Myths and Realities of Flexible Work Arrangements

By Elizabeth Dreike Almer and Steven E. Kaplan

In Brief

Are Flexible Work Arrangements the Way to 'Have It All'?

Tired of trying to balance work and family demands, many CPAs wonder if flexible work arrangements are the answer. At the same time, many firms wonder if they really do benefit from offering their employees flexible work arrangements.

A recent survey sponsored by the AICPA examined these issues by considering whether common myths about flexible work arrangements accurately reflect reality or are simply myths. In the survey, CPAs with flexible work arrangements overwhelmingly said that while the arrangements do help create balance, the stressful public accounting environment and their own high expectations keep the arrangements from eliminating all conflict. Contrary to popular belief, these CPAs were not particularly concerned about the negative consequences on their salary or career progression. Furthermore, flexible work arrangements appear to be more feasible in tax practice than in auditing or consulting. The survey results should help firms, businesses, and their employees decide whether these programs are truly a worthwhile benefit.

Will a flexible work arrangement kill my career?" In a culture striving to have it all and do it all, this thought crosses the minds of many CPAs considering flexible work arrangements. Public accounting also continues to be a service-oriented profession, made up of high achievers that may be anxious about how a flexible work arrangement could impact their careers.

Nevertheless, the shortage of experienced CPAs, together with a workforce insisting on a better balance between work and family, has prompted many public accounting firms to offer employees flexible work arrangements. These arrangements have taken a variety of forms, from allowing employees to work a full-time schedule from home to giving them a reduced or seasonal workload.

Advocates of flexible work arrangements contend that they attract and keep talented employees that would otherwise be lost. Skeptics question whether firms "get their money's worth" from professionals working under a flexible arrangement.

While flexible work arrangements are typically available to all employees, reduced workload arrangements have increasingly appealed to women. Women now represent nearly half of public accounting professionals at the lower levels--the stage when employees are most likely to begin families and seek ways to balance career and family demands. As they start families, more and more women CPAs are using flexible arrangements to help achieve this balance.

According to a study conducted by the AICPA Women and Family Issues Executive Committee (WFIEC), the percentage of new mothers returning to CPA jobs on a part-time basis has increased substantially--from 27% in 1993 to 38% in 1997.

Mixed Signals

Despite the prevalence of flexible work arrangements, conflicting signals make it difficult to determine the impact on a CPA's career of accepting such an arrangement. On the one hand, firms are commended for making these programs available. Several public accounting firms have won media accolades for "family friendly" programs that include flexible work arrangements. On the other hand, employees considering a flexible work arrangement sometimes receive the message that their career might suffer. For example, a 1997 Fortune cover story, "Is Your Family Wrecking Your Career (and Vice Versa)?" suggested that professionals that attempt to spend more time with their families are perceived as less committed to their jobs and are frequently put on the career-killing "parent track."

These mixed messages fuel concerns about whether a flexible work arrangement does in fact facilitate both a fulfilling career and a satisfying family life. From the perspective of CPA firms, these concerns raise doubts as to whether flexible work arrangements actually help attract and retain employees and the role such arrangements have in the quality of work being performed. The question remains: What are the myths and realities of flexible work arrangements in public accounting?

Survey Methodology

The survey was mailed to 647 practicing CPAs at five of the largest non­Big Five public accounting firms nationwide, ranging in size from a multioffice regional firm to a national firm. A total of 347 surveys (54%) were returned. Approximately half the respondents were currently using a flexible work arrangement (hereafter called Flex CPAs); the other half were "likely candidates" for a flexible arrangement (hereafter called Traditional CPAs), as they had recently returned from maternity leave or had young children at home but were still working on a traditional full-time schedule.

Including both Flex and Traditional CPAs in the study sheds light on the myths and realities in two ways:

* The anticipated effects of a flexible work arrangement could be compared with the actual effects experienced by those adopting the arrangements. These responses helped assess whether the myths accurately reflect the reality of the arrangements for Flex CPAs.
* Surveying "likely candidates" made it possible to assess how much the myths deter CPAs that might be considering a flexible work arrangement.

