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Tax Practice Development

How to upgrade your well-being tactics during the hybrid return-to-office phase

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Throughout the pandemic, accountants and lawyers have been working in overdrive; now, smart firms are upgrading their well-being tactics to support their employees

According to the Thomson Reuters Institute’s Pandemic Nation survey report, which featured research conducted in February 2021, the most common negative impacts for lawyers during the pandemic were increased stress levels (cited by 65% of survey respondents), increased pressure on overall well-being (64%), and less time for self-care (48%).

And it was similar for the tax & accounting industry, where stress was cited as the primary challenge. “It’s crucial that we take care of ourselves to successfully manage and overcome it in our professional lives,” says Sarah Krom, managing director of accounting firm SKC & Co. CPAs. Krom shared this perspective before the extension of tax season in 2021 for the second year in a row and another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.

Indeed, since the start of 2021, accountants and lawyers — especially those in capital markets practices — have been working in overdrive for months. This is why the smartest accounting and law firms are making permanent structural investments in their employees’ well-being rather than taking short-term actions because it’s a fad. Some examples of these permanent structural investments include:

      • The law firm Crowell & Moring had a well-being program called Healthy Living that started in 2010, before most law firms were focusing on well-being and well before the onset of the pandemic. The firm had just announced its well-being committee as the pandemic was hitting, according to Marguerite Eastwood, the firm’s Chief Human Resources (HR) Officer. During the pandemic, the firm redesigned the program, now called CroWellBeing to further support the holistic well-being of lawyers and staff.
      • Likewise, the accounting firm Friedman LLP has always focused on mental well-being and in 2019 enhanced its focus and further accelerated its investments at the start of the pandemic, according to Lindsay Gaal, Chief Operating and HR Officer at the firm.

Now that the economy and labor market are stabilizing in many areas of the country and the world because of increasing vaccinations, accounting firms and law firms are working through how to respond to employee expectations of a balance between returning to the office and continued remote working. Indeed, some reports have indicated that there is still a lot of anxiety with the anticipation of this next shift.

As a result, employee well-being will continue to be a hot topic during the next phase as we move closer to a post-pandemic environment. To that end, here are six ways your organization can upgrade its structural investments in well-being:

Collect real-time feedback on needs — Employees with children are still in a state of uncertainty through the summer of 2021, at least until public schools start and there is return to in-person learning five days a week. Likewise, working parents with children under five years of age will continue to experience shortages in childcare. In fact, these labor shortage could impact staff with responsibility for elderly caregiving as well. For all of these reasons and others, it makes sense to continue to survey your employees to evaluate their needs and provide various options on well-being.

Communicate and reinforce deadlines for work assignments coming through email — If a partner sends an email to a team of junior lawyers or accountants with a work assignment at midnight, it is best practice for the partner to communicate when it is due and to provide context on why she is sending the email at that time, such as if she was caring for her children all day. This prevents the associates from interpreting the email to mean that they need to pull an all-nighter in order to get it done by 8 a.m.

Continually emphasize the need to set and maintain boundaries — It’s really hard to disconnect when you’re working from home because you’re walking by your desk on the way to the dinner table or when you go to bed, and it’s likely that urge to “just check one more email” is strong. Indeed, one of the most effective signals in changing behavior occurs when partners and leadership model actions such as sharing their boundaries, such as “I don’t check email after 9pm,” how they set those boundaries, and how they stay accountable to them, even when they slip up.

Set the example to disconnect during paid-time off — Friedman leaders noticed that it was difficult for employees to avoid small work activities, such as checking email, and took matters into their own hands, closing during the week of the Christmas holiday and New Year’s Day. “We started to find days where we closed the firm as a whole so that we could disconnect,” Gaal explains, adding that as a result the firm’s leadership received positive feedback.

Monitor workload of each employee in real time — Analyzing which employees are working significantly more hours than other employees week after week is an important component of well-being. Moreover, proactively reaching out to those employees consistently putting in more time than others with the acknowledgement that the pace of working so much is not sustainable and asking what work matters can be shifted to others also prioritizes employee well-being.

Continue to offer resources and sessions on effective stress management techniques — Crowell & Moring brought in a variety of well-being experts on how employees could effectively navigate uncertainty, use mindfulness proactively as a stress management tool, and identify the pros and cons of various coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, in stress management.

For law firms and tax & accounting firms, every decision comes back to what is in the best interest of employees. Firms should be continuously exploring innovative ways to keep their employees feeling fulfilled and promoted personal and professional growth. “It is a continuous mindset,” Friedman’s Gaal says. “Because that’s the only way we’re going to keep talent in this industry, which is an ongoing issue.”

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