Come together: staff engagement strategies for smaller accounting firms

When people know their employer values and trusts them, they will put themselves out when the workload is heavy or a colleague needs help.

All work and no play make Jack, Jane and everyone in-between not only dull, but unproductive. Here’s why staff engagement is critical to the success of your smaller accounting firm.

Staff activities once meant an annual Christmas party and a scramble to the pub on Friday after work. These days there are more likely to be weekly “huddles” to share ideas, a challenging outdoors race every quarter, and even an annual trip interstate. Happy staff equal happy clients and customers, and people who feel engaged and loyal to their employer will stay.

Victoria-based RBK Advisory took 20 staff to Queensland on a five-day trip for its annual retreat this year. Director Jonathan Kane CPA acknowledges it was expensive but says: “Our team is our biggest investment. They are essentially our ‘business tools’ and you want to look after your tools. It also costs a lot to recruit new people.” 

Kane believes a structured approach is important for firms looking for strategies to build staff engagement. RBK has a weekly huddle, a quarterly culture day and the yearly retreat. The weekly catch-up is compulsory and involves people dialling in from RBK’s six offices around Victoria.

Everyone is asked four questions:

  • How do you feel as a business professional, on a scale of one to 10?
  • How do you feel personally and are there any issues you want to discuss?
  • Have you seen any opportunities for RBK?
  • What made you smile during the week?

Does the second question cross the line to interference in an employee’s personal life? “We are trying to build a close team,” Kane says. “Our staff go over and above for us and we want them to know we value them.”

He says people may not want to share personal difficulties with the group, but the question enables them to say they are under pressure and can lead to a private conversation with a manager afterwards.

At times people have needed time off but been unwilling to take it during a busy period for the firm, and he says opening the lines of communication alerts managers to an issue so they can direct resources to help staff who need it.

Kane hasn’t had any pushback from staff but did encounter it when conducting a job interview once, “and we didn’t hire that person based on that”.

Everyone must bring a “productivity hack” to the meeting, which is valuable for sharing ideas, such as how staff are using Xero add-ons.

"We really needed our management level to step up and engage. We had a structure but no relationships, so we had to build trust." Ted Turner CPA, Ashfords

The firm also invites a “celebrity huddler” every fortnight, such as a business partner who will discuss their work.

“People love it,” Kane says. “They see how open and tight we are as a team. That can only be beneficial for our engagement with our external world.” The quarterly culture day occurs off-site and may involve meeting for an activity such as mini golf or archery, followed by lunch.

“It does help the team gel,” Kane says. “People in different offices get to meet each other and that helps when we are back at work and needing to call someone in a different office.”

The team spent five nights in Port Douglas for its yearly retreat in 2018. There were sessions based on Indigenous culture and staff split into five teams and drove around completing designated challenges.

The retreat was conducted from Wednesday to Monday and staff worked remotely while away. The retreat is a reward for those who worked the previous calendar year, so some new staff members did not attend and were available to keep the offices open.

Smaller firms retain staff

When Renée Jovic CPA was a young accountant, it was normal to start at 7am and work until 9pm or 10pm, as well as Saturday mornings, without time in lieu or extra pay. 

“It was just expected,” she says.

Jovic recalls once asking a partner, who started at 9am every morning, if she could leave early one day. “As long as you work during your lunch hour for the next three days,” was the reply.

Jovic, managing accountant and director of Jovic Accounting, knew she was never going to be an employer like that, and says rewarding staff for their commitment shows people they are appreciated and enables small firms such as hers to retain great employees.

Jovic employs five-and-a-half staff, with one full-timer and the others working part-time over different days. All have young children and sometimes work from home. 

She says it took time to learn to be more flexible and admits a couple of former employees abused the trust, taking flexibility for granted and wanting more. Now that the firm has a cohesive team, staff collaborate around school holidays to ensure work is covered. At busy times, people will work on Saturdays or an extra day from home. 

