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Why staff want their accounting practice to feel like a start-up

Has your practice evolved from the office-based, 9-5 setup? If not, you may find signing up and keeping hold of talent an issue. Pleo’s Sam Kelley offers thoughts on how to attract and retain younger accountants.

12th Sep 2019
Partnerships Manager Pleo
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The clichéd version of working at a start-up is a familiar one: ping pong games, staff that don’t look old enough to be out of school and lots of talk about wanting to change the world. 

But there’s a lot more to this new breed of business and practice owners could take inspiration from how these companies work.

For a start, the vast majority of start-ups put huge value on employee morale. And while your team might not be explicitly telling you they want to work like a start-up, younger accountants are, by their very nature, hungry for change.

I want to offer a few thoughts that might prove useful to practices keen to keep their ping pong players and world changers happy. Not all of them will be applicable to every practice, of course. But the competition to sign up and retain top talent in accountancy is intense, and I believe change is not something to fear.

The basics of the job

Has your practice evolved from the classic office-based, 9-5 setup? Has the management style changed to reflect the new generation of workers? For too many practices, the answer to these questions is no.

When I decided to write about this subject, I reached out to Robert Collings of UHY Hacker Young. He articulated well the struggle accountants face when attracting young talent.

“Accountancy is traditionally a very process-driven profession,” said Collings. “In the first few years, you’re often tasked with low-level work that isn’t particularly engaging, and often has poor work-life balance.”

Nobody’s saying that less experienced accountants shouldn’t pay their dues. But work-life balance really matters to younger employees and one thing that might ease the stress for those new hires is flexibility. 

Here at my company, Pleo, we have remote workers from all over the world working a daily schedule that’s almost entirely down to them. As long as they’re getting the work done, we trust them to do it their way.

Surveys have repeatedly shown that accountants value flexibility just as much (maybe even more) than lots of other industries. In one poll, 43% of practice professionals named flexible working as the top thing that would make their lives easier. Of course, it’s all hands on deck during the busy season, but at other times, could you be more flexible?

Tech uptake

The recent Sage Practice of Now report pointed to the central place tech now occupies in accounting. Technological literacy was identified as a vital skill for accountants, but the majority of firms were seen as “only buying what [tech] they need to keep up”. 

Many accountants point to a clear divide between companies embracing new systems and others that just don’t want to know.

Start-ups, naturally, are much quicker to embrace new tech. They’ve got flexibility, openness to trying things out, and for finding and sharing tools that can maximise productivity.

Is your practice one of those that “just doesn’t want to know” about tech? It’s time to change, because your staff will feel the benefits as soon as you do.

Opportunities for progression

That Sage report contained another nugget that goes without saying at start-ups: career progression really matters to younger employees. 

The nature of start-ups often sees people change roles numerous times, quickly rising through the ranks or diversifying into an entirely different area as the company grows.

Could more accountancy practices operate like that? Within reason, of course, they could. It’s not about over-promoting novices; it’s about spotting areas where your staff are showing promise and giving them projects and responsibilities that reflect that. 

Top-down management (not changing to decentralised structure)

One of the clichés of start-up life that (almost always) ring true is decentralised structure. Start-ups pride themselves on agility, actively pushing against the top-down structure that has defined work for so long. Of course, seniority and experience still count and the buck stops with the leadership team. But junior staff are involved in decisions in a much greater way at start-ups, which means they invest even more in ensuring success.

Contrast that with accountancy. “Almost every firm” still has a tall organisational structure, says Robert Collings, and there are clear reasons for this: “You need that layer of review to ensure quality and consistency.” 

But that kind of structure is less helpful when it comes to dealing with more forward-thinking members of staff, who champion new ways of doing business. “If you’ve got ideas but you have to go all the way up the chain to get buy-in, it can be difficult."

Robert and his work at UHY Hacker Young show that lots of firms are finding new ways to work. Some, I think, inspired by start-ups. For him, the reason is simple: “Things are moving so quickly in the industry that you need to be able to move quickly. If you stand still, you’re falling behind.”

Pleo is a company spending solution that automates expense reports and simplifies company spending through smart cards with individual spending limits. Pleo works seamlessly with Xero and Sage 50, making it possible for you to handle all of your clients’ expenses in one centralised place. So you can dedicate more of your time to helping them grow their business. Find out more about Pleo.