It’s late January and, for many accounting professionals, particularly those in public practice, that means you’re ramping up for the busiest time of the year… 1040 season. Although not all firms focus equally on individual tax compliance services, there are few who are immune to this annual uptick in workload, since even those with primarily business clients find themselves faced with returns for those business’ principals, partners and other shareholders. And these returns can grow increasingly complex with multiple inter-related entities and pass-through K-1s.
But tax season is just one example of the crunch that many tax and accounting professionals feel throughout the year, with workloads that seem to continue to increase. While this may sound like a “ka-ching” as far as firm revenues, the price of that growth can sometimes be measured in decreasing time spent with family, friends and non-work past-times. Or perhaps just a decrease in the quality of time spent on those activities, as the professional is intermittently drawn away from social events by the chirp or buzz of a mobile device.
There is no doubt that continuing developments in technology have dramatically increased productivity for professionals in many fields, but just as mobile devices, remote access capabilities, SaaS-based programs and other phenomena have enabled workers to have anytime/anywhere connectivity and instant responsiveness to their work and client needs, professionals must learn to manage this new productivity empowerment or else pay the price of increased stress.
Although often stereotyped as stodgy and skeptical, the accounting profession has actually been on the forefront of adapting to less clock-focused work environments. This has likely come as a result of two factors: An increasing adoption of value-based billing that focuses on the value of a service or workproduct rather than the time spent producing it; and the dramatically different expectations of the Generation Y and Millenials, who often are characterized as wanting more independence and less rigidity in their careers.
The Big 4 firms have taken these trends to heart, it seems, as a recent article in the NY Times noted (www.nytimes.com/2011/01/08/business/08perks.html). While these large practices are still very demanding during peak workflow times, they are also being more generous with their flex time policies. One such example was that of an auditor preparing for a two month audit engagement that in prior years might have led to increased personal and family stress for the professionals. But now, although the staff must still endure that crunch time, professionals and their families know that they will be able to truly unwind after the project. Some of the firms even allow staff to take extended time off to spend time with family, while others provide sabbaticals of three to six months. These benefits likely figure into a recent student ranking of the top 50 corporate employers, in which the Big 4 firms topped the list (www.universumglobal.com/top50).
Make no mistake, the firms are still in the business of making money, but they’ve adapted their approach in recruitment and retainment of the best talent. In previous decades, the strategy was generally focused on higher salaries and paths to partnership. But younger professionals now want part of their benefits to be the preservation of their personal time. Happier, less-stressed staff are more likely to be more productive and more devoted to their employers.