- Big 4 firms may be advanced in flexibility and work/life balance, but in some areas staff may work longer hours than in mid-tier firms.
- Auditors and accountants tend to work longer hours when deadlines loom.
- Automation can help to reduce work hours.
By Alexandra Johnson.
Picture this. A public practice accountant rises before dawn, showers and heads into the office. She spends the day fielding calls from clients, working on tax compliance and offering business advice to harried owners of small businesses. Finally, she heads home on a late train, laptop in hand, to mop up a few of the day’s tasks before bed.
Sound familiar? The accounting profession has a reputation for working its people hard. But does the traditional image of these number-loving professionals burning the midnight oil still hold true? Is the accountancy profession moving with the times to embrace flexible working conditions and work/life balance? And with the automation of many accounting processes, what does the future hold?
Litsa Christodulou FCA is a partner within the business services division of HLB Mann Judd in Perth. They currently employ 70 staff members who, she says, would on average work 37.5 hours per week, although she herself works 45-50 hours.
Accountants’ work hours are dependent on various factors, such as industry division and seasonal deadlines, says Christodulou. “Auditors, for example, work longer hours when an ASX deadline is looming, however, in the business services area, constant deadlines enable the work to be more easily managed. That said, where a client delivers their necessary information close to a deadline, most accountants will work longer hours to meet the deadline and complete the job.”
Technology can reduce working hours
From speaking to friends and colleagues who work for the Big 4 accounting firms, she believes there is an expectation to work longer hours there than within mid-tier firms, “especially if it relates to a particular transaction”.
Although automation has its efficiencies, it is still dependent on the user’s skills and accountants entering the industry can struggle to do things manually, says Christodulou.
“Difficulties arise when, for example, looking at a profit and loss statement or balance sheet and figuring out why something isn’t working. Interrogation of the accounts is still required and can take longer, depending on the accountant’s skills.”
If the automated process is done correctly, this plays a role in working fewer hours. HLB Mann Judd is constantly looking at ways to achieve a flexible workplace. “Since I started my career, the number of hours worked by staff has significantly reduced as work/life balance is much more important to everyone, including partners of the firm.”
I feel accounting is still very old school in its thinking toward flexibility and work/life balance
“Previously, it was mostly seen as a gender issue with regard to helping women get back into the workplace after having children, but it is common now to see men and women of all ages wanting flexibility for a number of personal reasons.”
Technology can enable this to happen, allowing staff to access files and systems remotely while, for example, working from home. “Ultimately, client needs and various deadlines must be met – how we achieve this outside of the traditional nine-to-five model is definitely changing.”
Justin Martin CA is an associate in the advisory division at BDO, a mid-tier firm with 100 staff in Wellington, and 15 offices across New Zealand. On average he works 42 hours a week. “At our firm, most staff work 37.5 hours a week when averaged over the year. During peak times and to achieve deadlines staff may work additional hours, however our time-in-lieu system for less senior staff means that they are then able to take extra time off at other times during the year.”
(Pictured: Justin Martin CA)
He doesn’t think the number of hours accountants are expected to work has increased significantly over recent years “though I do think that due to technology, clients often expect a more timely response to their questions”.
In saying that, however, he thinks automation, such as the direction in which Xero is heading, will decrease the number of hours required in relation to compliance. For some, this might mean working fewer hours, while others might use the opportunity to focus on increasing the amount of value-adding services they can offer clients.
In his experience, the accounting industry is moving with the times regarding flexible working hours. “There is widespread acceptance of that,” he says. “Using technology means staff can easily work from locations other than the office. Work/life balance is one of our firm’s values and it is especially important to me as I have a young family and value being able to spend time after school with them and working later in the evening.”
Millennial generation will make a change
Ben Wong CA is a Relationship Manager at CA ANZ in Sydney, and also has his own public practice with one employee. He cut his teeth in the industry at PwC, where he worked for almost ten years in corporate tax. Wong says hours would vary between 40-80 hours per week, but the average was probably 50-60 hours per week.
“Overall though, I think accountants in general are expected to work a 50-hour week, although it varies as there are always busy periods depending on whether you’re in audit, tax, business services etcetera.”
This expectation of hours has probably remained quite steady, if not declined a little. “The millennial generation overall I would say work less overall than their Gen Y counterparts at similar points in their careers.”
In general, he believes the accounting industry thinks it is embracing flexibility, “but in reality, I’m not sure it is”.
“My experience is that the majority of partners in firms still have that old school mentality of ‘if you’re not at your desk, you’re not working’. I believe there is still too great an importance placed on working core hours of nine-to-five.”
AI will lead to more efficiency
“I think that as generation Y/millennials start rising in the ranks and becoming owners of these firms that things will definitely change – and for the better. Until then, I feel accounting is still very old school in its thinking toward flexibility and work/life balance.”
He says the Big 4 firms seem to be a lot more advanced in flexibility and work/life balance. “They have the advantage of having large critical mass which allows staff to cover any shortages. In smaller firms, if one staff member is working flexibly and perhaps not pulling their weight, it obviously has a far greater impact on overall productivity.”
He has mixed feelings about whether artificial intelligence (AI) will mean accountants can work fewer hours.
“Automation and AI should allow accountants to work more efficiently, but I don’t think this will necessarily directly translate into less hours worked. In my view, if accountants become more efficient, partners in firms will simply increase the workload such that overall hours worked are probably similar.”
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Alexandra Johnson is a freelance writer based in Wellington, New Zealand.