Work/Life balance – does it feel like a 110%/-10% split for you right now?!

Whilst completing articles I was asked to represent the clerks at my firm at a “Work/Life balance” discussion group.  I remember feeling really passionate at the time I wrote “OBSERVATIONS ABOUT WORK/LIFE BALANCE” and I hope it helps those of you who are feeling frustrated at your lack of work/life balance right now.

If I was still an article clerk and was struggling to maintain work/life balance, this is what I would discuss with my firm.  The firm should really want to help you with this.  If they make their clerks happy – you will become their best advert – that is the bottom line.

Sure, there is no such thing as making everyone happy but at the same time everyone being miserable really dents a firm’s reputation.  Promote work/life balance as the ultimate new recruitment strategy for the firm – HAPPY audit clerks!

 OBSERVATIONS ABOUT WORK/LIFE BALANCE

 What is work/life balance?

Articles does require a large amount of hard work. There is no way around this and I believe that most clerks are prepared to put in the long hours. The 8 till 5 working day all year round is therefore never going to be a reality.

At the same time however, the time crunch isn’t just over a few months but is becoming the “norm”. This makes the attainment of a work/life balance extremely hard as overtime that has accumulated can not be taken due to there being no gaps between client bookings. Several clerks have mentioned that they have been unable to take leave due to managers being insensitive to their requests.

  • Example from the top > culture change

Partners are making unrealistic demands on managers; they in turn do the same to the clerks working for them. The end result is that work-life balance is not possible due to unrealistic demands being made on people’s time.

Managers that need to perform an enormous amount of work will not be able to allow their clerks work/life balance opportunities due to the fact that a deadline needs to be met. The solution to this problem starts with a change in culture with respect to what is regarded as an acceptable level of commitment at work.  It is important that ethereal culture changes are not the end result however.  This needs to result in creative solutions to problems being faced.

  •  If not rule changes, make people aware of their responsibility to manage themselves

It is hard to make rules to regulate human behaviour and therefore I don’t believe that using the HR policy document as the means of creating work/life balance will work. The structures need to be in place to enable clerks to achieve work/life balance but ultimately it is the responsibility of each clerk to use the structures should they feel imbalanced.

For instance there are some who want to be recognised as superior to their colleagues and are prepared to work long hours in order to achieve that goal. This is a choice they have made and thus when asked about the quality of their work/life balance they can not complain as they have chosen to have a 95% work 5% life balance.

Our real concern here is with people who are prepared to work hard but in an efficient and effective manner that doesn’t require that they stay at the office late every night. Currently these people are told to stay and take on additional work in order to help the team and should they refuse, they are seen as non-team players and that will be reflected in their performance appraisals. These are the people that can justifiably claim that their work/life balance is not satisfactory. It is these who need to be informed of the support structures in place to help them achieve the balance they desire.

  • “Your time isn’t your own on big clients”

There is an assumption that on certain large audits, the time of the clerks belongs to management. If the clerk wants their weekend, an evening etc. the onus is on them to seek permission to leave when the assumption should be that their time outside of the 40 hour week is their own and should management create client expectations that will require more than 40 hours per week from team members, they need to make that clear upfront and negotiate.

It is accepted that certain clients will require extra effort due to tight deadlines but it should never just be taken for granted that clerks have to give up their personal time.

  • Managers should delegate but clerks are working hard already

It was noted that managers are working hard and that a possible reason for this is that they are accepting new responsibilities that come with promotion but yet are not delegating away tasks that they should no longer be performing. It is therefore suggested that managers should be delegating more in order to better manage their work/life balance.  This doesn’t work however because that will have the effect of placing more work on the shoulders of the clerks who are already operating at close to full steam. This action will therefore not remove the work/life balance problem but will merely shift it to another group.

  • Knockdown effect from managers to clerks in terms of what is expected

As it is the managers that are assessing the performance of the clerks, they are the people that the clerks are seeking to impress. The performance criteria used when evaluating clerks will have an element of quality included but by and large it is the clerks who are prepared to put in the big hours that are recognised.

Those who perform work of a high quality but then seek to leave at 5pm and go to gym, are often viewed by those who remain as not being team players and are negatively assessed accordingly.  Even worse is when high quality clerks are “rewarded” with the job of finishing the work of those who haven’t been able to manage their time properly.  Which brings me onto the next observation…

  • The competent get more work

Managers seek clerks who can perform at a high level and who require a minimal amount of coaching and correction. A clerk who performs well will soon be identified and their reward will be more work as the manager trusts them to a greater extent.

This is not a bad thing – getting stretching new work does increase your capacity.  The problem is that this can cause large discrepancies amongst the clerks.  The competent crew spin from one client to the next whilst the incompetent sit in the office and watch a DVD.  Morale, amongst the very people you want to stay on with the firm, takes an understandable dip.

