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Can accountants break the 9-to-5 office habit?

Business

Flexible work patterns have clear advantages — even for a profession that clings to tradition.

By Sonia Gibson5 minute read

If there’s a bastion of traditionalism in the workplace, you’re most likely to find it in the accounting department. We’ve got a reputation for conservatism to go along with our care for the finances, but does that mean that the accounting profession is incapable of handling flexible working?

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Pandemic changed the game

Thanks to the pandemic, the world of work is changing. Two-thirds of Australians were always or sometimes working from home in June 2021 according to the Families in Australia Survey: Towards Covid Normal. In March, ABS chief David Gruen told the Australian Financial Review that remote working is here to stay in Australia.

Accountants out of step

Despite this general shift in work patterns, there has been a reluctance in the accounting profession to follow suit. Traditionally, accounting professionals are subject to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that make presenteeism a facet of the corporate culture.

The accountant is expected to attend board meetings, client meetings, and be “generally available” in the firm’s offices. Accountants also tend to cling to the traditional 9-to-5 workday, possibly with a few additional hours, to allow “the clients to set the hours”.

Why this must change

This isn’t going to be good enough moving forward. The pandemic allowed large numbers of top professionals to work from home either all of the time or a lot of the time, and there were some real lessons learned.

The benefits of flexible working are clear:

  • Top talent wants flexibility. If it’s not provided, they’ll work elsewhere – is there a more important field to have the best possible talent than in the accounting department?
  • Employees that thrive on working from home are more productive. A study from Stanford University shows that once people get used to working from home, they’re about 9 per cent more efficient than they are in the office.
  • Employees are happier working remotely and endless studies show that someone who is happy in their work is less likely to seek alternative employment.
  • People working from home means smaller, less expensive office space — a huge benefit if your business is based in a CBD of a large city. In fact, there’s already evidence that office rents are falling due to this reduced demand for office space from the workforce as a whole.
  • Flexible working is particularly beneficial to female workers. The accounting industry has an 85:15 split in top jobs. Because many women opt to prioritise childcare over their careers, flexible working means it’s much easier to have both.
  • You can hire from anywhere. If you want the best, you’re no longer forced to pick the best from your local city or region — if your people have flexible, remote working as an option, they can come from anywhere and work anywhere.

There are many other benefits ascribed to remote working and, of course, a few challenges to overcome too.

My experience with flexible working

We’ve adopted flexible working at Accounting Heart and found there are real benefits to this way of working.

I worked from home when I had a cold to avoid giving team members a share in my sickness. One team member, Helen, worked from home when her father had COVID-19. Another, Tracy, took some time at home because her son was sick, and she needed to go to the emergency room with him. Sharon took some time at home to manage her children’s schedule on school holidays.

The result? The most profitable week of the last six years with record billings.

My team has seen and reaped the benefits of flexible working. Sure, it’s not always easy to be flexible, but the long-term rewards are worth the occasional challenge.

How accounting handles this overseas

The Journal of Accountancy recently published insights into a hybrid-working relationship for accountants in the US.

It concluded that hybrid working, which involves some time in the office each week as well as flexible working, might be the ideal model of work for the accounting profession.

CPA Practice Advisor says that the priorities of employees have changed in a post-pandemic world and that flexible working is becoming essential for recruiting and retaining employees in every part of a business. It says these employees might be willing to take a 10–20 per cent salary cut to get that flexibility.

In the US in October 2021, PwC announced a “work-anywhere” policy with several flexible working options including an “all-virtual working environment” in which their employees may work anywhere and never return to the office again.

One of the major players in the Australian financial services, Deloitte, has decided to dump the 9-to-5 routine “for good”. From now on, staff can design their own working weeks based on the company’s “flex rules”. There are already Deloitte accountants making waves by going surfing during the day, rather than sticking to their old 9-to-5 lives!

The future is flexible

We like to think that we’re leading the way for Australia at Accounting Heart in demonstrating that flexible working is a positive thing.

We believe it will positively impact the workplace as a whole and in the long-term it should increase diversity in the workplace, help to close the gender pay gap and allow more women to reach the top.

Are you ready to take your first steps into the world of flexible working for accounting professionals? If not, why not? You don’t want to find your firm out in the cold when it comes to attracting the best talent, do you?

Sonia Gibson is founder of Accounting Heart.

Can accountants break the 9-to-5 office habit?
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