Flexibility in flex time

November 12, 2008

I recently met a Cleveland-area CPA firm leader for lunch and our talk turned to issues of staff management and HR practices. The member’s firm has embraced flexible work arrangements for highly qualified staff it hoped to retain, but is facing a number of challenges.

CPA firms are often featured on lists of flex-time friendly employers or “Best Places to Work”, but options for flexibility are frequently extended to valuable more-experienced staff as the profession works out what “flexibility” should mean if applied more broadly. CPAs can be among the best candidates for flexible work arrangements, with the ability to meet client needs from remote locations and segregate project work to complete on a non-specific schedule. But as a client-service business, how much flexibility can a CPA employer afford?

The degree of perceived control that an employee has over their schedule is often cited as an essential element in job satisfaction, particularly for the newly entering workforce. With advancements in mobile computing, CPAs can increasingly work anywhere at any time, and the specifics of how and where are becoming less and less relevant. Flexibility that can take advantage of this capability helps meet this need for control – “I work hard, but on my terms.”

A difficulty in a client-service business arises from flexible work schedules that require “not-available” time. Whether the employee is juggling the schedule to go back to school or to participate in raising their children, how does the employer address the client emergency or critical question that arises during “not-available” time while respecting the boundaries of the “flexer”? At a larger employer, solutions such as client-sharing and redundancy can be explored, but my member friend was dealing with a lack of depth for such solutions due to firm size.

Attempts to accommodate multiple flexible schedules result in ridiculous business challenges such as “How do I schedule meetings if the only time everyone is available is 10:30 a.m.?” Some are pushing back on the cost/benefit of the practice for the employer and the career impact for the individual.

Flexible work schedules are an essential element of our success for the future. Achieving the right balance between employer and employee needs, however, is difficult. Has anyone discovered a better answer for the wanna-be benevolent, cutting-edge employer whose experience with flex-time presents challenges to excellence in client/customer service?


It’s all about staffing

November 11, 2008

Human capital concerns topped the priority lists for firms of all sizes, according to the AICPA Private Company Practice Section’s Top MAP Issues survey. Speaking at last month’s Cleveland Accounting Show, PCPS’s Heidi Brundage, CPA reported on conclusions from the Top MAP Issues Survey and challenges faced by firms in 2008.

For every breakdown by firm size, with the exception of sole practitioners, “finding qualified staff” was the number one concern, with ‘”retaining qualified staff” not far behind. Differences between employer and employee top reasons for joining and staying with a firm highlight staffing disconnects:

  • While employers listed “salary” as the top reason to join a firm, employees listed career growth opportunities as their highest priority.
  • While employers again listed “salary” as the top reason for staying with a firm, employees rated “respect for the mission” of the organization more highly.

Bottom line advice for employers included clarifying what career growth in their firm or company “looks like,” and providing opportunities for staff to be engaged in the firm’s mission, vision and values.

The 2008 PCPS/TSCPA National MAP Survey results indicate that the human capital challenge may be shifting.

In a preview of survey results, Jim Metzler, CPA, AICPA Vice President Small Firm Interests, said that for the first year in some time, staffing concerns may be easing. (Note that the survey was completed prior to the current market crunch.) Total turnover rates for participating firms dropped from 42% in 2006 to 14.5% in 2008. Reported net earnings were healthy, and average compensated hours worked declined from 2006.

Retention of highly qualified staff may be replacing recruitment as firms’ top human capital concern, leading to changes in staffing strategies.

Other interesting results included a decline in audit and attest fees as a percentage of small firm revenues. Brundage cited risk assessment standards and complexity as reasons that some firms have reduced attest services as a percentage of their practice.


Is accounting a recession-resistant career?

November 10, 2008

After setting aside a dream of becoming a high school math teacher (can you see my “nerd” propeller spinning?), what really attracted me to accounting as a profession was security. As a teenager, I had already been indoctrinated that the parental pocketbook was closing as soon as I walked out the door to head to college, and accounting seemed like a good way to support myself. Mine was about the last generation raised on the Alex P. Keaton vision of business careers (hopefully with a little more compassion,) prior to the information technology boom of the later 80’s.

The word on the street about accounting in the early 80’s was that it was a “recession-proof” career. As an engineer working in the defense industry, my father had faced the closing of the aerospace division of his employer, but somehow the accounting profession seemed more resistant to business change. Current summaries of the best careers for uncertain times continue to include accounting and finance among the most secure.

As we face current financial market meltdowns, do we expect any slowdown in the demand for accounting professionals? A CFO.com article from early 2008 dissects anticipated demand for various corporate financial careers, and its conclusions appear relevant today.

It’s certainly a reality that many businesses are looking to cut costs in the current market, and are investigating options such as outsourcing or eliminating redundancy through shared services. Corporate employers have also streamlined their SOX processes, reducing the growth that had previously been seen in this area.

Some Ohio Society members in public accounting have commented on growth in assurance services, as lenders increase their levels of scrutiny, but may be seeing some strain in specialty services if clients are facing changing priorities with tighter budgets.

As the profession prepares itself to break through the recession ahead the pack, what are some growth opportunities in the current environment?

·   International Business – those who are best prepared to assist a client or employer with competing in an increasingly global business environment and dealing with the challenge of IFRS will lead the pack.

·   Tax policy – we are certain to see regulatory change with a change in the White House, and CPAs will be the lead advisors to business in a period of change.

·  Risk management – as businesses seek to streamline operations, this specialty increases in value.

Continuing to investing in expanding skills, including in personnel management and communications, and adding to the creative value a CPA provides to one’s client or employer as a trusted advisor, will assist in providing security in the accountant’s current role.


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