One of the most significant shifts over the past two years has been the fast-paced adoption of remote work policies. Instead of coming into the office, workers in nearly every industry have replaced daily traffic and early morning road rage with Zoom meetings and strolls to the kitchen for coffee.
However, despite the many benefits that remote work provides to white-collar professionals like accountants, there is a downside: our work-life balance has deteriorated.
Before I jump into this article, I do want to say one thing:
“I won’t pretend that my team and I have nailed the hybrid model 100%. We’re still working on finding the right balance for our firm. But we believe in progress over perfection: we’re taking small steps toward being a hybrid firm and sharing what we learn to help other firms do the same.”Cassidy Jakovickas, CPA
Remote work balance can make or break the work-life balance
It’s easy to leave work at work when miles separate your home from your office. It’s much harder to do when the only separator you have between work life and home life is when the clock goes from 4:59 to 5:00.
Many workers find their version of balance between their work life and their time with family. But these are the exception, not the rule.
With think tanks like Gallup saying that remote work is here to stay, it’s imperative for accountants and accounting firms everywhere to learn how to prioritize work-life balance in a way that makes sense for them.
Is work-life balance even possible for accountants?
Okay, I’m hearing the people in the back: “We’re accountants – we don’t get to have work-life balance.”
Edward Mendlowitz, while writing for Accounting Today, illustrated this mindset perfectly with a story about his “no-work-life-balance-having” friend:
As accountants, we’re used to going the extra mile for clients because we want them to succeed (and stay with us).
During tax season, we’re used to 900-hour workweeks (impossible, you say? Tell that to my sleep cycle) while we submit returns and help clients sort out tax snaggles.
But, even during the busy season, a work-life balance is necessary for us to continue doing our best work for our clients. Sacrificing our well-being for the sake of troublesome 1040 ends up harming our health AND our clients because we aren’t able, on a sleep-deprived brain, to advise them properly or do accurate work.
Work-life balance is non-existent in public accounting firms
Most accountants get their start in public accounting, learning valuable skills that will serve them well whether they decide to start their own firm or join another accounting firm. The problem is, public accounting firms are often rife with overworked professionals and accounting students who are doing everything they can to balance their workload and their personal health.
Tax season stress takes its toll on accountants
It’s not just public accountants that are stressed and overworked, either. Private accountants also struggle with work-life balance, especially during tax season. Working long hours during such a busy season means that accounting professionals aren’t able to spend many hours outside of work.
Even when we are able to steal a few moments with our friends and loved ones, we’re likely to either get requests for free tax advice or be so preoccupied with work issues that we can’t fully enjoy our time outside of work.
Within our firm, I’ve both experienced and seen the burnout that can come from spending an inordinate amount of time at work, with little breaks for social activities or big life events. That’s why the past couple of years, we’ve started to try to prioritize our health (and sanity), whenever possible.
How accounting firms can encourage work-life balance
Large firms like KPMG, EY, PwC, and Deloitte have led the accounting profession in promoting employee health by introducing flexible work schedules, health programs, and reimbursement perks for student loan payments and student electronics.
But, even if your firm doesn’t have the staff and deep pockets of a Big 4 firm, you can still build a culture that balances wellness with work. In 2020, when COVID-19 precautions forced our accounting practice to switch to remote work, we moved our staff to a work-from-home setup and were able to continue providing accounting services during the pandemic. Our clients appreciated our adaptability and constancy throughout such a crazy time, and we were able to strengthen our relationship with them, even during such a chaotic time.
Manage our energy, not just our time
The screenshot above shows Warren Buffet as he shows interviewer Charlie Rose the free days in his week that he leaves open for thinking and reflection.
One important insight I’ve gained throughout this pandemic is that our energy management is more important than our time management. As performance psychologist Jim Loehr wrote in The Power of Full Engagement, “Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.” To build a high-performing practice, we must properly manage our time AND energy so we work sensibly.
Set up employee wellness programs
There’s a reason why Kamala Harris exercises every day: the happiest, most productive people are those who are well in their mind, body, and spirit. This is why accounting firms like EY have introduced wellness programs for their accounting staff. EY’s “Better You” program offers staff holistic options for improving their health, ranging from reimbursed gym memberships to dedicated counseling assistance and even an arts community.
I’d recommend talking with your staff about their work-life balance issues. Once you’ve heard their challenges, you can start making changes that are reasonable for your budget while still beneficial for them.
Discourage busyness as a badge of honor
Those of us in the accounting profession are no slouchers. In fact, we’re more likely to overwork ourselves than miss a deadline. While there’s nothing wrong with working hard, it’s imperative that we take time to experience life. As the saying goes, “Make a life, not just a living.”
How accountants can improve their personal work-life balance
In an internal staff survey, senior accountant Riccardo Vallejo said that he appreciated remote work because of the additional time he was able to spend with his family. Of course, spending time with family and friends outside your job is only fun if you don’t bring your job with you.
Some tips I’ve found for improving my presence and mindfulness outside of my working hours are:
- Meditating daily
- Spending time outdoors frequently
- Exercising regularly
- Controlling my phone and computer screen time
The last one is particularly important since my phone has both work apps and personal apps on it. But you can use Digital Wellbeing (Android) or Screen Time (iOS) to set time periods in which you can only access certain apps. For example, you can set a time limit for each workday so you can only access your email between 8-5 PM.
Build a culture of wellbeing, not “well done”
As accountants, we tend to be task-oriented folk who think in checklists and key performance indicators. But, we must learn to focus on our staff’s wellness, not just the work they’ve done.
I’m not going to pretend that I have all of the answers or that I’ve hit nothing but home runs as we’ve implemented a hybrid work model in our firm. But, I am doing my best to learn and navigate what our version of the post-pandemic workplace will look like so my team and I can continue serving our clients and supporting our employees to the best of our ability. I don’t have to get it perfect every time. But, as long as I’m making progress toward these two objectives, that’s really all that matters.