Communication is a central theme in our work with leaders at all levels. Whether it’s communicating to help team members adopt change, sharing your firm’s vision and how each element contributes to achieving that vision, following up on feedback from an employee engagement survey, or delivering feedback, communication is key to building a high-performing firm. And, when you’re pushing to “flex further” in your truly flexible, virtual work environment, the need for communication is no different!

In our 2018 Anytime, Anywhere Work™ (ATAWW) Survey, participants shared steps to develop or expand their flexible culture. Not surprisingly, many of their ideas revolved around communication! Below are steps firm leaders take to improve buy-in and support for their ATAWW programs:

Based on the steps identified above, let’s explore specific areas of communication to focus on in your quest to be a more flexible firm: 

  1. Firms should publish a written flex policy that supports both the firm's and employees' goals and that is supported from the top down

Firms that still address flex options on a case-by-case basis will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in attracting and retaining top talent. Publishing an inclusive, consistent flex program that all partners and team members can comply with is critical and should include:

  • The parameters of the flex program
  • Eligibility for the flex program
  • Who to discuss flex options within your firm
  • Accessibility and responsiveness expectations for both team members on a flexible program and those in a more traditional work arrangement, too
  • Technology and configuration considerations (including what the firm will pay for and what the team members is expected to provide) whether working remotely from a client, Starbucks or your home

If flex options are left as informal or case-by-case, disparity can occur between departments or with leaders who may or may not be proponents of flex. This could, intentionally or unintentionally, impact an individual’s career progression. Firm leaders should have a consistent message and approach for flex programs for all team members with the ability to customize programs to fit the needs of both the firm and individual (with the help of HR!).

  1. Leaders should serve as a positive role model for flex and share their flex success stories

When you have a well-defined, published flex policy, your leaders will more readily see how they can (or have been) taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, many leaders grew up in more formal, structured work environments with preset hours and expectations to be in the office. So, when leaders wanted to take an afternoon off to coach a child’s soccer game, they may have felt they needed to do so “under the radar.” This can lead to a perception that partners have no work/life balance. Your team members need to see that you can build a meaningful, challenging career AND have a fulfilling home life, hobbies, sports or other outside interests. And, that the firm supports having it all and balancing the need to get work done, serve clients and meet financial benchmarks with the flexibility for when and where you do so. Your firm leaders should be talking about it – often!

When you probe on the benefits of public accounting, partners will tell you that flexibility in their work and career is at the top of the list. The more firm leaders tell their personal stories about areas of life outside of work that are important to them, the more human they become to your team members and your team members will be able to better relate and see themselves as a leader in the firm. Consider having your leaders share stories about:

  • How they schedule their day or week to manage work and personal priorities
  • Ways they take advantage of technology to stay in communication and be responsive
  • Strategies to manage their work, team and client expectations so they can enjoy the flexibility of working from home during the week or from another state in the winter
  • Planning approaches so they can attend a grandchild’s softball game or sing in the church choir on Tuesday and Thursday evenings during busy season 
  1. Leaders should talk about the ways that flex supports key strategic initiatives and its value to the organization and people

In addition to speaking personally about the benefits of flex, leaders should also regularly share ways that a truly flexible culture is a strategic advantage for the firm. Consider ways you can discuss and incorporate the benefits your firm experiences from a flexible culture such:

  • Improving the morale and reputation of your firm for a “people first” culture that empowers people to work how, when and where they need to while achieving specific goals and performance measures in their career
  • Increasing capacity by looking at resources across the firm in multi-office firms or remote workers in challenging-to-find-people geographies
  • Attracting talent with desired technical skills or industry background without geographic limitations
  • Serving clients across geographies with the best person suited for that job
  • Being a technology adopter as a firm that embraces new technologies that enable flexible work and communication between team members and clients

Discuss and promote these benefits in partner meetings, team meetings, “did-you-know” emails, recruiting events, and even in social media. Sharing these benefits will help reinforce the support and build a positive mindset for furthering your flex programs.

  1. Leaders should receive training on supervising and expanding career paths in a flex environment

I must admit, the fact that only 6% of firms reported training on supervising in a flex environment as one of the steps they’re taking made me sad.  Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO asserts in their State of the American Workplace report that, “The single biggest decision you make in your job — bigger than all of the rest — is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person…nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits — nothing.” We all have God-given strengths and inherent weaknesses, and when we identify and share these openly, we can determine how to best leverage the many strengths of our team. That means deploying those that are great client servers, technicians, business developers or people managers in their areas of strength as much as we can.

And, realize that accounting is a technical degree and profession that relies on PEOPLE. Including learning programs that develop your people managers to be better communicators in the area of coaching and mentoring, delivering feedback, expectation setting and empowering team members (to name just a few) are must-have skills in today’s workplace and in a flexible, virtual environment.

As you’re developing career paths, consider a two-track career path model, too, that provides a path for your technical client servers and another path for your “people people” who are your business developers, client relationship managers and people developers. Teach your mentors and people developers how to expand (and not limit) career paths for those who desire more flexibility. Firms are having success with part-time team members progressing meaningfully in their careers, maybe not at the same pace as full-time counterparts, and even embracing part-time partners. Effective people development skills that foster open communication are essential to help team members navigate a career path that fits their needs and the firm’s. Keep an open dialogue about what’s working and not working from both parties with flexibility to change course along the way.

Check out the ATAWW survey results for more ideas to further flex in your firm and post a comment here about communication strategies and steps your leadership team is taking to make flex a strategic enabler in the success of your firm! We’d love to hear and learn from you!