The survey contained specific questions to determine the following:

* Demographics of respondents
* Nature of the flexible work arrangement
* Anticipated negative consequences
* Actual negative consequences experienced by Flex CPAs
* Importance of a flexible arrangement in achieving a satisfactory work-life balance
* Job satisfaction and retention intentions, including the effect of the flexible work arrangement.

Survey Respondents and Their Flexible Work Arrangements

Respondents were predominantly female (87%), with one or two children. They worked in all functional areas (i.e., tax, audit, consulting) and were fairly experienced.

The Flex CPAs averaged 8.8 years total experience and 5.8 years with their current firm. The Traditional CPAs averaged 6.7 years total experience and 4.9 years with their current firm.

When asked about the format of their flexible work arrangement, 80% of Flex CPAs reported decreasing the number of hours worked. Their arrangement typically involved working a somewhat reduced schedule during busy season and a drastically reduced schedule during non-busy season. On average, Flex CPAs reported working a five-day, 40-hour workweek during busy season, which is considerably less than the almost six-day, 52-hour average workweek of Traditional CPAs during that time. The large reduction in workload, however, came during non-busy season, when Flex CPAs reported working on average 24.5 hours over a 3.4-day workweek.

The remaining 20% of Flex CPAs reported that the total number of hours worked did not decrease when they switched to a flex arrangement, but presumably they had greater flexibility as to when and where these hours were worked.

Myths and Realities

CPAs typically mentioned five common myths about flexible work arrangements. Three of these relate directly to concerns of someone using or considering using a flexible work arrangement. The other two relate more to concerns firms might have about the potential benefits of flexible work arrangements. The survey helps determine whether these myths are the reality of a flexible work arrangement in public accounting, or whether they are just myths.

Myth: Flexible work arrangements don't really help with work-family balance--they just create conflict in both areas.

Reality: Flexible work arrangements help create balance but do not eliminate all conflict. From the employee's perspective, the goal of a flexible work arrangement is to achieve both a fulfilling career and a satisfying family life. The concern, of course, is that a flexible work arrangement will fall short of helping them achieve that goal. The survey found that while most Flex CPAs view their work arrangements as instrumental in lending balance to their lives, they are still struggling to keep conflict at bay.

Public accounting can be a stressful environment and tends to attract competitive, ambitious individuals. Many of the survey respondents said that they put a lot of pressure on themselves to do their best at work and at home, and conflict appears inevitable. Comments by survey respondents show how this is created by both the culture of public accounting and the nature of the CPA personality:

* "There's always pressure [self or outside] to work more hours. It is especially difficult to go from being a workaholic to saying 'no.' Many professionals don't feel like team players unless they're suffering. Also, CPAs tend to believe they're unworthy if they're not the 'go to' person in the office."
* "There is, at times, double the guilt. You are not a good enough mom because you work, and you are not totally committed to your career because you work less than others."

Despite the persistence of conflict, the vast majority of Flex CPAs believe their work schedule generally makes balancing work-family conflicts easier, not harder. When asked how important the flexible work arrangement was in enabling continued employment at the same firm while balancing the personal factors that led to seeking a flexible work arrangement, 82% of the Flex CPAs said it was "very important" and 16% said it was "important." Yet, when asked if the benefits of a flexible work arrangement completely outweighed the negatives, only 55% of Flex CPAs answered affirmatively. Acknowledging the tradeoffs involved, 37% of Flex CPAs said they believe that the benefits only "somewhat outweigh" the negatives.

Myth: The flexible work arrangement will negatively affect salary, promotions, relationships with colleagues, and work performance. The survey unveiled three realities related to the seriousness of actual negative consequences on salary and promotions, relationships with colleagues, and work performance. Flex CPAs revealed their anticipated concerns prior to adopting the flexible work arrangement, as well as their actual concerns from the experience; Traditional CPAs indicated their anticipated concerns. The Table summarizes the responses.

