“I’ve had a job before where I don’t want to take time off for a hospital appointment or children’s Christmas play,” said Sarah Wynne, owner of Wynne and Co. “It’s demotivating.”
Like many other small practices who can’t offer the big bucks to entice employees from leaving, Wynne realised that culture is an important component when building a practice – after all, who wants to work at a place they hate?
Recruitment seems to have always been a headache for practitioners. As chewed over in a recent Any Answers thread, a staff member’s poor performance can have a knock-on effect on the whole firm: deadlines not met, client complaints, work piling up and an HR entanglement. But with the profession in the grip of a skills shortage, what can a hard-pressed firm do?
And as a panel at the QuickBooks Connect conference earlier this year showed, those practitioners lucky enough to find talented employees struggle to retain them when the bright lights of bigger firms come calling.
It’s no wonder some firms are replicating the Silicon Valley beanbag and table tennis culture to overcome staffing problems.
You could build a pub in your office
Adopting a rather British slant on this Californian ethos, Norwich-based Farnell Clarke decided to convert its storage room into a pub, the appropriately named Tax & Pounds, which opens its doors at 4pm every Friday.
Explaining why it was important the firm focussed on its culture, founder Will Farnell said: “Last year for the first time in our fairly short history we lost quite a lot of staff, and we found it quite difficult to recruit because we were recruiting in competition with regional firms happy to offer someone an extra £1,000 a year.
“And while we could say that we do some really cool stuff here that wasn’t necessarily reflected in the work environment. So we felt that we needed to refit the office.”
While we could say that we do some really cool stuff here that wasn’t necessarily reflected in the work environment. So we felt that we needed to refit the office.
As Farnell explained, 75% of the workforce will be millennials by 2025, so the firm felt it was important that it appealed to this generation - and that means the clients as well. “We want clients that want to work with us because we have an edge. And the way our office is fitted out and the fact we have a pub gives us something nobody else has got.”
And as a firm known for embracing the cloud, the idea of being a digital practice goes beyond technology – culture plays an important role.
“A digital practice is one that uses technology but has tech-savvy people using that technology. And tech-savvy people want to work in different environments, they have different ideas about what they want to do and how they're going to do it,” Farnell said.
The pub generated the desired buzz among prospective candidates. James Kay, the firm’s managing director, said the refit resulted in an increase of interest and a flow of better quality candidates.
It’s been several months since Farnell Clarke first opened its pub doors and Kay has already seen a marked change in the attitude of the people in the office. “When you enjoy working somewhere, you're more productive and that comes across to the client.”
But you don’t have to completely refurbish your office to overhaul your work environment - Sarah Wynne’s approach created a similar boost to staff productivity.
Ensuring staff enjoy their work
Keen to for her firm to provide a productive and enjoyable environment for her employees, Wynne's enthusiasm led her towards seeking an accreditation in this space as an exemplary employer.
To do this Wynne joined up with the Agile Nation 2 project. The charity initiative identifies ten key areas where firms excel as an employer and also explores areas of weakness. Discussing her drive towards achieving this exemplary status, Wynne said: “We hope our people enjoy working for us and will, therefore, work really hard. And through this, our clients will enjoy working with them, and our business will grow.”
You can find a load of people that do bookkeeping and payroll, but what I need is someone that is friendly and approachable and fits in with the ethos that we've got as a firm.
Wynne makes a point in the job specification that the candidate must exude the right kind of personality. “Attitude and personality are as important as experience and qualification,” Wynne said. “You’ve got to fit in the firm. You can find a load of people that do bookkeeping and payroll, but what I need is someone that is friendly and approachable and fits in with the ethos that we've got as a firm.”
Wynne has cultivated a family atmosphere in her practice, where the employees are not expected to do overtime, enjoy a fridge laden with food and don’t miss school plays. "It makes for a happier working environment. Efficient means better profit margins and we can then afford to pay better," she said.
And Wynne and Co is not alone. Raffingers, the Practice Excellence medium firm of the year award winners, went down a similar route when re-evaluating its culture. The employees expressed their grievances to an external company in what resembled a therapy session.
Off the back of this, the firm quickly implemented changes. Flexible working hours replaced the regimented nine-to-five, the responses inspired a mentoring scheme, and the change in culture has led to increased productivity, profit and a slew of awards wins and nominations.
How important do you place culture in your firm? How do you ensure your workplace is a positive place for your staff?
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.