Date posted: 21/03/2017 3 min read

Flexible working in the accounting profession

Should accounting firms be doing more to enable employees to embrace flexible working arrangements?

In brief

  • The rise of information and communication technologies has led to changes in daily work patterns.
  • Access to flexible working arrangements appears to have a gender bias.
  • Accounting firms could do more to create the culture of trust that allows employees to embrace flexibility.

The rise of information and communication technologies (ICT) has led to changes in daily work patterns in most knowledge-intensive professions, and the accounting profession is no exception.  

Advances in technology have impacted audit processes and systems controls, financial reporting and enterprise resource planning systems, as well as centralisation and automation of accountinginformation. Importantly, these changes have impacted real-time communication between and within teams and their clients, and have facilitated different modes of working.  

The accounting profession is ideally suited to flexible employment. However, traditionally, accounting firms have implemented policies that call for presenteeism, either in head offices or in clients’ offices.  

The six-minute billing system, tied to staff KPIs, leads to a focus on time-based increments rather than client outcomes. Further, the demands of deadlines, sporadic delivery, international hours and unpredictable workloads can lead to a culture of long work hours and inflexibility.

What job seekers really want

A 2015 CA ANZ work-life balance study reported that 22% of men and 13% of women worked more than 50 hours in a typical week. This contrasts with the changing requirements of job seekers who are increasingly searching for flexible work.  

In response to visible rhetoric from big four andother accounting firms favouring the implementation of flexible working practices, a recently published book chapter by academics at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney examined perceptions of formal and informal flexible working practices in the accounting profession in Australia.  

This chapter forms part of a larger study on work-life balance and pay equity. It draws on accountants’ views elicited in 20 interviews conducted in four Australian states in 2014. The chapter explores the nature of flexible working conditions practiced by chartered accountants, as well as the factors that were considered by CAs to undertake flexible work conditions, and the perceived consequences.

Temporal versus spatial

The chapter uses quotes from the interviews to unpack the notion of flexibility, which is not understood in the same way by all accountants. It examines both temporal aspects of flexible working (such as control over when work is performed) as well as spatial aspects (such as control over where work is conducted).    

Temporal flexibility ranges from a conservative notion of being able to alter the way the working week is structured, to a more radical output-based measurement in contrast to the existing hours-based measurement. Spatial elements are facilitated by technology, which allows for seamless distance-work.  

However, interviewees indicated implementation problems. For example, overtime and administration tasks were considered by most interviewees as regular occurrences, but the measurement and tracking of these loads was raised as a concern that would be exacerbated by a flexible arrangement.  

Interviewees also highlighted that certain types of work would be difficult to perform away from the office. These included auditing, tax, insolvencies, transaction services, initial public offerings, administration and most junior positions. Some interviewees concluded that project-based jobs such as business services are more suited to a flexible arrangement.

Perceptions and expectations

Another aspect examined in the study is interviewees’ perceptions of formal and informal policies for flexibility. Most interviewees reported the presence and use of informal arrangements, relying on the personal relationships between management and staff.  

In contrast, while most of those interviewed believed that there were formal policies in place, these are often not applied uniformly and their uptake often carries unintended consequences. These barriers and penalties include impacts on pay, promotion and on the type of work that is offered to flexible workers.  

Flexibility also appears to have a gender bias. The study reports interviewees’ perceptions of flexibility being largely associated with parenting constraints and requested mostly by women. There was even the suggestion that men who request flexible working might face censure or ridicule.  

Accounting firms could do more to create the culture of trust that allows employees to embrace flexibility.

Finally, the chapter reports that the personal characteristics of individual managers hinder or facilitate the acceptance of flexible practices in the workplace. For example, whether or not the manager also has children might impact their tolerance of the need for flexibility amongst their employees. Negotiation skills appear to be important in securing flexible work.  

The study suggests that accounting firms could do more to create the culture of trust that allows employees to embrace flexibility. Technological advances and an attitudinal shift towards flexibility will help firms attract and keep scarce, highly skilled staff. Implemented correctly, these policies can increase bi-directional loyalty, employee motivation and work-life balance.   

Read more in the CA ANZ library 

Managing The High Intensity Workplace, by Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan.

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