Reality No. 1: Overall, the actual negative consequences of a flexible work arrangement are less serious than anticipated. Clearly, results in the Table show that the Traditional CPAs thought that each of the 16 negative consequences would be worse than what was actually experienced by the Flex CPAs.

An important implication is that many Traditional CPAs may be unwilling to switch to a flexible work arrangement because they inaccurately overestimate the costs, particularly in the area of salary and promotions. Traditional CPAs believed that the negative consequences in terms of salary and promotions would be far greater than the level actually experienced by Flex CPAs. Many Traditional CPAs may also feel uncertain about how individuals with flexible work arrangements will be evaluated and rewarded.

Many Flex CPAs reported a general sense of uncertainty in their offices about how promotion decisions would be made. This environment could easily fuel fears and perpetuate myths. Our results, however, suggest that the actual negative effects are less dramatic.

The Table shows that the concerns anticipated by Flex CPAs were similar to those of Traditional CPAs. However, the actual work experience appears to play a vital role in lowering concerns. Importantly, the survey shows the reality--that the negative consequences experienced are quite few, and in fact, fewer than anticipated. In short, flex arrangements do not seem to result in unpleasant surprises.

Reality No. 2: Male superiors generally provide the least amount of support for flexible work arrangements, but a strong relationship with a male superior can mitigate this factor. When asked about relationships with colleagues, survey participants said the least amount of support came from male superiors.

Flex CPAs reported that male superiors tend to be less supportive than female superiors. However, if a sufficiently strong relationship existed with a male superior, lack of support for the flexible work arrangement was much less likely. Flex CPAs also reported that none of their mentors, male or female, changed the type of support provided after the arrangement was adopted.

Finally, all respondents expressed some concern that a flexible work arrangement would keep the employee out of the "office network." This concern was highest among Traditional CPAs, perhaps because they attach higher importance to career progression. Noteworthy here is that despite their reduced time with colleagues, Flex CPAs did not report a particularly high level of concern about being out of the office network.

Reality No. 3: Timely client service is more difficult for Flex CPAs to provide. A final area of concern about negative consequences relates to work performance. Here again, Traditional CPAs expressed the highest level of anticipated concern, yet the actual level of concern experienced by Flex CPAs was quite low in all respects except ability to service clients in a timely manner. That difficulties regarding client service were acknowledged by the Flex CPAs suggests a potential problem.

Myth: Flexible work arrangements work only in the tax department.

Reality: Flexible work arrangements are more common in the tax department, though they can also work well in audit. Does the feasibility or likelihood of firm management approving a flex arrangement vary by functional area? The percentage of Flex CPAs working in the tax area was far greater than the percentage of Traditional CPAs working in that area.

Fifty-seven percent of Flex CPAs said tax was their primary functional area, compared to only 25% of Traditional CPAs. In contrast, audit and accounting was the primary functional area for only 22% of Flex CPAs, compared to 43% of Traditional CPAs. (The remainder said consulting or administration was their functional area.) The percentages suggest that there is some truth to this myth. A number of Flex CPAs indicated in their written comments that client demands and workload made it easier to arrange a flex schedule in the tax department. "If you are in the tax department [a flexible work arrangement] is more possible," one respondent said. "It is difficult to work only so many hours if you are out of the office doing audits."

However, the comments do not reveal what drives the lower number of flexible work arrangements in audit. Maybe auditors are more reluctant to request a flexible work arrangement because they perceive it as less feasible. Alternatively, firm management may perceive flexible work arrangements in audit as less feasible, and therefore discourage them.

Some auditors reported successful flexible arrangements. The survey results show that job satisfaction among Flex CPAs did not differ across functional areas. The reality appears to be that while relatively fewer auditors have flex arrangements, those that do are just as satisfied as tax professionals with flex arrangements.

Myth: The firm won't get its money's worth from a flex arrangement.

Reality: Flex CPAs tend to become more efficient with their time and, because they are grateful for the arrangement, work harder. Firms may be concerned that a Flex CPA will not contribute enough to warrant any inconvenience caused by altering the traditional work schedule. But, several indications support the position that Flex CPAs are not slackers.

