Prior to the pandemic, over the last decade, staffing issues had become one of the most pressing issues facing accounting firms, according to the American Institute of CPAs. Specifically, finding or retaining qualified staff was the highest concern for firms of virtually all sizes and specialties. As the country eventually emerges and finds a new normal, staffing will once again be front and center.
Staff Experience = Firm Value
Although accounting firms provide a variety of services to their small business and individual clients, what these clients are actually seeking is the assurance and sense of security that an experienced accountant can offer. After all, they could amble their way through their own bookkeeping functions and compliance requirements, but doing so could put them and their business in financial peril.
The value of an accounting firm, then, is found in the experience of its staff and the confidence it instills in its clients. The challenge, however, is in maintaining and nurturing this experience across an organization that is dynamic and growing, with staff joining and departing.
Attracting and Retaining Stuff
There are many factors involved in finding the right professionals to join your firm, or them finding you. Foremost, your firm and the staff position you wish to fill must be attractive to potential staff members, regardless of whether the position is entry level or more senior.
While your firm most likely cannot compete with Big 4 firms on salary, it is a mistake to think that the “best and brightest” newly-minted accountants will automatically go where the most money is. After all, along with the higher salaries at these firms comes burdensome workloads and 16-hour work days. Firms must periodically review their compensation levels (including all benefits), however, to ensure they are competitive with same-size firms in their area. Staffing company Robert Half offers a good salary comparison resource and includes a Salary Calculator that can help benchmark firm salary ranges for geographic areas.
Small and mid-sized firms that have had success in attracting top recruits often offer greater flexibility with work schedules and with work atmosphere, including dress codes. This doesn’t necessarily mean letting staff come and go as they please, but rather keeping an eye on the end result: If the staff member produces excellent work product and clients are satisfied, the minute details of their daily schedule need not be scrutinized.
Regarding appropriate attire: If the clients who visit your office in-person are likely to be wearing pin stripes, then office staff should dress somewhat similarly. But if your clients are more blue collar, then the suit and tie can probably stay on the hanger.
Time Flexibility is Also a Perk
During the pandemic, we’ve all become more flexible with place of work and schedules. But when office life returns to something more routine, continuing with that flexibility with time and remote working is cost-effective and rewarding to staff. Those who have demonstrated their value to the firm can be given options to telecommute (occasionally), have flexible hours or even receive extra paid time off as a bonus. These can have a lifestyle or tangential monetary value to staff, without costing the firm, as long as the bottom line of productivity is being respected.
If a worker is performing at or above expectations, and client expectations are being met, there is no negative impact from that worker being allowed to leave early or arrive late to work if they have a non-work activity they would like to engage in. Such actions can also help spread a positive image of the firm as welcoming to young staff and those with active families.
Modern practices must also remain technologically adept and open to new ideas and advances. Young accounting professionals will avoid firms that appear stodgy and set in old workflow patterns, especially if the firm is using outdated technologies. Firms do not need to be “cutting edge” all the time, so long as they are willing to let firm staff use technologies they find productive. Other staff in the firm may also find the technologies increase productivity, as well.
Take BYOD for instance. Many successful firms are finding that having a policy of “Bring Your Own Device” makes sense and can save on capital expenses. Every young professional these days has a smart phone and other mobile devices. Allowing staff to use these devices for work and also for personal use during work hours can increase satisfaction and increase productivity, as long as the firm and staff follow proper security protocols with client data. Attempting to enforce a policy of zero use of personal devices in the workplace will have negative effects since, after all, you expect them to be at least partially responsive to work issues and email when they are on their personal time.
Exposure to Broad Experience & Niche Fields
In large practices, especially the Big 4 accounting firms, new staff members often assigned to a singular area of practice, such as corporate taxation, individual taxes or audit. On the corporate side, these professionals will likewise be departmentalized into payables, receivables, payroll, taxes, transactional issues or general bookkeeping.
Small and mid-sized firms can win the top talent by offering a more broad experience in the first few years, while young professionals are still finding the areas of practice that most interest them. Firms with flexible teams allow staff to gain experience in several areas of client service, including niche specialties that may be unavailable at the largest firms.
Talk to Your Staff
If you really want to know whether your staff is satisfied with the firm, the work and their advancement potential, the easiest ways is to ask them directly. Hold annual review sessions and go over these issues, including salary and benefits. Anonymous surveys can also be used if staff feel hesitant to talk about certain issues, but the need for anonymity may be a sign that a firm’s culture has become unwelcoming.
Help Them Grow
A study by the AICPA showed that found that new accounting professionals value potential for growth within a firm, as well as PTO, about as much as they value compensation. As such, developing internal training programs can be a benefit to both the firm and its staff by showing firm management’s commitment to workers and updating them with the skills that will both help them be better at their current jobs, as well as more valuable in the future. Many training courses are available online and can be sponsored by the firm.