How Many Hours is Too Many? Staff Can Choose No More than 40 at Whalen

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It’s difficult to sell public accounting as a rewarding career when job candidates fear the busy season.

“I’m a realist,” said Lisa Shuneson, MP of Whalen & Company CPAs, a $7.1 million-firm in Worthington, Ohio. “I feel like you have to address the issues that you get when you try to recruit someone into public accounting, and most of the time the issue is hours.”

The solution, she believes, is empowering all 35 staff to decide how many hours they want to work, which could be no more than 40 a week. Those staff would still receive the market rate as an annual salary, but they would be paid their hourly compensation for each hour they work over 40.

While some firm leaders say working a lot of hours is unavoidable – it’s called busy season for a reason – finding ways to lessen the load is critical when fewer college students are choosing public accounting. An overload of work and too many hours to complete it is one reason why recruits shy away from the profession and staff quit. Some leave after one punishing busy season, vowing never again, said Tamera Loerzel, partner with ConvergenceCoaching. Next-gen professionals believe firms should change the business model, and focus on the services provided and not the hours.

“They hear partners say things like, ‘This is the worst busy season in 34 years,’ and they’re like, ‘You haven’t fixed it in 34 years and you want me to stay in public accounting because why? What?” Higher turnover isn’t relegated to younger professionals alone, she adds. Senior managers, directors and even new partners are leaving. “We’ve never seen that before.”

Two years ago, Whalen introduced its own remedy. First, everyone got a raise of about 15%, which was paid for by a 10% increase in accounting fees and 15% in tax, which makes up about 60% of the firm’s business. Every October, staff can choose their “all-in” total hours, say 2,200 to 2,400, with varying percentages marked as billable based on their skills and preferences.

Shuneson said staff were ecstatic about the change and she expected them to opt for fewer hours. After all, they would be making the same amount of money as they did in previous years, when they were working more than 40. “They didn’t. They took the money.” One person went down 100 hours; another went up 100 hours in the first year. The same thing happened in year two.

“People now feel in control of it so they don’t dread it. They’ve decided to do it. Also, they know if life situations change they can opt to change up or down.”

Gary Thomson, founder of Thomson Consulting, says every firm is trying to find the silver bullet for a complicated problem. “The approaches are as varied as the firms.” Here are some ideas:

Pick a Target

Thomson suggests making the conundrum more manageable by picking the number of hours you want your staff to work, say no more than 50 hours a week during tax season. If a firm wants 30 staff to work 10 fewer hours, the firm can find a way to make up the 3,000 hours. For example, a firm could outsource, shift low-profit work to the off-season, automate processes to improve efficiency or cull clients. Another idea is to stipulate to new clients that the firm can’t work on their projects until after busy season unless they pay a premium.

Give Staff Fridays Off and Eliminate Mandatory Saturdays

A 2022 ConvergenceCoaching survey shows real progress in cutting out mandatory Saturdays – 73% of 216 participants made Saturdays optional, compared to 41% from 2014. One popular solution for staff who work many hours in the compressed busy season, whether it’s in the fall or spring, is to give them Fridays off when work slows down. At Austin, Texas-based IPA 200 firm Maxwell Locke and Ritter, for example, weekends are not mandatory and staff typically do not work more than 50-55 hours a week during busy season. “If someone exceeds that number, a partner will reach out to determine how to lighten the team member’s load,” said Amy Gates, talent and culture coordinator.

Elevate Administrative Staff

Loerzel suggests bringing administrative employees into client service roles or hiring new staff, perhaps by looking to the mortgage or insurance industries. They can review engagement letters, conduct onboarding for new clients or train them on using the portal.

Create Dashboards

Giving staff the ability to see their progress toward their chargeable hour goals through dashboards can be valuable, as well as a clear description of what non-chargeable hours look like. “It gives people the ability to have more ownership and autonomy, which is really what we as humans all want,” said Alice Grey Harrison, founder of AGH Consulting.

‘Get Real’ on Budgets

It’s not uncommon for firms to underestimate the amount of time it will take to provide a service, Loerzel said. “And then we wonder why we’re 20 hours short, and I do that for 20 audits, and we wonder why we feel like we don’t have enough resources and people feel out of control, and we get a bad image about hours in the accounting profession.”

Make a Decision and Communicate It

Partners are also frustrated by the hours issue because they end up working more to make up the slack, and they can speak out of both sides of their mouths. They say they don’t want staff to work Saturdays, but partners show up at the office and send emails all weekend, Thomson said. Stress is high because expectations aren’t precise. “Partners need to be vocal advocates and be really clear with the staff. And what we measure needs to be measured in alignment with what we’ve articulated and not old-school principles.” For example, don’t motivate and compensate employees as if they work 1,700 chargeable hours while saying they should only work 1,500.

Thomson says, “There’s this feeling as we get the fourth generation into our firms that what they value is different, and so we have to be conscious of that – whether we fully believe or buy into it is one thing – but we know there’s a business imperative that says for the most part, we have to do things differently.”

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