this organization. Clearly stated business reasons for the support of Career-Life Integration is the foundation for effective forward movement. (For more information on business case reference: AICPA Business Case for Flexibility
Flexible Culture Include a brief statement of the firm’s philosophy on flexibility. This is a broad statement that reinforces the ways in which flexibility must work for the organization and the individual. Elements that are central to the firms business such as quality client service, respect of co-workers, and personal responsibility are key. Clarity on the accountability of the firm and individual to honor commitments both personal and professional and other core concepts are also noted. This statement is critical as it is the foundation of the firm’s approach to flexibility.
Flexibility Options It is critical to create education and awareness on flexibility options. There are many perceived barriers, urban legends and myths about what is possible or “allowed” and what is not. Most employees get their information from their peers and misperceptions are widespread. Firms that are very clear on the differences between day to day informal flexibility and formal flexibility arrangements will have the most success. Informal flexibility utilized by all, such as core hours concepts or simple flexibility to cover personal needs such as doctor appointments or family conflicts should be described and scenarios given as examples. Core hours are set by some firms to allow for day to day flexibility- these include hours in the middle of the day, commonly 10-3 where everyone must be in the office. Some may choose to start work at 6 or 7am and work 8-10 hours, others may choose to start later and work those same hours but finish in the evening. This is the essence of core hours. Working hours and productivity are not reduced and expectations remain the same. Choices are given and details clarified on how the hours may be accomplished. However, it is important to note that Core Hours are quickly becoming old school as well. Guidelines regarding personal responsibility for communication and maintaining access to ensure continued workflow are key to building a flexibility culture that will not rely on the core hours concept.
Examples of "formal flexibility" should be noted with specifics on full time such as condensed week hours or telecommute (4-10 hour days, or some portion of the week via work from a home office) and specifics on reduced hour’s arrangements which include typical 80% or 90% of full time hours type schedules. Any details on impact to compensation, benefits, career progression, etc. are all outlined in detail. Firms that have mastered the flexibility culture are very clear on career progression in particular. Firms must identify the progression impact of various flexibility choices. The majority of firms are determining appropriate levels of flexibility up to and including the partner level and are able to communicate and document these philosophies. There are often not hard written policies because each individual situation is unique.
Making a Personal Flexibility Plan
It is critical to ensure employees know how to take advantage of both informal and formal flexibility. Formal flexibility is only effective with a process that includes the employee creating a business case and request for the arrangement and an approval process which sometimes includes negotiation with practice leaders to ensure the arrangement will work for the business needs as well as individual needs. Employees sometimes need the opportunity to counsel with someone knowledgeable in the firm regarding options and how to meet business and personal needs. Formal check in processes are essential to avoid the failures many firms experience with these arrangements. Simply put, a process that requires the firm and individual to acknowledge what is- and is not- working about the arrangements and forces adjustments can put an effective stop to the many things that typically derail effective flexibility. These check-ins must occur annually at a minimum. All employees should take the time to estimate how they will utilize their billable and non billable hours and meet or exceed expectations for their level. This is essential for professional management of your performance regardless of the type of flexibility benefits you may take advantage of.
Leaders, managers and employees are oriented to the flexibility philosophy in education and awareness sessions. This step must not be skipped. Those leading and supervising others must be trained on how to effectively manage and hold people accountable with less face time. We currently tend to shortcut quality management techniques which is the result of expecting our workforce to be outside our office door 24/7 waiting for us to delegate or follow up with them. Effective management techniques have always included skills such as setting expectations, clarity in communication, adjusting style for the current developmental level of the individual, setting and adjusting accountability approaches, and getting to know the motivations of the people who work for you.
Employees also must understand that with privilege comes responsibility and they have a role to play that includes understanding business needs and a mature communication approach. Understanding their responsibilities in the above management skills interaction is key regardless of whether they are taking advantage of a flexible culture or working 24/7.
These are simple steps to move down the path to a more flexible culture. Remember this statement of caution. Simply going through the motions and following these steps without the buy in of leaders will not be effective. Governance bodies, owners, managers must engage with a willingness to shift culture around what we believe it means to demonstrate commitment to the organization. The requirement of more flexible cultures will not go away. The firms that do not embrace this will find their clients suffer and their future is not sustainable because talent will choose to go elsewhere.