Jennifer Wilson

How Flexible Is Your Firm?

Most employees are no longer willing to put the firm first, and this requires a shift in business strategy. Here are four best practice tips on how to design workplace flexibility offerings successfully.

October 4, 2010
by Jennifer Wilson

While we have excess labor in the market today, the impending retirement of our nation’s baby boomers and our hoped-for economic bounce will cause a labor shortage even greater than we experienced in the recent past. The firms that are best able to provide motivational programs and engaging environments will win in the recruiting-and-retention game. There are many things that affect employee motivation and engagement, including acknowledgement, trust and respect, professional development and increasing responsibility and challenge.

But there’s one aspect of employee engagement that has come up more than any other in my conversations with CPA firm leaders and administrators this summer: the need for — and challenges of — workplace flexibility. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) workers are increasingly challenged to balance the demands of their professional careers with their personal commitments. Most employees are no longer willing to put the firm first, and this requires a shift in strategy to balance this mindset with the productivity requirements of the business.

Organizations that accept the need for workplace flexibility and begin to develop and evolve programs to support different work styles will have the most success in the coming decade. I have a natural bias as a business owner and working mother who owns and operates a 100-percent virtual, completely flexible work environment.

When you offer workplace flexibility, you provide your people with a range of choices as to how, when and where their work is done. There is often fear and confusion about offering flexibility, though. The most common objection is the concern that it will result in a reduction in total hours worked, and thus dollars billed. While one type of flexibility program is a reduced-hours program, there are other flex options that do not entail a reduction in hours.

4 Best-Selling Options for CPA Firms

When approaching workplace flexibility, there are many different ways to design your firm’s offerings, including:

  1. Flexible hours programs — These can include allowing your people to choose their start and end times, usually within an agreed upon range of hours around your firm’s traditional office hours. This can also include compressed work-week programs that allow your people to work more hours over fewer days, having more days off per week or month.

    1. With flexible-hours programs, the most important elements affecting success are consistency and communication. The key is for your team members and clients to be clear about when the flex-schedule person will be available to them each day.

  2. Reduced work-hours programs This is where you offer part-time options or part-year options. Reduced work-hours programs can be especially beneficial during “off season” slower periods for reducing labor costs. While a reduced-hours program can be beneficial for interns, mothers returning to the workforce and employees caring for the elderly or the ill, most of your people will not choose to take advantage of them because they choose instead to earn full-time wages, so having other flexible-work options available is recommended.

    1. To be successful, your leaders will have to carefully consider the type of assignments given to part-time or partial year workers so that the staff and clients they work with experience continuity and accessibility when working with them.

  3. Flexible-location programs In this type of program, your firm supports its people in working at other locations including client sites, from home, when traveling and more. These programs are very important to have in place, even if you offer no other element of flexible work arrangements (FWA), so that you can allow your people to leave the office, attend to their personal obligations in the evening or on the weekends and still engage in work as time permits. We have seen CPA firms experience an increase in productivity when they encourage their people to go home and be with their families or attend to personal business in the evening during busy season and then reconnect remotely later at night when they are able.

    1. These programs require clarity about who in your firm can qualify to work remotely — typically by experience level or job type. You’ll also need strong IT support including remote access to systems, defined data security and clarity about which are firm versus personal assets. You’ll also want to ensure that you have clearly defined expectations regarding childcare and other potential challenges that can arise when working from home.
  4. Flexible leave programs These programs range from those that allow employees to leave during the day for personal business or take time off to care for a sick child with pay, to more complex programs that allow employees to take sabbaticals, change career paths temporarily or exit the firm for a defined period to attend to child rearing, a military leave or an illness and then return back to resume their careers.

    1. Simpler leave programs require clear documentation regarding how to request time off during the work day and with whom they should communicate. For sabbaticals and programs that allow multiple points of exit and entry, developing a clear plan for the successful transition of the employee’s clients, engagements and other responsibilities upon exit and entry is an important factor to consider.

While it is true that managing workplace flexibility increases the complexity of your firm’s operations — from scheduling, IT management, government compliance, HR policies, employee agreements, communication and more — studies show that flex initiatives provide a number of benefits to CPA firms and their people, including:

  • Differentiation in recruiting;
  • Reduced turnover (which is estimated to cost 1.5 times to two times the person’s salary in replacement costs);
  • Increased morale and engagement;
  • Improved productivity and reduced unscheduled absences; and
  • Reduced stress and burnout.

To develop or evolve your firm’s flex initiatives, you will find plenty of guidance and resources available, such as government resources, AICPA articles and tools (try the AICPA PCPS Human Capital Center), examples of firms leading the way (PDF) and wonderful books (a must read is Cali Yost’s Work+Life).


And, if your firm offers any flexibility programs, be sure you are clearly communicating the availability of, and expectations that go along with, these benefits to existing and prospective employees. If your firm has been hesitant, now is the perfect time to develop some initial flex programs to enhance employee engagement and position your firm for success.

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that specializes in helping leaders achieve success.