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Nancy Baldiga
Flexible Work Arrangements

Strategies for success.

August 19, 2010
by Nancy Baldiga, CPA

Unlike their peers in professions like law, medicine or business, CPAs enjoy an advantage when it comes to managing a flexible work arrangement. Since CPAs are often away from the office due to client obligations and travel, the professionals in the firm and the firm’s clients have already accepted that the CPA may not be available in the office during regular hours. This expectation provides an advantage for professionals working in flexible arrangements. For the last few years, professionals in public accounting have been increasingly interested in using flexible work arrangements.

Over the last 10 years, an increasing number of professionals, both male and female, have adopted flexible work arrangements. Many of these same professionals have continued to advance within their firms. Some have been promoted to partner while pursuing a flexible work arrangement. Professionals who have enjoyed successful part-time or flex arrangements and their human resource directors offer the following advice:

  • Stay flexible. Both firms and professionals participating in flexible work arrangements need flexibility for the arrangement to be successful. Flexibility is key for one important reason. As much as the professional tries to establish boundaries between their personal and professional lives and adhere to the proposed schedule, client demands and deadline will inevitably present challenges to the plan. Veterans of flexible work arrangements encourage others to be firm about protecting time away from the office. They recommend developing a clear schedule and communication that schedule to clients and colleagues. Both parties need to stay flexible. A client emergency or valuable opportunity may arise and the professional who is not on a full-time schedule deserves a chance to respond.

    “I think a flexible work arrangement works best when both parties make a real commitment and stick to their commitment. I think that it is also important to establish a backup system. If I have a sick child, I am still committed to my three days and, on the firm’s part, they are committed to my two days away from the office. This is important because what you will find is that ‘just this one time’ mentality. You find the line start blurring and I think that is where part-time schedules and women run into a problem.”

    Terry Simonds, officer, Amper, Politziner & Mattia

  • Communicate acceptance of these arrangements while providing support and information. As professionals attempt to find the appropriate work/life balance, they benefit from knowing that these options exist and that the firm supports professionals in these arrangements. One of the best strategies for firms offering flexible work arrangements is to let others in the firm know about the options that are available. Many firms maintain a database of sample contracts and schedules. Access to the experiences of others is particularly beneficial to firm managers and professionals interested in adopting a flexible work arrangement. Difficult issues like scheduling and compensation can be more easily addressed after learning about how others have resolved these issues.

    Communicating the success stories of professional on flexible work arrangements helps to provide support for others on similar schedules and also enhances the firm’s reputation for responsiveness to individual needs for flexible work arrangements.

    “My advice would be to centralize communications by putting out databases and newsletters that reach people’s computers in a one-time hit. The communication continually reinforces the benefits, rewards and recognitions. I would also advise the use of repetitive communications. If you put your flexible work arrangements in a database and people don’t need it for two years, it’s forgotten because it’s not in front of them all the time. Use a multimedia approach for communications. It has also been very successful for us to have communication from our chief executive officer.”

    JoAnn Wittenbach, partner, Crowe, Chizek and Company LLP

               
    “At our last partner retreat, one of the topics was work/life balance. Now who would have ever discussed that a few years ago? I would like to think that there are now so many women working a part-time or flex schedule that it is possible to be professional and still move up the ranks. Now, it’s not thought, ‘Oh, she’s just a part-timer. But she’s an accountant, she’s a partner in training or she’s a partner.’ I think attitudes are changing, but slowly.”

    Terry Simonds, officer, Amper, Politziner & Mattia

  • Focus on the “mix” of activities undertaken while on a flexible work arrangement. Most professionals understand that there are certain expectations that must be met when trying to advance to the partnership ranks. The firm will look for professionals who excel at client service, market the business well, develop younger staff within the firm and demonstrate the character and leadership required of a partner. Professionals working in a flexible work arrangement need to keep those expectations in mind as they develop their plan for the year.

    Too many people on flexible work arrangements focus only on getting the job done. Faced with many deadlines and responsibilities and working reduced hours, they often choose to devote the majority of their time and energy to getting the “job” done. Although serving the client is an important objective, it is only one objective for the well-rounded professional hoping to advance to partnership.

Conclusion

Women in successful flexible work arrangements do well to have their career mix parallel that of others seeking partnership, even though their experiences are spread over reduced hours. If 60 percent of the job is client service, 20 percent marketing and 20 percent professional development, then an individual with a reduced load should adopt that same mix.

By devoting time to activities other than client service, the professional may progress on the road to partnership while enjoying the benefits of a reduced schedule.

“One of the issues I have is that once a person goes on a flexible work arrangement, there is too much concentration on getting the work done and staying on schedule. They need to build in time for special events and conferences, even if that means less time on other things.”

Gordon Viere, CEO, Larson, Allen Weishair & Co., LLP

*This article has been excerpted from Promoting Your Talent: A Guidebook for Women and Their Firms available on www.cpa2biz.com.

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Nancy R. Baldiga, CPA, is an associate professor and class dean at the College of the Holy Cross. She is a member of the Massachusetts Society of CPAs — Academic and Career Development Committee, Women in Accounting Committee and a former member of AICPA’s Work-Life and Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.