Work-life Programs: How the Big Seven Flex

Employees at audit firms can pretty much write their own work-life script. Here's a roundup of how the seven largest firms approach flexible work arrangements.

Companies looking to raid public accounting firms for talent, be warned: The talented are accustomed to a degree of flexibility in how they work that may be beyond what your corporate culture can stomach.

Many companies of all types have responded to the workforce’s growing demand for work-life balance with a raft of programs. But few have bent as far as the accounting firms. There, after only a couple years of employment, client-service staffers generally are free to work how, where, and when they want, bestowed with seemingly endless options for customizing their careers.

The firms have had little choice, thanks to a collision of demographics and regulation. Just as the paltry supply of people born during a deep trough in the U.S. birth rate began to enter the work force a few years back, Sarbanes and Oxley got together and required the testing of public-company internal controls, which helped make independent auditing a growth business. The human-capital needs of the accounting firms quickly reached the insatiability point — and that was before the new era of fair-value accounting rules and global melding of financial-reporting standards came along to brighten their star still further.

All of that made recruiting and retaining talent the top business imperative. The accounting firms, whose approach to the workplace environment had already been fairly flexible, ratcheted up their efforts a few notches, a process that continues today.

In many cases work-life programs came about as responses to the preferences of the newest generation of workers. Why do young adults these days so boldly proclaim their desire for flexible work arrangements? “Because they can,” said Dan Black, director of campus recruiting, the Americas, for Ernst & Young. “Gen X is roughly half the population of the Baby Boomers, who are retiring. So Gen Y knows: ‘Hey, they need us.’ That empowers them.”

But the accounting firms say their flex offerings are even more important for holding on to talent than for recruiting it. “You can recruit someone with words, but if you don’t deliver on it, you’re not going to keep your best people. So this is really about retaining our top talent,” said Michael Fenlon, people strategies leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. And, according to the firms, Baby Boomers are as enthusiastic about taking advantage of flex opportunities as anyone.

The accounting firms acknowledge that retaining talented women is a special motivation for offering flexible work arrangements. “Women are almost 60 percent of college students today, so there is an increasing number of them in the workforce. But the majority of women do not work full-time throughout their careers,” said Anne Weisberg, a director in the talent organization at Deloitte & Touche.

The firms are careful to note, though, that their flex programs are for everyone — women and men, young and old. BDO Seidman launched a “women’s initiative” in 2006 focused on better retaining and recruiting of women, and pinpointed workplace flexibility as the key driving factor. “But then we had an ‘ah-ha’ moment where we realized that flexibility is not a women’s issue,” said Sandi Guy, human capital partner at the firm. So the flex strategy that had been developed for women was pulled out of that initiative and relaunched firm-wide.

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