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Attracting and keeping talent on board

Having a strong team differentiates outstanding advice firms from merely adequate ones. But many firms make simple mistakes in the recruitment and retention process. How can you hold on to your talent in 2017 and beyond?

Attracting and keeping talent on board
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  • sdeller
  • March 31, 2017
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Retaining good staff is the constant goal of small businesses in Australia. In the past, accounting firms have not had to work too hard to achieve – and maintain – this goal. The traditional hierarchical structure of accounting firms meant that to reach the pinnacle of your career, you had to do your time from the ground up.

But with the next generation of accounting graduates possessing a more entrepreneurial spirit, the hierarchical models in the accounting space are slowly but surely evolving.

While the partnership model remains ‘old-school attractive’ in the industry, it is becoming increasingly less appealing to younger accountants who have different career and lifestyle aspiration.

However, some things have remained the same. Prospective staff – regardless of the generation the belong to – want to be useful, appreciated and incentivised. And once they start the job, an employer needs to deliver.

Hays regional director David Cawley says focusing on strategies to attract the right candidates to your firm is an important starting point, and it goes beyond having a well-worded job advertisement online.

“Lots of candidates these days consult websites like Glassdoor that will really demonstrate what the great organisations are to work for and why,” Mr Cawley says.

“Having a structure and how that can impact on the brand… that can be used as a tool to appeal to new candidates.”

First impressions are crucial in an age where candidates will be Googling your firm before deciding to apply. Establishing your firm’s brand and online presence, as well as clearly conveying your company’s offerings to new candidates will result in a more effective recruitment process.

Mr Cawley says a lack of these essentials could result in candidates assuming your firm is “not good enough” to apply for.

“If companies don’t have a good online presence, it’s taken as a negative,” he says.

“I think the really good organisations articulate [their offerings] very clearly and are religious in the repetition they do around that to make sure the prospective new hires really understand it.

“The ones that don’t realise the importance of that are getting left behind in terms of attracting the very best candidates.”

The working environment

Never before has the company’s working environment been such a crucial factor in staff retention, according to Mr Cawley.

“The environment that individuals are working in has really gone up the pecking order in terms of criteria when selecting a new role,” he says.

“I think there is certainly something attributed to going to work in one of these nice environments where you can hot desk … and it’s a really pleasant environment to work in.”

Some ways of creating such an environment include adopting flexible working systems and readily acknowledging staff contributions.

“We recently concluded staff engagement reports [that found] 20 per cent of employees would take a salary drop if it meant they could work from home or have increased flexibility,” Mr Cawley says.

“It’s a fairly huge number and probably ratifies the weight that flexibility carries with what’s traditionally been classed as one of the most important factors around remuneration.”

While increased working flexibility is a key factor in staff retention, Mr Cawley says rewarding staff will also enhance the culture at the firm.

“When I say ‘rewarding staff’, I don’t mean the obvious things around salary. I think it’s small incentives, creating a really clean environment culture, understanding how your staff want to be rewarded.

“Ensure there are employee feedback surveys in place for opportunities to give feedback on the environment, so that individuals feel really rewarded and they understand where that reward has come from.”

Staff engagement and reviews

One of the most important factors in staff retention has to do with how engaged team members are with their work and colleagues.

Traditionally, accounting firms have relied on annual performance reviews to gauge how their employees are tracking, and to receive general feedback about the organisation.

However, Mr Cawley says a system of ‘regular check-ins’ as opposed to annual reviews will increase staff engagement, and in turn, staff retention.

“There’s an interesting debate ongoing around Deloitte, one of the large organisations who came out globally and said they ditched the annual review and they’re doing more bite-size, more regular catch-ups.

“My personal belief is that that is the way forward. I think stockpiling your views and feelings to have that one-on-one session with your manager once a year is probably quite archaic.”

Mr Cawley says organisations need to look at how they are conducting their reviews.

“The research tends to show us employees want more regular contact with their manager as they want to be able to have more of an informal conversation just to check-in,” he says.

“That more consultative, regular approach is aiding engagement. It is also identifying development issues and training issues.

“The way I try and work across my business is I’m probably catching up with [colleagues] weekly and that might be 20 minutes over a coffee, it might be telephone, it might be just in an office saying ‘How are you? What’s going on in your world? What can I help with and what are you really proud of?’”

While larger organisations generally have the time, money and effort to research their employees’ wants, Mr Cawley says SMEs that do not focus on staff needs risk losing them.

“I think the smaller organisations that don’t necessarily have that back office support structure to be able to do that either don’t have those reviews in place or they are a bit more like the older versions where it’s once a year.”

