Insider – Keep idle thoughts at bay

Working in accountancy is getting harder, according to a survey conducted by Big Four firm Ernst & Young. The rising level of corporate governance regulations, stricter internal compliance procedures coupled with the growing number of litigation cases against auditors, are putting an increasing burden on partners and staff alike, leading to longer hours and more stress.

In accountancy firms, much of the burden is falling to the middle tier, in particular junior partners or senior managers, widely considered to be the engine room crucial to the firm’s success. But now, just when they have hit their career stride, increasing numbers of skilled and valuable staff members are choosing to opt out of professional life and follow less intensive career paths.

Accountants in practice are not alone. In fact, there is a generational issue at hand as growing swathes of young, talented staff across all professions increasingly opt for a simpler life. They are no longer prepared to take a high salary as compensation for long hours sacrificed to work and career.

There is a growing vogue for ‘downshifting’ and ‘protirement’ with employees wanting to leave high-powered jobs to pursue their real dreams or seek their pleasures from non-material means.

This summer, a number of new books were published that labelled this the ‘Idler’ generation. In his book, How to be Idle, author Tom Hodgkinson, the editor of The Idler magazine, actively encourages us to try to find things more exciting and interesting to substitute for work, to relax and learn to enjoy simply doing nothing.

All well and good, but how does it help organisations avoid employee burn-out and retain the vital members of staff whom they have expensively nurtured and have come to rely upon?

First, it is crucial that the ‘Idler’ generation is not merely dismissed as a passing phase of laziness. The cause is profoundly different. It is about a change in values, even among those who have careers with traditionally long-hours. This shift means that employers will not only have to offer more in terms of time off, training and non-salary related packages, they must also recognise that for the time being they are in a seller’s job market.

With the UK economy performing strongly and inflation and interest rates at relatively benign levels, the reality is that we are virtually at levels of full employment. This gives employees far more choice and room to bargain than they had in the 1970s and 1980s. They are now much less hesitant to give up jobs that do not suit them, even if they don’t have a replacement lined up.

Younger staff are much more likely to resent permanently long hours. Most professionals are willing to put in the time to get the job done, but this isn’t the same as regularly having to work beyond the legal maximum.

Reducing working hours is easier said than done, and certainly cannot be achieved without planning and usually some extra costs. It is particularly difficult to reduce working hours in very busy, successful organisations.

In accountancy firms, this calls for iron discipline from partners. They must monitor output and hours, ensuring that certain employees are not being put upon and that senior staff are organising their own time properly, not thoughtlessly demanding ‘just one more thing’ from someone hoping to go home at a reasonable time.

It is the duty of all partners and FDs to ensure that they know who is busy (and who isn’t) and that work is evenly allocated. Underperforming members of staff must be dealt with immediately. It’s not efficient if senior members of the team just reallocate work to a more capable and harder-working colleague. It overburdens diligent staff, while failing to tackle the root of the problem. If everyone is working efficiently and fairly, enormous amounts of time can be liberated, which allows staff to reduce their working hours, take longer holidays – or hopefully both.

There is a balance to be struck – employees should have enough responsibility so that their judgement and intelligence are fully utilised, but not so much that they feel over-burdened and unable to relax after work.

Remember, there is also the legal requirement to protect staff from stress. Although stress is hard to measure and the effects vary enormously from person to person, it’s easy to fall foul of the law. In many cases avoiding stress is a major cause of people downshifting.

Those with busy careers regularly fail to take their annual holiday allowance. A well-organised firm serious about retaining its talent mustn’t let this happen. Arrange cover or employ temporary summer staff. This will incur some cost, but in the long run will save a lot of money on staff recruitment and training. It’s much more efficient to keep staff than to constantly have to replace those who have been lost to the idler life.

There’s more to retaining staff than money, it’s about making them feel valued. Politeness, regular praise and thanks go a long way towards keeping staff loyal – and could make the difference between staff choosing to stick with the rat race or explore their inner child on a hillside in Wales.

Justin Lewis is chief executive of stockbroking firm Corporate Synergy.

Related reading

New Logo Saffery Champness