This article was first published in the September 2019 Ireland edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

Attracting top talent is a priority for every accountancy firm, yet too many of the younger generation now face a compromise between realising personal ambition and meeting corporate goals. This is a generation that wants to feel part of something, to make a difference. They do not enjoy the ‘protection’ of the rigid, hierarchical corporate machine, but feel constricted, even lost, in an environment that fails to celebrate individuality, innovation and drive.

The endemic inability to create a motivated workforce is at the heart of the current merry-go-round of staff between companies every couple of years: with limited job satisfaction and enjoyment, individuals can only aim for the offer of promotion and salary boost.

The resultant lack of commitment and motivation also has a negative impact on the quality of client services. Rather than focusing efforts on delivering the best outcome for the customer, individuals become caught up in internal power games in a bid to win promotion or bonuses. The goals of business, clients and employees are fundamentally misaligned.

This model is broken. Change is required, change that extends beyond the sticking plaster of hot-desking or break-out rooms. Adding flexible working models to a dated, hierarchical business model is not creating the truly agile-working environment that is now required.

Individuals are demanding more than simply a nod to flexible working; they are looking to feel valued and trusted. To bring in the best and the brightest, accountancy practices, however well-known, must offer more than the promise of promotion or financial reward if they’re to attract and retain top talent. Individuals need to feel valued, and that demands a fundamentally different approach to employee empowerment and trust.

Building purpose

At the heart of a successful, engaged and committed workforce is a sense of purpose and excitement – and that means empowering and trusting individuals to do the job, not micro-managing every minute of the day. Redefining agile working means moving away from the constraints of set working hours and holiday entitlement and enabling employees to manage their own time in line with specific targets.

If an individual wants to spend eight hours with a client, for example, to truly understand the opportunity for R&D tax credits and support that business’s drive for innovation, that is fantastic. Drop the children at school every morning? Take every December off? Fine. Essentially, as long as an individual is on target throughout the year to meet specific goals, and following a company code of conduct, then how, where and when the job is done is their choice.

Supporting this truly agile working model with strong, transparent performance and conduct measures is, of course, important. If problems occur, it is essential to be able to step in quickly. It is also important to understand an individual’s goals: not everyone is motivated by promotion. Success should not be defined by the speed with which an individual marches up the corporate ladder – that does not dovetail with a desire to achieve more for clients. Success in an agile-working model is defined by matching individual and client goals, not those of hierarchy and speed of promotion.

Trust your staff

To create an essential sense of employee purpose demands a company culture that is predicated not just on winning business, but on helping UK companies to innovate and succeed globally. Reinforcing this with a trust-based working model and a business culture that actively encourages input from individuals at every level, through regular open debates for example, fosters that indispensable feeling of employee value.

Many firms have tinkered with the working environment in a bid to attract and retain staff. But adding remote and flexible working to the existing, micro-managed hierarchy makes no substantial difference to a generation of individuals who want to take control to explore their entrepreneurial spirit within a corporate environment.

If accountancy practices are to truly meet the evolving needs of both clients and employees, it is time to shake off decades of entrenched behaviour. A redefined agile-working model creates a positive working environment and employees that are loyal and passionate to drive business values and deliver the highest value and productivity for clients. It also creates the ultimate knock-on effect of improved client engagement and retention.
Adam Kene is managing director at Kene Partners.