Creating a career path

Staff retention runs parallel to employees being able to see a viable pathway for career progression in their company.

According to Mr Cawley, this means firms need to clearly articulate like to their employees what a long-term career pathway looks like, and have a strategy in place to develop those individuals.

“In my world, leaders or individuals who are going to develop into a bigger role are being identified very early on in their career, so how organisations harness those softer skills, and the potential in people who look like they could lead others or help and support people, is critical,” he says.

“Typically, those people are the ambitious individuals who want to enjoy a fruitful career and I think if organisations don’t have a program in place to identify those people, [they] are simply going to go look somewhere else where they can go and get that input.”

Mr Cawley says career development is connected to having open discussions with employees, ascertaining what their career goals are and explaining the opportunities that will enable them to achieve their goals.

“Organisations being able to explain how the role of each individual fits into the bigger picture and how that will evolve over time is probably another [factor] linked to engagement.”

Dealing with graduates

Firms need to focus on the needs of Millennials and what they want in the workplace. Failure to do so will only result in them seeking out employers who better understand them and meet their needs.

Engagement with graduates is often cited as a crucial component of retaining talented millennials and technology is often the key to this.

Intuit senior business development manager Trent McLaren says “a lot of firms find it hard to keep their team engaged dealing with younger people” as the new intakes do not understand “what their current practice needs and wants are”.

He says educational institutions are struggling to keep up with the digital advancements in the industry, leaving younger recruits underprepared for the workforce and ultimately disengaged.

As the industry moves to become more tech heavy, Mr McLaren says “there needs to be more tech development systems so accountants come in understanding what their real world looks like”.

“[Graduates] go in learning all the theory of accounting which is great and they learn how to do everything on their desktop play systems, but as they move into a newer firm, they’re having to re-learn all the stuff they did at university.

“From the top end side, it’s hard from the partner’s direction to maintain good staff because they can’t keep the good ones engaged.”

On the flip side, new technology can be used as a tool to enhance engagement for younger recruits, but it boils down to how you introduce the new systems and how involved the team members are in the process.

“The good thing is because we’ve got so much change going on that it’s not hard to find new things to learn about right now,” Mr McLaren says.

“Giving little projects to junior accountants and saying, ‘Hey, this is something I need you to hone, and give us some opinions on that technology or whatever it may be’ … a lot of them will really take that on because it’s not boring, it’s not daunting and they can actually make a real difference and change.”

Articulating value

While employers are needing to cater to a whole new set of expectations with current-day graduates, some things have remained the same for decades: employees also need to see the direct value of their work within the company.

Mr McLaren says if companies cannot show how their employees’ work fits into the bigger picture, they will be left with ‘at risk’ employees who are “likely to leave and go somewhere else”.

“Employees are trying to understand ‘Where do I fit in this? How is this applicable to what I’m trying to do in my own life?’ They need to understand what their value is, what role they play and what their future is in the organisation.

“If the culture doesn’t exist, the employees feel like they’re cattle in a farm. They don’t feel valued, they don’t feel they’re contributing to anything other than a machine they’re a part of.”

Mr McLaren says “high-performing” firms can create a good working culture by reinforcing employee value.

“[Employees] understand what their mission is with the company and where they’re trying to get to, versus some people, that are just, ‘I’m in the job, I’m getting a pay cheque’.

“Those people will exist and that’s fine, but having a different culture that supports the work-life balance side of it makes all the difference.”

Keeping up with the times

Accounting firms in particular have a reputation for being slow on the uptake of new technologies and practice management tools.

To be an attractive employer, companies have to be willing to adapt to employee wants and needs, which collectively translate into the needs and wants of the firm.

“Too many times you go in to these ‘old school’ accounting firms, a firm that’s been there for 30 or 40 years. They still rely very heavily on what got them to that point, but that’s not necessarily helping them stay around for another 40 years,” Mr McLaren says.

“It’s the difference between someone saying, ‘Can I work from home today?’ and the boss saying, ‘You know, we don’t do that, it’s not out policy’. It becomes a thing when it doesn’t need to be. It’s just all added stress and pressure.”

Adapting to modern systems, whether it is technology-based or flexible work environments, will help create an “employee-first culture” that will ensure you retain the people who will propel your company’s success.

“Whatever it is, being able to say, ‘Hey, you know what? Work from home today, just get the work done. If you can get the work done, well, what does it matter?’” Mr McLaren says.

“If you’ve got that culture in place where you work hard, it doesn’t matter where you are as long as that work is completed at a quality standard that we would expect whether you’re here or there.”

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