How small practices can retain their top staff

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Competition for the best accountants is fierce, but many small firms are finding that their size works in the favour when it comes to employee engagement

Whatever size your accountancy practice is, staff retention brings real business benefits. Alongside protecting morale, it allows practices to keep their best team members, while reducing recruitment expenses.

But in a people-focused profession, competition for the best talent is fierce. Some small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs) might feel like they are fighting a losing battle, with the likes of the Big Four always able to out-spend them. But there are many ways that smaller firms can engage their experienced team members and keep them in the fold. We asked some SMPs about what works for them when it comes to retention of crucial staff.

Be inclusive. Involving the team in setting the vision and values of the business helps with the retention of senior professionals, according to Nikki Adams, director of Milton Keynes-based accountancy firm Ad Valorem. While in lockdown, the firm conducted a three-year strategic plan.

“We sat down and agreed what our values are as a group, what we want to achieve for our clients and everybody understands how they fit into that jigsaw puzzle,” Adams says. “The senior managers are part of that process so even though they may not own shares in the business, they are emotionally invested in it,” she explains.

The concept of “alignment” is also important among the whole team at accounting, advisory and data analytics start-up Flinder. “We are very transparent about our vision as a business, our strategy, our results and people’s involvement in that,” says founder and partner Alastair Barlow. “If people feel like they are contributing and understand where they sit in the grand scheme of things, they feel much more connected.”

Focus on satisfaction. While some firms do focus on salary, others argue that remuneration is not the whole story when it comes to retention. “There are always people for whom money is the most important thing, but I think that is an absolute minority in accounting… It is about development, satisfaction and balance,” says Barlow.

There are a number of ways to support satisfaction among your team. To some extent, it is about the work you do, says Barlow, but praise and recognition also have a role. Saying thank you is really important – he does this every week in team meetings and individually. The firm also focuses on values. ”Every Monday morning we call out one or two people for the values they have shown,” he says. “People like to be recognised for it and that enhances satisfaction.”

Relationships with managers and feedback are another component. Flinder has a real-time feedback system where situations are logged straight away – the idea being that feedback is more valuable when it is timely. The system includes an account of what happened, what the person did, whether it is a strength or development area and what value it aligns to in the business.

Have clear ways to progress. Strong growth has helped accountancy firm Wilson Wright retain top talent by creating a clear path of progression, says partner Warren Baker. The most junior partner at the firm – and some of their senior managers – have come all the way through their ranks, he says.

This also plays to SMPs’ ability to give their employees a breadth of experience. “Keeping people interested is really important,” says Baker. “I give work out to my managers that historically I have done so that they learn, engage and are doing different things to stretch their minds.”

Working environment. This has become a big draw for young people in particular, says Adams. Ad Valorem has the feel of a tech company, she says: the team recently moved into a new office and the culture is relaxed, with a casual dress code and a freedom to listen to music.

Wilson Wright has also invested in a bright, open air office with break-out spaces and a social kitchen area. While the firm is quite small – with around 75 employees – it also invests in employee engagement with forums, social events and quarterly and annual awards where members of the team can win vouchers to go travelling.

“We are aware that to engage with and retain staff, we have to offer them the type of working environment that they hear about and perceive with tech businesses and larger firms,” says Baker.

SMPs can also put an emphasis on work-life balance. “When we are in the office, we work hard. But it is a 9am to 5pm office, not a 7am to a 10pm office,” says Baker. “We want our staff to have a personal and social life, and a weekend.”

Protect specialisms. When hiring specialists in an SMP, there can be a chicken-and-egg situation: the firm needs their skills but does not have quite enough work to fill all their time. The problem is, without the specialist, it cannot build the client base. This means that specialists can find themselves only working on their expert area for some of the time and picking up extra tasks, such as audit or tax returns, for the rest.

But being able to let specialists focus on their expert field has been key to retaining them, says Nathan Keeley, business services partner at accountancy firm MHA Carpenter Box. This has become much easier as the firm has grown, he adds.

It also helps to be clear with the teams about the vision and strategy for their department. Keeley says that sharing that you want to double the tax advisory team in three years, for example, shows the managers and wider team that the strategy is realistic and creates the feeling that you want to build the team together.


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