Accountants perfect balancing act

The business

Moore & Smalley is a firm of chartered accountants and business advisers. With an annual turnover of just under 6m, it employs 120 staff and has an HR team of two. Headquartered in Preston, the firm has recently opened a new Blackpool office and draws the bulk of its client base from local businesses across all sectors.

The challenge

About five years ago, HR manager Adrienne Collinge decided the firm needed to do something to address mounting recruitment and retention problems. She says: “The quantity and quality of people entering the profession is declining and we struggle to attract the best people because of our location. The high-fliers tend to be tempted by the salaries and lifestyle that firms in Manchester offer.”

According to Collinge, accountancy firms depend on the quality of the people they employ. If clients lose faith in the new people working on their account or became unhappy with the lack of continuity, Moore & Smalley would soon lose business. In short, making itself more attractive to staff was a matter of survival.

The solution

In 2000, Collinge saw some research that suggested graduates rated work-life balance more highly than any other employment factor. This persuaded her to apply for funding from the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) Work Life Balance Challenge Fund, and in October of that year, she was awarded 25,000 to implement changes.

Her initial task, however, had been to persuade the 12 partners that it was a good idea to apply for the award.

“Our culture back then was founded on the belief that time is money,” she recalls. “If people arrived at one minute past 9am, they were late.”

However, at that time, a key member of staff had just returned from maternity leave and the importance of work-life balance was making itself more apparent.

Once Collinge had the backing of the partners, she sent out a questionnaire to every member of staff asking how the firm could improve work-life balance. There was a high response and a great deal of enthusiasm for the scheme. In fact, one of the main challenges for Collinge has been to manage levels of expectation from staff.

She implemented three pilot schemes.

The first was ‘hot-desking’ – implemented after a space utilisation study by BT Workstyle had discovered that the firm was only using 23% of its space.

The second was location-independent working. Clients like to see their accountants actually working on their books, so the firm encourages its staff to operate out of client offices and has invested in laptops, palm pilots and a new switchboard with seamless call transferring.

Third, flexitime was piloted in the personal tax department. In the build up to the 31 January deadline for tax returns, employees in that department are very busy and work extended hours with flexibility at other times of the year around core hours of 10am until 2pm.

The outcome

Collinge admits that hot-desking was not a success. “We’ve now scrapped it,” she says. “Basically, people like having their own space and there is still status attached to having your own office. Still, it was only a pilot and so we were able to reverse the policy without any trouble.”

The other two schemes have been more successful, and have produced a range of HR and business improvements. In the first year, staff turnover halved and the proportion of sick days fell from 3.5% to 2.35%. Both indicators have remained constant since then.

Collinge concedes that as work-life balance has become more commonplace among competitors, it has given the firm less of an advantage in the labour market. This has prompted her to introduce a flexible benefits package, through which staff can ‘buy’ extra holiday time, as well as introducing childcare vouchers, a will writing service and so on.

“Everyone is generally less stressed and more motivated, and we’ve done it at very little cost, thanks to the DTI grant. It’s certainly been worth the time investment though, and we’re looking forward to reaping the benefits in the coming years.”

Learning points for HR

Collinge offers two pieces of advice to anyone looking to improve the work-life balance at their company.

“First, make sure you do everything as a pilot scheme with a fixed end date. This allows you to make amendments to policy and practice or to withdraw a scheme if it doesn’t meet your objectives. Second, ensure that what you introduce is meeting business needs. Employees need to be aware that flexibility is a two-way street, and that ultimately the firm needs to deliver to its clients.”

Employee perspective

Lynne Holmes, a tax principal, joined Moore & Smalley in September 2003, from a ‘big four’ accountancy practice in Preston. “I left my previous job because I was fed up with the long-hours culture,” she says. “If Moore & Smalley hadn’t allowed me to work four days a week I wouldn’t have taken the job.”

According to Holmes, too many companies only think of work-life balance in terms of parents with young children. “There are many other times of your life when the balance is important,” she says. “This firm is doing everything it can to get that right and that is reflected in the morale and productivity of the staff.”

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