Making Your Practice a Great Place to Work

By Lucie Benson

The recent publications of the "Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For" lists have included several accounting firms, from small companies up to The Big Four. Lucie Benson takes a closer look to see what they are doing for their staff to make their practice such a good place to work.

This month saw the publication of the fourth “Sunday Times 100 Best Small Companies to Work For” list. The list takes into account the views of nearly 30,000 employees from 348 SMEs and honors and acknowledges organizations that provide exceptional environments and inspiring leadership for their employees.

The results are a pleasant surprise for one chartered accountancy firm, which not only ranked 43rd in the best small companies list, but also holds the accolade of being the highest ever ranked firm of accountants to appear in these particular listings. SJD Accountancy is a specialist provider of fixed fee and limited company accountancy services to contractors/freelancers and owner-managed businesses. There are 51 employees across the firm’s Hemel Hempstead head office and five other sites, and just 2 percent staff turnover.

At a time when accountancy firms are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the right staff, the accolade is high praise indeed for SJD, and managing partner Simon Dolan is thrilled.

“This award is testimony to the fact that investment in employees is critical to business success and customer satisfaction,” he says. “It is really down to treating staff the way I would like to be treated myself - with an element of respect and not over-managing. So we give them an awful lot of responsibility quite early on and let them get on with it. And it is also about paying them well, of course – that always helps.”

Autonomy
Dolan does add, however, that providing a good working environment is not really down to financial incentives. “I don’t think that has much to do with it,” he remarks. “I don’t think that if we put everyone’s pay up by 30 percent that we would suddenly go down from 2 percent staff turnover to 1 percent. I think it is far more with respect to the fact that they have responsibility and they can grow. There is a very quick career and progression path here too. For example, one girl here started on reception a few years ago, and she is now fully qualified and running a region herself.”

Dolan believes that giving his staff autonomy is key in making the company a good place to work. “I back off an awful lot and am not over their shoulder every five minutes,” he says. “I will give them something to do and let them run with it, and they are very much encouraged to do that. And that works well from a personnel development point of view.”

Cooper Parry, a regional-based firm of advisors to private business in Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, is another winner. It was placed 33rd in the “Sunday Times 100 Best Mid-Sized Companies to Work For” this year.

Due to an increase in employees to over 250 across the three offices this year, Cooper Parry was entered into the medium-sized category for the first time. In addition, it is the only UK accountancy firm to be listed in the 2004, 2005 and 2007 Sunday Times best companies to work for listings.

Neena Tebbutt is director of HR at Cooper Parry and says that there is a culture of continuous improvement at the firm. “We’ve continued to listen to our team members and invest more in providing tailored learning and development solutions for people at all levels. Rather than simply adopt a one-size-fits-all approach and deliver the same training courses for everyone, we have analyzed individual learning requirements and have addressed them through a variety of means including training, coaching and mentoring. We also offer an excellent flexible benefits program which we developed further last year by enabling it to be accessed online by all team members at work or at home.”

When Cooper Parry wants to find out what their employees want, Tebbutt says it simply comes down to asking them, listening and taking action. “The chief executive holds road show events so that everyone is guaranteed some face to face time with him,” she explains. “Team members value this immensely and we also ask them for their feedback and views on an informal everyday basis. We hold regular reviews to ensure their development needs and career aspirations are being met. We have regular team meetings and everyone is consulted over proposed changes within our business.

“We also have team members who are part of the “Thought Group” in which anyone can submit and be rewarded for an idea which will further improve employee satisfaction, engagement and ultimately client care,” she adds.

And let’s not forget the “Sunday Times 20 Best Big Companies to Work For” listings. KPMG has the honor of coming second this year, after ranking first place last year, and third in 2005.

People Management
This may be in part due to the company investing heavily in people management, where certain employees who are used to doing just client work, are also given clear accountability and responsibility for others.

John Bailey, KPMG’s UK director of coaching, says that the onus is on a particular individual to develop talented people. “This helps people to experience feeling well-managed, in terms of being treated in a way that helps them to maximize their performance and fulfil their career aspirations,” he explains. “We have also demonstrated, over three years, that being a people management leader, and therefore doing less client work, in no way disadvantages you in terms of income or promotion.”

KPMG establishes what employees want through a number of avenues. For instance, they have an employee business forum, they conduct surveys and they make extensive use of informal channels that enable issues to be escalated through a people management leader to a business head.

“We participate in surveys to see how salaries and rewards are benchmarked against other organizations,” says Bailey. “We also do business cascades every six months, where we update people on our business success and listen to people’s feedback, and those will be led by our CEO. It is easy to speak up and be heard here, without it being a huge process.”

When it comes to recruitment, Bailey maintains that making it onto the Sunday Times list has undoubtedly made KPMG more attractive in the marketplace. “It has done so because it is such a high profile award,” he comments. “Our retention has improved significantly over the last three years too.

“The thing we are most proud of is the fact that the people voted for us to get this award,” Bailey continues. “It wasn’t something that was dependent on senior management being interviewed. This is what people think of working here, which is the strongest praise you can have.”

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