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Practice Management

Accounting firm leaders must decide what work practices to keep and what to ditch in 2022

Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute

As the world slowly returns to some sense of normalcy, tax & accounting firms are going to have to decide what practices forced on them by the pandemic are worth keeping going forward

Tax & accounting firms found that their ability to deliver their services improved with the shift to remote working, according to the 2022 Tax Professionals survey report released by Thomson Reuters earlier this year.

This finding is good news for tax & accounting firms because it also supports evolving expectations for firm talent. Indeed, the report also highlighted that offering remote work increased many tax advisors’ level of job satisfaction.

This expectation around flexibility in when and where work gets done is sticking around for the long term, many market watchers predict. Firms that embrace this flexibility, among other things, likely will have a leg up in recruiting and retaining tax & accounting talent in 2022 and beyond.

Accounting firm Warren Averett, which was ranked #3 in the large firm category in Accounting Today’s list of top accounting firms to work for in 2021, offered remote work capabilities even before 2020, says Chris Morrow, the firm’s Chief Information Officer. The firm offered remote work as part of its business continuity plans to maintain services during extreme weather events. Since March 2020, however, the firm has left the decision about in-person work up to practice and engagement team leaders. According to Morrow, a lot of people are still choosing to come into the office at least one day per week.

To highlight other learnings from the pandemic, many tax & accounting firms are focusing on well-being and giving firms’ talent professionals a seat at the table when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent. Other actions many top tax & accounting firms are taking include:

Prioritize team members’ well-being — Mitigating employee burnout is essential to compete for talent in the accounting profession, especially when attracting individuals to the profession was already a challenge before the pandemic. Now with the tight labor market, firms are having to get even more creative. For example, when Warren Averett was looking for ways to reduce the number of overtime hours their accountants work during the busy tax season, the firm hired two dozen staff members in India which allowed their U.S.-based staff to spend more time with family.

Treat your talent professionals as professionals — Firms have invested in hiring talent professionals because firms see the need to have full-time resources dedicated to recruiting and retention. Now, it is time for firms’ managing partners and executive committee members to allow these professionals to do what they were hired to do by heeding their recommendations as advisors in the firm’s talent strategy, rather than just the executors of it.

Position your culture to thrive

Culture is a daily experience among employees as they interact with their managers, peers, and practice and engagement team leaders. It is in this setting where the explicit performance expectations combine with the implicit behaviors that communicate what the firm rewards, tolerates, values, overlooks, and punishes.

Most firms have a purpose statement that lists corresponding values as key ingredients of firm culture, and many firm leaders are culture carriers in demonstrating these values in their day-to-day interactions. At the same time, there are some firms that have documented their culture on paper but are inconsistent when applying its principles.

Warren Averett created a common language as a guide to put its culture into action through its fundamentals, which are 30 statements outlining behaviors around communication, listening, career advocacy, and embracing change. Morrow, the CIO, highlights how the firm put into practice one of its fundamentals, “Do the right thing always,” when it made the decision not to lay off staff or reduce compensation at the beginning of the pandemic.

That said, engaging in and experiencing firm culture is much easier in person than it is virtually, of course, which is why a multi-pronged approach along with some experimentation are necessary. For example, Warren Averett’s intern program is back to being completely in-person because evidence shows that engagement, performance, and program satisfaction is higher when interns are working within the office.

The formula for success in forging and maintaining strong bonds is still unknown, but the key, Morrow says, is to keep experimenting. Indeed, the firm has tested different virtual team building events, such as wine tastings, team lunches, and remote escape rooms, which have had mixed results. Going forward, the firm plans to continue both virtual gatherings, such as regular all-hands meetings, and in-person gatherings at the team level to build strong interpersonal bonds.

Retaining talent through employee benefit innovations

Further, small and large accounting firms are offering additional, unique benefits to attract and retain employees:

      • On the well-being front, some firms offer a lifestyle account that gives employees a set amount of funds to use at their discretion, depending on their individual life stages. Some can use it to purchase gym equipment, while others use it for house cleaning, pet-care services, or student loan repayment.
      • Smaller firms can offer a $100 pet adoption subsidy and also invite family members to firm events.

The one consistent theme through all discussions about how to attract and retain talent is emphasizing the human element. Professional services firms’ success is dependent upon their human capital, and it is critical in this environment to lead with humanity first above all else.

And this is especially true when considering how to evolve a tax & accounting firm’s talent recruitment processes and systems, adapt its culture for the virtual environment, and identify ways to retain employees.