Can total flexibility solve accountancy’s always-on crisis?

Will Farnell
Farnell Clarke
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The decision by Norfolk-based firm Farnell Clark to bring total flexibility to how, when and where staff work is another sign that the profession has woken up to the insidious effect of accountancy's always-on culture.

Farnell Clark’s Will Farnell has become synonymous with technology innovation, which is why his firm’s decision to redefine their flexible working is even more interesting. It highlights, once again, how work-life balance has become one of accounting and recruitment’s biggest battlegrounds.

Farnell and his team have planned the flexible rollout for the past two years, ironing out the logistics. Out goes the standard 37.5-hour working week and a 20-something day holiday entitlement, making way for unlimited holiday (as long as the job is done) and six-hour working days (rather than a 7.5-hour day with core hours).

The firm first broached the idea of a six-hour working day in a survey sent to all their staff, and perhaps unsurprisingly the feedback was positive.

The new flexible working became part of Farnell Clark life on 1 February, presumably to see off any self assessment hijinks that may have arisen before the deadline.

“It’s taken two years to plan to allow us to create a culture that lets us do this with the right people, process and technology, wrote Farnell. “We had to move to a place where we can measure output effectively rather than simply measure input in the hours our team work.”

Farnell alluded to this flexible working restructure when AccountingWEB spoke to him 18 months ago about Farnell Clark’s culture. At the time, the firm had just renovated an old meeting room into the ‘Tax & Pounds’ pub.

Having a flexible work environment and the kind of culture an office pub cultivates responds directly to the profession’s current recruitment struggle. Farnell’s flexible working strategy plays to millennials who make up 50% of the firm’s workforce and also to the 17% that belong to Generation Z.  

To have a work environment that appeals to these generations not only strengthens the firm’s employee retention but makes the firm more attractive compared to regional competition with deeper pockets. And this environment is not lost on clients, as Farnell previously told us: “We want clients that want to work with us because we have an edge.”

Further evidence of the profession's changing attitude towards staff motivation and fostering talent comes from our own Accounting Excellence awards, which this year opens the inaugural 'investing in people' category. This is an award that celebrates the ways firms are supporting career progression and embedding an ethos - all of which should translate to exceptional client service.

Staff's right to 'have a life away from the office'

Offering flexible working is slowly becoming part of accounting firms' recruitment vernacular. Accountants like Allison Devine and Alistair Hayward-Wright have talked about the benefits of flexible working arrangements for staff, with trust and a good work-life balance being cited as key reasons behind this initiative.

While some stop short of going 'the full Farnell Clark' of unlimited holidays and six-hour working days, small practice owner Susan Rahman ardently defended her staff’s right to have a life away from the office, refusing to allow anyone in the office after 5.30pm.

Rahman told AccountingWEB’s Practice Talk how flexible working hours means her team won’t miss sports days, assemblies or the school run. “As long as they achieve their targets for the month, I don't mind,” she said.

Millennials bear the brunt of work-life stress

However, the effects of always-on culture continue to bite. This month a survey by the accounting charity CABA found 22% of chartered accountants consider handing in their notice on a weekly basis, with the biggest contributing factor their inability to achieve a work-life balance.

Echoing stories like Hayward-Wright’s after-hours email bind, 54% of survey respondents said they worked late on a weekly basis, while 47% admitted to taking work home with them.

Millennials, in particular, are feeling the brunt of the work-life stress, as 26% of 18-34-year-old respondents admitted crying on a weekly basis for work-related reasons.

The trend was also highlighted in a recent post on AccountingWEB's Any Answers forum, where an accountant signed off from work with stress after a series of panic attacks asked the community if they should I answer calls to assist with the backlog caused by their absence.

Answering generational and wellbeing issues

CABA’s services director Kelly Feehan is currently lobbying to move wellbeing up the corporate agenda and prevent such work-related issues by encouraging employers to prioritise work-life balance.

Farnell Clark’s flexible working move makes a concerted effort to answer these generational and wellbeing issues, without losing sight of client demands.

Farnell added: “Our teams will manage their work patterns between them to ensure clients’ needs are front and centre whilst giving them the work-life balance they need to be productive and efficient when their mind and body are in work mode.”

Is total flexibility possible for an accountancy practice? What are you doing to support your staff's work-life balance? And don't forget, if you are doing amazing things in training and development, enter the Accounting Excellence Investing in People award here.

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.


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05th Feb 2019 15:55

Well I like the concept of allowing staff the flexibility to set their own hours, but I'm a little confused over the 6 hour rule. Do they have to work a minimum of 6 hours on a working day? Or is that that maximum per day?

Why do they have such a rule at all if they offer unlimited holidays providing the work gets done?

Thanks (0)
05th Feb 2019 17:25

Thanks for the comment. The 6 hour is an expectation. We don’t track time so therefore we would not know if a 6 hour day was being worked even if we did want to police it.

Thanks (1)
By djn
to willfarnell
05th Feb 2019 18:41

willfarnell wrote:

Thanks for the comment. The 6 hour is an expectation. We don’t track time so therefore we would not know if a 6 hour day was being worked even if we did want to police it.

So are you saying that staff work 5x6 hour days a week so effectively working 4 full days?
Thanks (0)
to djn
05th Feb 2019 19:29

That’s pretty much it. It’s an expectation for working hours, if the job or client need demands more the team work the extra to meet that demand. The flexibility is there as long as the clients remain delighted with the service they receive. Our belief is that the team will deliver as much in a focussed productive 6 hours than a traditional 7.5/8 hour day. Time will tell of course!

Thanks (2)
to willfarnell
06th Feb 2019 09:35

Thanks Will, that makes a lot of sense.

Hope it works out.

Thanks (1)
By djn
06th Feb 2019 07:39

Call me cynical but I can't see how anyone working 30 hours can do the amount of work that they would in 37.5 hrs.
Unless of course there isn't enough work to keep them occupied full time.
If they can then surely they are not working hard enough usually?
Do they get paid a full time salary?

Thanks (0)
to djn
06th Feb 2019 09:52

Yes the team still get a full time salary. We are encouraging our team to work smarter and more productively. In doing so if they can deliver the same amount of work in a shorter time because they are more focussed then they can work shorter days. The work still has to be done and clients serviced to the level we expect.

Human nature is that we tend to work to the time we have available, if we have 7.5 hours we make the work last 7.5 hours, if we have a budget of 10 hours to do a job it will generally take 10, if the budget is 8 hours in many cases we will get it done in 8.

Of course time will tell how it works but we genuinely want to give our staff the right work and life balance which we hope transfers into our team becoming even more committed to our clients and loyal to us as a firm than they are already.

Thanks (0)
06th Feb 2019 13:12

Will how "will" stocked is the bar?

If that was in Newcastle I would work until 3 o clock each day followed by a 2 hour sesh in the bar.

Thanks (1)

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