While programs offering work-life flexibility for employees have been a staple of public accounting firms’ recruiting and retention efforts, other companies could learn from their example — and not just to shore up their staff. The bottom line may benefit, too.

That, at least, is the conclusion of research released on Wednesday by BDO Seidman, which interviewed 100 CFOs from a group of 1,800 whose companies have at least 5,000 employees. Three-quarters of the respondents said they think work-life programs have a “high” or “moderate” positive impact on productivity and on providing differentiation from competitors. Just more than half said they expect a high or moderate effect on health-care costs.

Yet only 39 percent of the responding CFOs work for companies that have formal flexibility policies. And while 75 percent said flexibility is “very important” or “somewhat important” to their companies’ future profitability, 62 percent think their management teams see it only as an employee perk or human resources policy. They don’t make a connection between flexibility and other business objectives.

Companies falling into that gap presumably would be ideal customers for the co-sponsor of the research, Work+Life Fit, a consulting firm that develops flexibility strategies, and in fact did so for BDO Seidman, which itself is a provider of business consulting services. According to Cali Yost, the flex firm’s president, the survey was performed by an independent research company and the 100 CFOs were chosen strictly at random.

To Jack Weisbaum, the chief executive of BDO Seidman, there is little point in a work-life program that does not boost the bottom line. It has to be conceived and executed as a strategy for business success, he told CFO.com.

A few years back, when the accounting firm began talking about instituting a formal flex policy to enhance its retention and recruiting efforts, Weisbaum said he at first decided not to invest in that. “It just didn’t make any sense to me — I didn’t see a big return on it,” he said.

What changed his mind was not so much a newfound appreciation for the value of flex in recruiting top talent as an observation about the fast-changing nature of the firm’s business. “We’ve grown a lot in the last four or five years, and a lot of that has come from multinational clients,” he said. “The demands of that client base are such that our people can’t work traditional hours anymore to service these clients. There is a lot of work done late at night and early in the morning, and we can’t expect people to work 24 hours a day.”

(For purposes of the research, “work-life flexibility” was defined as “having adequate time for what is important to you both personally and professionally, as well as flexibility in how you allocate that time.” Companies adopting a work-life strategy may, for example, allow some employees to work longer hours on fewer days per week, take a portion of the year off, work early or late, telecommute, move freely between company offices, semi-retire, etc.)

Approaching work-life flexibility as a business strategy means having senior management directly involved in its planning and execution, rather than leaving it solely to human resources, according to Weisbaum. In fact, in the survey of CFOs, 65 percent said they believe that for flexibility to succeed companies cannot rely on HR as its only champion, and 75 percent said business-unit leadership involvement and support is “very important.”

When HR is in charge of flexibility and business leaders are not much involved, “it always seems that it’s a matter of competition — you put a policy in place because your competitor has one,” Weisbaum told CFO.com. “The rules for the policy are outlined, and then it just sits there. It is not a strategy, it doesn’t have an impact on the bottom line, and it’s strictly a retention and recruiting tool.”

For BDO Seidman, among the biggest business impacts from its work-life policy is reduced real estate costs, according to Weisbaum. With more employees telecommuting and others shifting hours and thus enabling offices to be in use for more hours per day, the firm’s space needs have diminished. And so BDO Seidman was “somewhat surprised” that only 34 percent of the survey respondents said they think work-life programs reduce real estate costs.

The survey also asked CFOs their opinions on the relative ease of implementing flexibility within finance departments versus other functional areas. A 52 percent majority said they saw no difference, and 18 percent actually thought it would be easier for finance.

CFOs can play an important role in making a flex program work, according to Yost. “Implementation sometimes gets stuck around how you account for things, like ‘how do I allocate overhead when people are working reduced hours’ and how to calculate compensation,” she said. At BDO Seidman, she noted, the CFO has been invaluable in “articulating what people should be doing and how it relates back to business strategy. His leadership is really setting the tone for line-level managers to account for flexibility and make it happen the right way.”

A majority of the surveyed CFOs, 53 percent, reported that they personally have made increased use of work-life flexibility during the past several years, with 14 percent saying the increase was substantial.

Asked what they viewed as obstacles to their use of flex, 76 percent said “face time,” 72 percent said “workload of job,” 62 percent said “concerns about other employees’ perceptions,” and 58 said “it could hurt my career.”

“These negative assumptions are not only personal roadblocks, they become obstacles to company success as well,” said Yost.

As would be expected, respondents by a landslide said flexibility has a high or moderate impact on retention (90 percent) and recruiting (88 percent).

According to Weisbaum, BDO Seidman has changed its view of flexibility as applied to recruiting in recent years. As recently as five years ago, he said, “if we had opportunities to get top graduates who said they wanted to work two or three days a week so they could do research or other things with their time, we’d probably have shut the door in their face. Today we don’t do that. If we can make it fit with our business strategy, we do it.”

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