Staff retention - some thoughts...
James Cozens - March 2013

Much has been said over the last few months about "suppressed movement" in the job market. People remaining in their current jobs only because they feel relatively secure, but not because they love their work.

Another factor is that many younger accountants put their "OE" on hold as the UK, a traditional stopping off point, and more particularly the financial services sector, was in deep recession. At a senior level, we have also seen employers struggling to fill good roles at several levels due to lack of movement.
 
Based on our experience of previous recessions, and more importantly the accountancy job market, as we start to see better times there is every reason to suggest that staff retention will be a key issue in 2013.

There are some firms who have not given much thought to this. The focus has been on survival and client, rather than staff, retention. Those firms who have taken the attitude of " You are lucky to have kept your job" may well see a quick turnaround to " You were lucky to have kept me" as opportunities start to present themselves.

So what can you do to protect one of your major assets?

Recruit the right people

One senior manager within a second-tier practice once said to me "knowing how to retain good employees not only saves money, it is also a competitive advantage" but she added "you also need to recruit the right person in the first place and, if you understand your clients and what they look for, you can grow your firm's culture to match your clients' needs and then find people who thrive in that culture"

Talk to your staff

Practising what they preach, this firm completed a major survey of all staff looking at the current culture within the firm. The results were very positive and enabled them to plan ahead  "An example of this is in our training; we can take into account our current culture, along with where we want to be, and tailor the training to achieve the desired results. The selection and recruitment of graduates, qualified professionals and support staff is key to ensuring that the culture is best positioned to ensure our clients get a superior quality service"

One of the many comments from the survey gives a good insight into the way that some firms are progressing "Client contact, training staff, working on bigger clients, social interaction, motivating employees" were the "best things about my job" according to one staff member

This is far removed from the practice that I trained with. I hate to show my age, but the senior partner on my firm used graduates to fill his pen with ink, get his sandwiches and sort out his dry cleaning and would often comment about the "Good old days when your parents would actually pay for you to be trained by the firm"

Those are also the days when employees would work many years for the same firm, often without questioning their lot. Indeed many of my colleagues (including all the partners) had worked for the firm for 10 years or more.

Coming back to more recent times, an HR director of a top four firm said that "Putting people first is not rocket science. We are just concentrating on the basics: Do people enjoy coming to work? Does the type of work that they do stimulate and stretch them? What is the team environment they work in? How are they managed? Are they well rewarded? What is the quality of leadership? How good is the physical environment? Do they have a work/life balance? If we successfully address these and other factors that push employees out the door, then we significantly reduce the effect of any pull factor or attraction to our direct competitors or to other sectors"

More information on surveys can be found HERE

Training and personal growth

In terms of career goals training plays a big part for accountants. If the firm places strong emphasis on regular ongoing training for all their staff it will enable them to satisfy their aspirations. This can be done through in-house seminars or external courses,

Staff can further be motivated and add to their skills through secondments - for example, sending auditors to overseas offices or seconding staff to other New Zealand offices or to clients.

Appraisals

Regular formal and informal appraisals are really, really, important. It is not just to let staff know what you expect of them, it is equally important to let you know what they expect from you.

Working as a team

However much some partners may hark back to the "Good old days" the firms that are working effectively to retain staff are likely to have a good team culture.

Practical examples of this are regular meetings to discuss strategy, key performance indicators, and morale. Encourage your staff to contribute with whiteboard sessions, work as a team, and brainstorm about being proactive, about helping clients better and generally looking to solutions to client problems.

One small firm meets for lunch every Monday and everyone has to report at least three personal success stories from the previous week. The same firm has muffins for morning tea on Friday and takes families for weekends away.

A lot is about communication and creating an environment where people will communicate.  Providing staff with opportunities through an appraisal system and regular staff meetings, formal and informal, to give you feedback.

Your staff are your frontline troops and it pays to keep them motivated.  Look after your staff and they will look after your clients.

Create a happy workplace

One major Telecommunications company sought feedback from staff and this gave management a clear indication of what was needed. Staff now have an enviable list of benefits including maternity leave and flexible working practices and a great office environment.

This is not pure philanthropy as their general manager admitted "Research has shown there is a sound commercial ethic - happy employees make for happy customers who put money in the till"

He also added that they believe in a workplace in which people are happy and which is fun to come to "we work such long hours in such a tough environment that unless you can have fun at work what's the point?"

The idea of having fun at work would make my senior former partner, and a few more accountants I know, somewhat concerned.

But happy employees do put money in the till, and that should appeal to all accountants, whether a new graduate or senior partner.  It will also help you make the most of these precious assets while you have them under your care and greatly increase the likelihood of them staying with your firm for longer.

Attwood Cozens work closely with firms on retention programmes and the clients who look after their staff are the ones we love to recruit for!

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