When it Comes to Talent Retention, Think Flexibly

Keddie Waller, Johnny Yong | January 15, 2020 |

Attracting and retaining talent is a perennial issue for small- and medium-sized accounting practices (SMPs). The 2018 Global SMP Survey found that 54% of SMPs experienced difficulty in attracting next generation talent. But, on a broader basis, 39% of the firms surveyed had maintained that attracting new talent and retaining existing staff were either a high or a very high challenge. The AICPA’s 2019 CPA Firms Top Issues Survey ranked finding staff as the top concern in the United States, while retaining staff was the fourth most pressing issue for firms with 11-20 professionals and the second most pressing issue for firms with over 21 professionals.

With this issue in mind, firms have tried various attraction and retention strategies to optimize their human resources. A more recent approach by firms is the introduction of flexible working arrangements. In fact, the same IFAC survey found that 47% of firms surveyed have introduced or planned to introduce flexible hours or work days in the next 12 months.  

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, flexible working is a situation in which an employer allows people to choose the times that they work so that they can do other things, for example, spending time with their children or whether they work in the office or at home. A flextime policy allows staff to determine when they will work while a flexplace policy allows staff to determine where they will work.

The Advantages

One significant advantage for the firm is the potential to boost employee motivation and increase staff engagement, while at the same time reducing staff turnover.  It helps enhance the firm’s progressive image as a family-friendly place to work and hence, boost the attractiveness of the firm as a preferred employer.

For the employee, the advantage is the flexibility accorded to them to better meet the demand of family and personal needs. Flexible working can be especially appealing to new families having to adjust to a new routine, while still allowing ample time for parent-child bonding. A flexplace arrangement can also be utilized to reduce commuting time and, by association, the attendant travel costs such as fuel or transportation fares.

Every staff member is different. Flexibility allows the staff to work during the time that best suit their peak performance mode, for example, when they are at the most productive or creative.

The Disadvantages

From a firm’s perspective, flextime with a compressed work week may mean sacrificing some clients’ face-time availability. Being in the service industry, this could have a serious repercussion. More junior staff may also work better under supervision. Often in a team-oriented project such as a very large assignment, teams still need to meet physically, thus requiring extra efforts in coordination.

One often-cited complication is the less-than-clear demarcation of home and work boundaries.

Staff based in the office may also perceive their work-at-home colleagues as not realizing the same effort levels, because they cannot physically see their productivity.

Practical Tips To Ensure Successful, Flexible Working

Here are some tips for firms to ensure that flexible working can really work:

  • Ensure everyone knows what is expected in terms of productivity or performance regardless of whether they are working at home or off-site. Having a good policy on communication and setting the right expectation is paramount; agree on how, when and the regularity of communication at the onset. According to Thea O’Connor, for firms initially experimenting with flexible working, it helps to specify some “core working hours” when everyone is expected to be “in communication mode” – wherever they are. It allows for better communication and collaboration as a team while building up trust.
  • A regular work plan with clear deadlines and deliverables should be agreed upon. At the initial stage, these plans can be drawn up on a weekly or monthly basis. It should be made clear that work must be completed in a timely manner as it would under any normal working conditions.
  • Investment in technology infrastructure and the use of technology, such as instant messaging tools or webcams, is a critical success factor. An article by Nicola Heath tells the story of two businesses harnessing the power of technology to enable staff to work remotely. Firms must recognize that, for staff working at home or at a different hour, the feeling can be “isolating”. Regular “contact points” using technology can help maintain some semblance of the office environment. The same article by Nicola also shared the five common technologies that can help staff to work remotely and still be highly productive.
  • Whether it is flextime or flexplace, there should be no difference in how people are rewarded or praised for tasks done well, completed on or ahead of time and on budget. It is equally important for firms to understand the reason when an assignment has not been completed on time or budget so that further intervention can be implemented, when required. 
  • According to some studies, having a properly demarcated space, such as a designated work space with appropriate partitioning,  can be conducive to those who choose to work from home. At the very least, friends and family will know that the individual is in a working mode when operating from that defined space; and
  • As with all other workplace initiatives, it is important to note areas for improvement in productivity of staff, as well as their general well-being during the course of implementing a flexible working regime. It is also important to address any teething issues early on in the implementation process.  


Module 4 of the Practice Management Guide (4th edition) has a comprehensive section on “Managing and Retaining Employees”. Many of the principles are evergreen and should be considered with any initiatives of attracting and retaining employees.

Overall, the advantages of flexible working generally outweigh its disadvantages. With good guidelines, a practical implementation policy, and strong management support, more firms are making such arrangements available. In fact, in many larger firms, staff are not even assigned any fixed seating as an encouragement for them to embrace a flexible working culture. More employees, especially millennials, have also requested for flexible work arrangements as a work benefit in many job interviews.

While all the above tips are certainly the pre-requisite for a flexible working arrangement, it ultimately boils down to the level of trust between the staff and firm’s management. According to Nicola Heath there are four elements that will make such an arrangement successful: trustworthiness, independence, ability to be a team player, and finally, “an outcome-orientated work” that is discrete and can be completed in many separated parts.

From an employer standpoint, a flexible working arrangement well-implemented will enable the firm to benefit from an overall positive morale that lead to an increase in productivity over time. For the staff, the creativity and productivity they bring to the work (and to the team) will be an important incentive to excel in the firm. In any case, the end result is that the firm gets to keep its best staff, rather than losing them to a competitor.

The Gateway contains a selection of materials (articles and videos) dealing with talent management that you may also be interested in:


Keddie Waller

Head of Public Practice, CPA Australia

Keddie Waller is the Head of Public Practice with CPA Australia. With her team, Keddie is responsible for the development, servicing, representation and compliance of CPA Australia public practice members. Previously Keddie was CPA Australia’s Senior Policy Adviser - Financial Planning, responsible for developing policy positions on financial planning and credit issues.

Johnny Yong

Head of Capital Market & Assurance, MIA

Johnny Yong is head of capital market and assurance at the Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA). He was previously a technical manager with IFAC. Prior to his role at IFAC, he was a partner of a training provider in Malaysia, specializing in provision of training to accounting firms and for accountants in general. He qualified as an accountant following his articleship with BDO Malaysia and also lead MIA's public practice department. See more by Johnny Yong


Join the Conversation

To leave a comment below, login or register with IFAC.org


Thank you for your interest in our publications. These valuable works are the product of substantial time, effort and resources, which you acknowledge by accepting the following terms of use. You may not reproduce, store, transmit in any form or by any means, with the exception of non-commercial use (e.g., professional and personal reference and research work), translate, modify or create derivative works or adaptations based on such publications, or any part thereof, without the prior written permission of IFAC.

Our reproduction and translation policies, as well as our online permission request and inquiry system, are accessible on the Permissions Information web page.

For additional information, please read our website Terms of Use. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.