The challenges of developing a flexible working environment include – how to attract and retain talented younger staff who are unlikely to have the same long-term commitment to a job of previous generations; how to continue to engage and ultimately transfer the knowledge and experience of older staff who are approaching retirement; and how to meet the needs of those requiring varying hours or days of work, in order to meet family commitments and achieve a work/life balance – particularly in a world where people are expected to be always available via phone and email.
These issues are especially pertinent in an environment where the traditional ‘partner’ model is no longer the primary driver for many staff or, indeed, firms. They also become more relevant for firms seeking to attract more women, particularly to senior level roles.
Fortunately, SMSF firms are in a strong position to build the flexible working environments that will allow them to attract and retain the best people.
For instance, many firms already use an internal team structure, which naturally allows people to play to their abilities and best utilise their experience and skills.
This structure also allows for a mentoring approach, where experienced accountants mentor younger staff, as well as reverse mentoring, so that senior partners can learn about new approaches and uses of technology which come so easily to Millennials.
Much has been said and written about Millennials – generally defined as those born between 1980 and 2000 – and their expectations and experience in the workplace.
They are a generation that has never known a workplace without internet and email, who have never lived through a true recession in Australia, and are comfortable with a public online life through social media.
A common cliché is that Millennials are demanding in the workplace and have high – and unrealistic – expectations of regular promotions and a pay rise every year, as well as absolute confidence (what some might call over-confidence) in their own abilities and skills.
Like all clichés, there are elements to truth in this generalisation, and accountancy firms must learn new ways of dealing with and responding to this generation – for instance, providing transparency around career pathways and opportunities for growth and development.
Millennials also offer potential advantages to the organisations they work for. Firms should look at ways at taking advantage of what Millennials bring to the workplace. For instance, younger staff are better at responding to change, by challenging processes, policies, programs, technology and being proactive in providing ideas. In today’s ever-changing environment, this is a definite advantage and will help ensure accounting firms survive and continue to provide the best information to clients.
Transitioning into retirement
Developing approaches to help staff nearing retirement will also bring benefits to accounting firms.
For example, older staff have built strong client relationships and have knowledge and technical skills that are extremely valuable. Ensuring a smooth transition into retirement is important for them, and for the business, other staff, and clients.
A good approach is to implement a mentoring program. We have found it to be one of the most valuable and effective development tools we can offer employees.
Some of the benefits for mentees include:
- Creating a friendly and constructive work environment that promotes learning and sharing
- Developing and building younger staff through the transfer of knowledge, expertise and experience
- Providing a clearer career path and helping identify growth opportunities
- Boosting motivation and enthusiasm.
Mentors also benefit from taking part in a mentoring program. It allows them to communicate their experience and skills to other staff, and see the value in the knowledge they have built up over many years. It also gives them the opportunity to review and develop their own goals and leadership approaches.
It can also help ensure that those who are close to retirement and who may be starting to think more about life in retirement than their work, maintain their enthusiasm and interest in their role.
In addition, a mentoring program is a cost-effective way for firms to develop top talent and create a pipeline of future leaders.
Flexible working arrangements
Despite their differences, there is one thing that all generations seem to agree on – the value of having flexible working arrangements within an organisation.
The most common approaches used by accountancy firms include unpaid leave, a compressed working week, flexible start and finish times, and working from home.
We have found these to be highly valued by staff, and usually the main barrier to implementing such approaches is a cultural one. Support is needed from the leadership team if staff are to feel truly empowered to use these benefits.
For example, firms should:
- Ensure they have the technology and resources to allow staff to work remotely, for instance using cloud software to access files and information, and providing technology devices that enable staff to attend meetings and training online
- Give selected senior staff responsibility for championing flexible working arrangements, and leading by example. This makes it more acceptable for other staff to use the policies
- Provide the necessary training and support to managers to help them deal with a mobile team. For instance, put in place ways to measure output rather than measuring the hours that staff are at their desk
- Regularly update and inform staff about the policies.
The best way, of course, to find out what staff want is to ask them. Seek feedback from employees through surveys, focus groups, team meetings and exit interviews. This will help you craft a benefits program that takes into account the needs of everyone, as far as possible.
For instance, we have found that a voluntary benefits program helps increase employee satisfaction, particularly when the organisation pays for or subsidises it.
Encouraging volunteering work also benefits the firm – it can boost staff morale and facilitate strong team-building.
Having a flexible workplace brings numerous benefits to staff of all ages and levels, as well as to an organisation as a whole, and those that aren’t looking at such approaches will soon find themselves left behind.
Téa Lehman, group recruitment manager, HLB Mann Judd