A few years ago, Jovic offered a smaller pay rise and five weeks annual leave a year, pro rata, rather than a lump sum increase, and found the extra leave was more popular than the money. 

The practice also has monthly morning teas, staff lunches when the workload has been intense and twice-yearly days out for activities such as massages or visits to wineries or restaurants.

Related article: Year end – a time for client and staff engagement

“It is not always about money,” she insists. “It’s about feeling part of a real team environment and extended family.”

Recently, two senior staff were offered a profit share to acknowledge their contribution and commitment to the practice. Jovic says she has since seen these staff taking more ownership of situations, making suggestions about new systems and showing greater leadership.

Bringing staff together

Staff engagement does not necessarily involve time away from work, with a discussion at the CPA Australia public practice conference in Lorne, Victoria, earlier this year hearing from one firm where everyone plays cards for 15 minutes at the end of the day to wind down and discuss the day’s activities.

However, leaders of firms with staff spread around different offices mostly agreed it was important to plan an activity that brought employees from those offices together, so people who met in a social setting would be more willing to engage back at the office.

For example, DPM Financial Services holds a celebration day on the last Friday of the month and provides a catered barbecue lunch that enables people from different teams to get together. The firm has 160 staff in offices in Melbourne and Sydney.

“We are a multifaceted firm with financial planners, tax and accounting, insurance and lending, so people across different teams get to engage [and] it builds a good camaraderie,” says Glenn Pike CPA, team leader – accountants at DPM.

The firm also holds an activities day once a year, where all 160 staff choose from a range of options. The day starts when everyone meets for breakfast and an update on the business, then go off to participate in activities such as golf or visiting the Melbourne Aquarium.

Breaking down barriers

Nothing exemplifies the value of breaking down barriers than the experience of Ashfords Accountants and Advisory, which was created from the merger of two firms three years ago. 

Both firms had staff who had worked for them for many years, and all felt challenged by different systems, new colleagues and a physical office move, recalls Ashfords business services partner and executive board member Ted Turner CPA.

After a few months, there was an atmosphere of “segregation, firm against firm” among the 70 staff. The firm tapped the expertise of its HR director and brought in an external expert who worked with managers to build bridges, so people within the firm could get to know each other.

“It had an immediate effect,” Turner says. “Staff felt respected [in] that we were trying to do something here.” The result was performance partnering and a rebuilding of culture, with a focus on playing to strengths rather than pointing out failures.

“We really needed our management level to step up and engage,” Turner says. “We had a structure but no relationships, so we had to build trust.”

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He says it was not enough to rely on social activities to bring people together. The firm did this shortly after the merger, but people were so unengaged only about half the staff wanted to participate.

The rebuilding work paid off, with staff surveys finding both new and longer-term staff regard Ashfords as a good place to work. In July 2018, 95 per cent of staff joined in an organised team challenge around the Melbourne CBD, followed by lunch.

The firm continues to have six-weekly meetings between line managers and staff, where staff can talk about how they are feeling about work and how they might like to develop their role.

“This allows for employee and employer expectations alike to be heard and acknowledged,” Turner says. “Everyone has a development plan.” 

Two days a year everyone goes off-site for activities together and once a month meet socially for an update on the business.

Rewarding staff for loyalty

Jovic acknowledges the benefits from staff engagement are not always quantifiable, though the environment will reflect if staff are happy. When people know their employer values and trusts them, they will put themselves out when the workload is heavy or a colleague needs help.

Turner says the activities at Ashfords mean the various teams have “built a good understanding of each other’s working relationships and formed a lot of bonds”.

“They are good, strong teams that work together,” he says.

While some firms occasionally surprise staff with an extra activity, most partners believe it is important to organise a schedule of staff engagement because this sets an expectation – employees know the firm values its staff and that they are joining a practice where they are expected to contribute and collaborate. 

Does your firm have an innovative way to bring staff together? INTHEBLACK’s editors would like to hear from you and share your story with readers. Contact us on ITB@cpaaustralia.com.au.

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