The accountant’s guide to work/life balance: introduction

Working late in a small office in Barcelona
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In this five-part series, Philip Fisher examines the way in which the changing patterns of work/life balance will impact on accountancy practices in the next few years.

Soon after I first became a partner in a firm that was always struggling to maintain its position at the bottom of the Top 20, I had a conversation with the man who appointed me – the firm’s managing partner.

He explained his ethos, which was that once you have become a partner, working hours cease to be a relevant concept since in his eyes you were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Many in the profession, not to mention clients, will still see that as a valid attitude today.

Historically, contracts between firms of accountants and their employees were very simple.

An individual was required to work every Monday to Friday from (say) 9.30 to 5.30, with lunch from 1 to 2 with a fixed number of days for holiday, some of which might have to be taken over the Christmas period. Everybody knew where they stood and liked it or lumped it. On the plus side, evenings and weekends were free but escaping from your desk or a client’s office during the day was prohibited.

Gradually, there might be small relaxations. For example, secretaries were sometimes asked to get together and create better cover by doing slightly different hours. One might do 9 to 5, another 10 to 6, while lunch breaks would also be staggered.

The same would then begin to apply for professional staff, particularly in parts of the practice that enjoyed busy seasons.

If there were no audits going on, it made sense to allow staff to go home early. In the same way, now that all self assessment income tax returns have the same deadline, there is every chance that those working in this field could be given a large part of February and March off without anybody noticing.

More recently, the world has become obsessed with the idea that people have the right to balance their work and leisure activities, rather than doing what their employers required in fixed hours and accepting that as their lot.

On the other hand, with the prevalence of electronic communication tools, it is much harder to get downtime, even at weekends or with demanding clients on Christmas Day. Therefore a new approach might well provide significant benefits for health, efficiency and general goodwill. It could also have a positive knock-on effect on repeatability.

Surveys also suggest that the euphemistically named millennials (they are not, after all, 1,000 years old) see work as an optional adjunct to their leisure activities, designed to provide enough cash to purchase the clothes/holidays/games/booze/drugs that they require, rather than a serious commitment.

Those with growing families frequently also seek a different approach to working hours and location.

Readers might debate whether they really want to employ someone with this attitude in a profession that should be a vocation but, given the full employment position and the possibility that the working pool will diminish once Britain leaves Europe, there may be little choice but to take on whoever is available and shows signs of being at least vaguely willing.

In this light, now is the time to consider the way in which work/life balance will impact on your practice in the next few years.

This short series will attempt to look at all aspects of this subject, picking up on not only the need for change, whether welcome or not but also some potential advantages for you as partner and/or employer and/or employee of taking a more flexible attitude to staff relations.

  • As a partner, change could make you happier and more relaxed, in addition to saving your marriage.
  • As an employer, it could lead to higher revenues and reduce employment and recruitment costs.
  • As an employee, this could be an opportunity to sculpt your own perfect conditions, allowing freedom to enjoy the better things in life while ensuring that you can generate enough income to make the most of them.

About Philip Fisher

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24th Oct 2017 11:57

This is a brilliant article and look forward to the rest. This is of particular interest to the smaller practice where it is 24/7.
I have found that with e-mails texes etc. clients are wanting a spontaneous response, which is not always convenient. So I would presume the starting point would be to slow down responses (be with you in a minute sir). Automated e-mail responses saying out of office till (date) seems to be a good one.
As for the balance between work/leisure, that has always been a target. Workaholics and leisureholics have no problem. It's us middle lot that need to work out a balance.

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By Ammie
24th Oct 2017 12:21

An interesting article. A subject I have been addressing for a very long time and feel I have managed it well.
My ethos is do not prolong either extreme of working life, ie 24/7 workaholic or downright bone idleness as both are likely to result in a life shock, quite often at the top end, with a rude awakening from health issues, sadly some of which cause permanent damage. Secondly, live sensibly as extreme costly lifestyles more often than not hit the buffers and leave a frightening aftermath. In fact such lifestyles often require increasing pressure to work the extremes to fund them, (not to mention debt), which in turn lead to my first point health blips. Some are lucky and never have a problem, most are not so lucky.
Life can be enjoyed comfortably without getting caught up in the long race for the big time, very very few have the muscle to achieve and maintain. This does not mean you cannot still reach the top and be successful.

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to Ammie
24th Oct 2017 12:47

I once heard at a sales seminar that to reach the top in anything you have to practice 8 hours everyday for 3 years solid.
I think a lot of us have been there and still not reached the top.
However you don't have to be at the top to have a successful business. So the answer seems to be, decide the split beforehand then stick to it.

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