  •  There needs to be individual responsibility for work/life balance

Clerks do need to take personal responsibility for their own work/life balance because often they become their own worst enemies. There is a perception that only those who spend long hours at the office will be asked to stay after articles and therefore they push themselves beyond a healthy level. Competitiveness is also a reality as each clerk observes the other and soon realises that anyone leaving at 16h30 is considered a slacker regardless of how efficiently they worked that day.

That said there is a perception that managers prey on individuals that lack the confidence to say no to unrealistic work demands. There should be greater action taken by counselling managers to ensure that especially the first year clerks are encouraged to set boundaries and voice their concerns.

  • Firm reputation

The work/life balance value can be used as an effective recruitment strategy but if the value is not lived, people will find out.

A clerk mentioned that they lived with another clerk from a big 4 firm who isn’t working close to the overtime that they are.  Students compare work cultures as well as what incentives firms provide for their clerks (cash bonuses, I-Pods etc.) Bottom line is that our reputation as the employer of choice is damaged by the long hours our clerks are working and the lack of recognition they are receiving.

 SUGGESTED ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN IN RESPONSE TO ESTABLISH A HEALTHY WORK/LIFE BALANCE

(What follows is quite firm specific, and probably has changed, but it hopefully gives you a taste for some creative steps you can suggest)

  • Petrol claim

Travel claims are split between team members because it is encouraged that clerks travel together in one car. This is however inconsistent with the work/life balance value as those sharing the car have to wait until the last person is finished before they can leave.

Each clerk should get a travel claim for their car so that they are able to move freely once at the client.  It is understandable with clients in distant places that clerks travel together but the majority of clients are close to the office and it would therefore make a big difference to clerks whilst not costing the firm too much.

  • Managers overtime

Clerks are evaluated by managers and thus these are the people that they are trying to impress. The longer manager’s work, the longer clerks will stay in order not to be seen as a slacker. As managers are only allowed 40 hours overtime a year, they are working many hours that are not captured on their time sheets.

The end result is that managers are setting an unhealthy example by not booking all of their time.  Allow managers to book all of their time and thereby free up the clerks to follow suit.  The partner will benefit because maybe some of these costs can be collected from the client.

  • “On the beach” after a big client

Big clients are in many ways a painful experience for most clerks. Long hours, unforeseen problems, and new audit methodology all contribute to a stressful experience. Staff should be allowed time off after a large client is completed so that they can relax and regain perspective.  This also provides a light at the end of the tunnel that they can look forward to reaching as the long hours take their toll.

Being “on the beach” for a few days after a client allows clerks to take a few days leave without having to worry about the next audit.  These should be scheduled in for all large clients and not inferred with – no matter how urgent the next client is!

  • Hire more staff

Hire more people that know what they are doing.  Preferably people who have completed honours so that their studies are behind them (honours students can be brilliant workers but it is hard for the rest of the audit team when study leave clashes with work).  Ultimately, if we want managers to delegate more, then we need more good quality clerks.

  •  Flexi-time

Traffic can be a killer.  Why not operate with core hours of 9am-4pm and then staff can decide how they fit in the other hour in the day.  So if they are in at 7am, take an hour lunch, they can duck at 4pm.  There needs to be trust using this system but we are mostly adults and the slackers will be quickly caught when their work is incomplete.

  •  Replace socials and cutesy efforts

We don’t need more social events; we already see enough of it other. Our spare time could be used for things that are actually fun.  Gestures are better than nothing but ultimately they don’t carry that much substance.  Rather pool the money and give all the clerks gift vouchers instead.

  •  Upward feedback specifically encouraged and acted upon

What gets measured, gets done. Partners should have a meeting with clerks and encourage them to air their perspectives on managers and how they practically encourage work/life balance amongst their audit teams.  Managers that score badly should have that taken into account when they are evaluated.  If work/life balance gets measured, I think we will see improvement.

  •  Gym membership or club reimbursements

Exercise is important and due to clerks having to join CAMAF as opposed to Discovery, many have to pay additionally for gym membership. The firm could subsidise gym membership or offer to reimburse those who were unable to go due to late night audit deadlines.  Healthy bodies = healthy work/life balance

  • Bat for the clerks and not just the client

If the client wants their audit opinion yesterday, don’t tell your clerks to bring their sleeping bags and prepare for an all-nighter, tell the client to chill instead.  A partner that goes to bat for his people makes all the difference to team morale.  Please bear that in mind next time you agree to have an audit opinion done in 2 weeks when you know there are public holidays and we are short staffed.  Make it 3 weeks and be comforted that your happy staff will do a better job and are more likely to stay on to become managers and future partners.  This long-term approach may be unpopular in the short-term with your client, but it is a winner as far as ensuring work/life balance is concerned.

CONCLUSION

That is it team!  I hope these observations and suggestions help you achieve greater work/life balance in your life and in the office you work in.  I was extremely well taken care of as an article clerk, and now at age 35 I probably wouldn’t say some things the same way, but I wanted to leave the rawness in there.  I did need to think these issues through and discuss them with management before I achieved greater joy.  I hope that joy is also your experience after thinking through these matters!

Paul Maughan

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