The Future Workplace That Accounting Professionals Want Now

By Cheryl Cran; published in CPABC in Focus
Published: March/April 2016

Note to readers: Cheryl Cran is one of three keynote speakers who will be featured at the CPABC Pacific Summit in May 2016. In her presentation, “Energetic States – The Secret to Productivity and Performance in the Workplace,” Cran will discuss the concept of “energy states,” and explain how effective energy management at both individual and organizational levels can improve overall performance. In this article, she shares thoughts on another of her areas of expertise: the future of work.

The reality of the workplace today is one that involves tight deadlines, large-scale projects, and limited resources. Sound familiar? All of these challenges exist in today’s fast-paced workplace, where the potential for burnout is high.

The future workplace requires a new way of leading—one that will attract and retain high-performing talent by offering greater flexibility and more opportunities for professional growth.

Understanding the demographics

Research shows that millennials (Generation Y, the demographic cohort after Generation X) are attracted to firms that support work-life balance. Yet it also shows that once they begin the job, millennials often find the holy grail of work-life balance elusive. Why?

Traditionally, professional firms (including accounting firms) have been built on structures created by traditionalists (born between 1900 and 1945) and baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). These structures can be characterized by standard working hours, a “work until it’s done” approach, and a “work first, life second” mentality. Many firms still operate on these models, so while a lot has changed regarding work-life balance over the past few decades, there is still much progress to be made.

Workers of every generation want to have a life that work supports. And female workers, who now comprise almost half of the CPA profession’s membership, are also seeking greater job flexibility.[1] In addition to work-life balance, what young accounting professionals want in the workplace is the opportunity to work in project teams with clear starts and finishes, and the opportunity to work cross-departmentally in order to learn and apply skills organization-wide.

Increasing flexibility and growth

Frankly, we can talk about work life-balance all we want, but what we really need are leaders who are flexible in providing solutions for their people.

In my work, I often say the future of work needs leaders who are über flexible and who have upgraded their leadership operating systems. What I mean is leaders who are willing to shift their viewpoints on what it means to “work hard” and willing to find new ways to measure performance. Put simply, the annual performance review doesn’t quite cut it for millennials—they’re looking for real-time performance feedback.

Millennials are also looking for ways to learn and grow. That’s why the longest a millennial will stay on the job is typically three years (even if you expect them to stay for five years or more). And that’s only if they like their leader. Which brings me to a key point: People don’t leave their jobs, they leave their leaders. Firms can pull out all the stops to attract top talent, but if the firm’s leadership isn’t flexible, adaptable, open, willing to share, and willing to help people grow, retention will be a challenge.

Sure, if your organization provides opportunities for staff to move to different departments or to different offices nationally and/or globally, you’ll have an advantage when it comes to retaining millennials. The global aspect of a large organization (such as a large accounting firm) is very appealing to both millennials and Gen Xers because each cohort sees their lives as portable, and each is looking for enhanced experiences more so than traditional stability. At the same time, smaller firms that can provide the knowledge-sharing and flexibility that is so attractive to young professionals also have a better chance at retaining millennials a bit longer.

But what is retention, really, if the average length of time on a job is only three years? What if long-term retention is no longer possible?

What organizations need now are leaders equipped with “evolutionary skills.” Evolutionary skills include the ability to hold and see multiple perspectives at once and the ability to recognize the “energy” that is present. Leaders with such skills are able to optimize situations and interactions, and better able to oversee an ever-changing workforce of people who rotate in and out of jobs.

I often hear leaders ask, “Why would we invest in training and growing people if they’re going to leave anyway?” The answer? Because it’s happening to every company out there, and by investing in people—even if only for the short-term—all companies are investing in the collective pool of talent.

There are additional benefits to this collective investment. An article in Harvard Business Review in February 2013[2] stated that the future of work will include workers who have higher levels of multi-industry experience, which is good for business overall, as it creates a cross-pollination of ideas and solutions. This trend of workers moving between industries is expected to continue through to 2020 and beyond.

A case in point

In my conversations with millenial CPAs, many tell me they want to make an impact on business and gain diverse experiences. They also tell me leaders can make or break a job experience.

I recently spoke with a millennial CPA—let’s call her Jane—who works at an accounting firm. Jane agreed that it's the leader who sets the tone. She told me the partner to whom she reports is very adaptable and flexible, allowing for flexible start and end times, as well as four-day workweeks in the summer months. Jane said she considers herself lucky, as she has seen millennial counterparts leave the firm after being paired with partners she described as inflexible “drivers.”

Jane said flexibility from a leader could make all the difference in the world when it came to the quality of working relationships. Flexibility, and a genuine desire to provide mentorship. She pointed out that she knew of a firm where the retirement of a strong leader and beloved partner had sparked an exodus of millennials, because the incoming partner was “old school,” and the culture the previous leader had established was no longer in place.

Tips for creating the future workplace now

There are numerous ways in which managers and directors can improve or enhance their leadership skills and work on creating desirable and progressive work environments. The following are just a few steps:

  • Develop a “shared leadership” approach (for example, a “holacracy”) that is built on relationships rather than on hierarchy. The organization chart of a shared leadership company is not top down; instead, it consists of circles of sectors where people participate on various projects and are given autonomy to make decisions that would get bottlenecked at the leadership level in traditional hierarchical organization charts.
  • Communicate expectations up front about the structure of your work environment, including expectations about work hours, days off, etc., and explain what “flexibility” looks like—both for your organization and for you as a leader.
  • Provide evolutionary skills training to all leaders. This includes training leaders to understand “energy” states and apply this knowledge to enhance personal interactions, maximize opportunities, and create successful results.
  • Review processes and policies to see if they’re relevant to the current workplace, and adjust as needed.

What the future holds

There’s no question that the future of work is going to be far more flexible and open than it is now. In the meantime, issues related to privacy and 24/7 “on call” availability are going to provide opportunities for organizations to get creative when it comes to balancing priorities—specifically, how professionals can continue to deliver at work while still “having a life.”

Cheryl Cran is an internationally renowned leadership expert and change management consultant who has worked with clients such as AT&T, Kaiser Permanente, and TEDx.


  1. In January 2015, the gender breakdown for the CPA profession in Canada was 42% female and 58% male, according to CPA Canada.
  2. Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas, “Why the World Needs Tri-Sector Leaders,” Harvard Business Review, February 13, 2013.

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