Although 80% of Flex CPAs worked reduced hours, only 65% reported that their job responsibilities decreased in terms of number of clients, amount of travel, quantity of practice development, or administrative burden. Therefore, 15% of these professionals continued to accomplish the same level of work despite a reduced schedule.

Comments from many Flex CPAs echo this finding. They reported that because their workload did not decrease, a reduced schedule forced them to be more efficient with their time. Statements include the following:

* "My responsibilities did not decrease. I am allowed to work on a schedule with less hours, but there is no coverage for the hours I am not here."
* "People on flexible time at their firm are still expected to do the work of a full-time employee."

The results suggest that in reality firms get their money's worth from flex-time employees. Because Flex CPAs are well aware of the work-life balance that the arrangements facilitate, and yet are typically driven to meet their responsibilities, the survey results tentatively suggest that Flex CPAs strive to maintain high levels of performance.

Myth: Flexible arrangements do not really improve retention.

Reality: Flexible arrangements clearly help retain many employees that would otherwise leave the firm. Firms benefit from flexible work arrangements through improved employee retention. More than 80% of Flex CPAs reported that if their flexible work arrangement had not been approved, they would have left the firm.

Clearly, these employees are more likely to remain with their firm in the long run now that they have a flexible work arrangement: 74% said they were likely to remain for the next three years and 56% thought they would stay beyond three years, compared to 70% and 49% of Traditional CPAs.

Moreover, only 14% of Flex CPAs reported that they were likely to leave in the long run, compared to 24% of Traditional CPAs. Not surprisingly, respondents' comments indicated that their improved attitude toward their job was a function of their improved ability to balance work and personal demands. Only 57% of Flex CPAs said that they liked their jobs prior to adopting the flexible work arrangement. However, that number jumped to 86% after adopting the arrangement, comparable to the 89% of Traditional CPAs that reported liking their jobs. In the current labor market, career alternatives are available to CPAs that do not like their job. Thus, flexible work arrangements appear to be an effective retention tool for firms.

Implications for Firms and CPAs:Not Perfect

In this tight labor market, flexible work arrangements can facilitate a better work-family balance for CPAs and, as a result, can help firms retain highly talented employees. However, these arrangements are not without stumbling blocks.

Taken together, the following suggestions should help alleviate firms' fears about possible negative consequences of flex arrangements. Firms should--

* clarify and communicate the impact of adopting a flexible work arrangement.
* recognize that adopting a flexible work arrangement may trigger anxiety and uncertainty.
* provide information, perhaps on the firm's website, about the flexible work policies and experiences of associates that use them. Information such as this study may help communicate that the actual negative consequences are less serious than employees may think.
* respond to each professional's specific concerns and needs. Each variation of flexible work arrangements can lead to unique expectations about work performance and assignments, current and future salary, and promotions. Clearly communicate expectations, and be prepared to revisit them in light of changing circumstances.
* foster an environment of support. This might be the most important action a firm can take to promote flex arrangements. In particular, upper management must "walk the talk" with actions consistent with expressed firm policy. Upper management, especially males, must buy into the benefits of flexible work arrangements; such support is essential to ensure that the firm's expectations are realized.
* establish realistic workload expectations that promote continued high levels of client service while also allowing for the CPA's desired work-family balance.

From the CPA's perspective, certain steps will help the plan work:

* Build strong relationships with superiors and become known as a valuable and trustworthy employee prior to requesting the flex arrangement.
* Determine how to make the arrangement successful for the firm and answer the question, "What's in it for my colleagues?"
* Recognize that while a flexible work arrangement can facilitate work-life balance, some degree of conflict will always be a reality.

Working together, the CPA and the firm can create an environment that serves the needs of both the individual and the business. *

Elizabeth Dreike Almer, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor at the University of Miami, Fla.
Steven E. Kaplan, PhD, is a professor at Arizona State University.

The authors gratefully acknowledge study sponsorship by the AICPA Women and Family Issues Executive Committee and the cooperation of participating public accounting firms.

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