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.

Public accounting is, of course, still a grind. The hours are often long, the expectations high. Not everyone wants to stay on indefinitely. Despite all their retention efforts, the Big Four accounting firms suffered voluntary turnover rates between 12 percent and 17 percent in 2007, according to Fortune Magazine‘s 2008 “Top 100 Employers to Work For” feature. Yet all four firms made Fortune‘s list, Ernst & Young for the 10th consecutive year and Deloitte for the ninth time in 11 years.

The big accounting firms’ work-life programs have many common elements. All, for example, allow their client-services staffers to apply for work arrangements with such non-traditional parameters as a four-day week, working from home, or not working for portions of the year. Following is a breakdown of the approaches at seven big audit firms.

McGladrey & Pullen

The menu of work-life programs at McGladrey & Pullen may differ in some respects from those of its competitors, but it is fairly typical of the breadth of work-life offerings at public accounting firms.

To apply for flexible hours, employees go to an online database where they fill out a proposal. If the proposal is judged to have a positive or neutral effect on the firm’s business, the firm’s leadership says it should be approved. “We don’t care what their reason is — we don’t even want to know. It is a business proposal,” said Teresa Hopke, worklife/talent management director at McGladrey. She noted, as did representatives of other accounting firms, that studies have shown employees actually are more productive when they can work on a schedule that best suits them.

The firm’s “flex year” option allows workers to take off a portion of the year and prorate their salary over the entire year, with full benefits. Typically people will choose not to work during the summer, according to Hopke, but time off can be taken anytime during the year, depending on business needs. “We have a guy in Seattle who’s a forest-fire fighter in the summer,” she said.

Under McGladrey’s “flex career” program, people can leave the firm for up to five years and be welcomed back into the fold. In the interim they are provided resources to help them stay connected with the organization and industry, and McGladrey will pay for any continuing education courses they take.

The firm also requires that employees, when writing their annual business goals, write a work-life goal as well. Their managers will ask about their progress against the work-life goals during reviews.

All of the programs are available to partners as well as associates. Partners are required to take a sabbatical of one to three months every five years, during which time they are disconnected from their company E-mail and phone. “At first some of them weren’t too happy about it, but that’s changed,” Hopke said.

Deloitte & Touche

Not all of the firms have such an itemized list, preferring to construe the concept of “flexibility” literally. “Rather than creating a menu of programs, what we’re trying to do is create a process that allows customization,” said Weisberg.


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