Posted November 15, 2016

Building a Firm Culture to Attract Millennials

This article was original published in the November 2016 CPA Journal, The Voice of the Profession, a publication of the New York State Society of CPAs. It has been posted here with permission of the Publisher.

On a recent trip to San Francisco to attend an accounting software conference, this author had a chance to visit various Silicon Valley companies and explore their innovative office layouts and the groundbreaking benefits they offer to their employees. Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay–area companies are known for employing imaginative tactics to make their employees happy—and when employees are happy, they tend to work harder, be more creative, and produce better results. The visits to three companies—Gusto, Xero, and Facebook—provided a lot of little ideas to make BNA better. These little ideas all add up to one big idea: The Bay Area has figured out a recipe for creating a successful culture, and over time, every industry in the country, especially the accounting industry, is going to replicate it.

The End of Cubicles

The first takeaway was what was missing—cubicles. None of these firms segregate individuals in little “jail cells.” Instead, there are rows of desks in open floor plans. All employees have their own desks, which they can decorate to their liking. The employees are grouped together in teams; the salespeople all sit near each other, the engineers sit near each other, and so on. Walking through the offices, one can see the microteam cultures underneath the main culture of the companies, but nothing feels separated. There is no impression that the sales team hates the engineers, or the tax preparers hate the auditors; everyone works to make the whole company run smoothly.

This doesn’t happen by accident. Each company goes to great lengths to make sure there are amply shared office spaces where people from all parts of the company come together. At Gusto, half of one floor is dedicated to a lunch area with free premium drinks like aloe, coconut water, and local coffee on tap. At Xero, they have a huge outdoor space on their roof with a garden and ping-pong table. Facebook, however, takes everything to another level with a Disneyland-esque “main street” with everything an employee could want or need, including restaurants, a bike shop, a woodworking shop, a physician, and even a pop-up clothing store.

Benefits and Perks That Matter

In addition, all of the above benefits are free to employees. Healthcare, 401(k) plans, dependent care, and FSAs are considered essentials instead of “perks.” Instead, these companies offer free food, drinks, transportation, gyms, electronics, and experiences. Gusto provides employees who have been working for one year a free plane ticket to anywhere in the world for a vacation. Xero provides paid sabbaticals after five years for employees to do whatever they want for a few months without losing their jobs. Facebook provides free buses to its employees in the Bay Area, allowing them to save both time and money; the buses are outfitted with free WiFi, so a commute is no longer lost time.

Facebook even has a vending machine for electronics. Employees who need a new keyboard or mouse can just swipe their employee badges for a free replacement. There is no lengthy approval process or haggling with whoever holds the keys to the supply closet; an employee just gets what he needs so he can continue working with negligible loss of productivity time. That main street mentioned above? It has over 20 restaurants that offer free breakfast, lunch, and dinner options to all employees and guests. For a salad with fresh heirloom tomatoes and golden beets, head over to Harvest, the custom salad restaurant with free premium salads. The quality of the food was top-notch.

All of these free offerings and office setups create a culture of happiness among employees. The workers at Facebook, Gusto, and Xero were extremely excited to talk about what their company did for them and how they felt confident that the company had their best interests at heart. When is the last time an employee of an accounting firm said that?

Bringing the 21st Century Office to Accounting

Most accounting firms do not have the capacity or resources of these companies, but that does not mean that a Silicon Valley lifestyle and culture cannot be incorporated into a small- or medium-sized accounting firm. For any size firm, the commitment starts with technology. It is not enough to be “paperless” anymore; firms must be 100% cloud-based. The target is for employees to be able to work from anywhere in the world, easily and efficiently. Today, 95% of all accounting software is now sold as cloud-capable, software as a service (SAAS) product. Firms not using SAAS should consider switching vendors. Otherwise, even non–cloud-based programs can have their hosting outsourced to a cloud hosting service or remote desktop solution.

A completely cloud-based environment creates the freedom for employees to choose where they work. The next step is to create an environment where employees want to come and stay at work. The first thing an accounting firm should do is get rid of cubicles and create open work environments. Audit or consulting work requires more collaborative spaces, a place where teams can all work and feel comfortable together. Set aside a section of the office with a mixture of tables, couches, bar-height seating, and small offices where employees can work if they need solitude. For tax, often more monitors and space are needed, so an area filled with long, wide, open desks can create a feeling of camaraderie but still allow personal space. It is also important that all levels in the firm work in the same space, partners and associates at the same table. Think about how much that associate would learn from the partner just by observing her on a day-to-day basis, and how much the partner would learn from the associate.

Most small and midsize firms probably cannot afford a free cafeteria, but they can afford to order lunch in once a week and have everyone eat together. This is when real relationships between employees are formed and a creative, collaborative culture is fostered. And make sure to let employees pick where they want to eat; the more they are involved with the firm, the more they will feel connected and proud to be a part of the team. Accounting firms, no matter what the size, can adopt the Silicon Valley lifestyle. It just takes a commitment from the top and a belief that the better employees are treated, the better they will perform for the organization.

By Jason Ackerman, CPA, CFP®, CGMA