All Work and No Play? Not At This Accounting Firm

Every year, when you grapple with your income taxes, know that any stress you’re feeling is nothing compared to the crunch that the accountants at BDO are under.

Tax season is the busiest time of year, when 50-, 60-, even 70-hour workweeks become the norm, and employees work late into the evening to make sure that their clients’ tax needs are taken care of before the annual April deadline. It’s the time of year that has always been most stressful at BDO, but in 2017, that started  to change. In the company’s more than 60 U.S. offices, employees took breaks to do yoga, play table-tennis, do charity work or learn self-defense.

Having fun, and getting their work done too, was part of a company-wide competition to see who could make busy season just a little more chill — a contest that helped in remaking the corporate culture from top to bottom.

The BDO “Busy Season Breaks” contest had its roots in 2005  when an internal study aimed at discovering new opportunities for women inside the company found that work-life balance was a problem not just for the company’s women, but for everyone at the firm.

“We thought it was just our women who were feeling the pains of balancing work and life,” says National Human Resource Director Rachel Bradford-Mundt, “but it became apparent that it was men, too.”

The company launched a formal flexibility program in 2008, and since then has worked to give employees more flexibility day-to-day — allowing them to take time off when needed for family events, for example — and month-to-month — by letting certain employees transition partly or entirely to working from home. But this didn’t solve one of BDO’s core problems: How do you bring flexibility to the people who are working the hardest in the time when they need it the most — the busy season leading up to tax day?

“It’s a demanding profession,” says Bradford-Mundt. “We can’t shy away from that. Not everyone can work reduced hours. So, what can we offer you, within the realities of the work that you perform, that can still help you feel engaged and let you feel like you have control?”

The answer, says Regional Human Resource Manager Stacie Adjaye-Mims, was found in BDO’s core principles for its flexibility movement:

  • Get the work done.
  • Communicate.
  • Flexibility means working differently, not less.

By following those guidelines, BDO felt there must be a way to give their busiest workers a break. But how can you give time off to people whose job is to bring in the most billable hours possible, who find themselves working late every single night? You start by asking them what they need.

“Could we offer them one night off a week and make sure they could count on it? ” wondered Bradford-Mundt. “Let them rotate, so that some folks take Mondays, some folks take Tuesdays, and they know they have that time to spend time with their families or do something else that’s important to them? It was an attempt to recognize the realities of how demanding our profession is and give them something they could count on.”

The result was BDO’s predictive time-off policy, which was tested out two years ago in a pilot program in three cities. The program gave employees something invaluable: not just a night off, but certainty about when it was going to happen. Because the breaks were planned, employees could take them without feeling like they were shirking work — an essential step in changing corporate culture to be more understanding that everyone needs time to recharge.

“The pilot program was really successful,” says Adjaye-Mims, so this year, they’ve taken it companywide.

That’s where the contest came in.

As the busy season reached its climax, BDO offices around the country took time out for activities as simple as lunch in a restaurant or a walk in the park, to elaborate ping-pong tournaments, bowling outings or volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. They took pictures or videos of their breaks posting them on the company’s Yammer page with every break earning them points. At the end of the contest, the office with the most points won a party paid for by corporate.

It’s a fun diversion during a stressful time, and Adjaye-Mims says it has been a huge hit. Nearly every office contributed, and the competition was fierce. “The majority of the posts on Yammer (were) about it,” she says. “Since it’s launched, we’ve had over 800 posts, just on the busy season breaks. There’s a lot of competition.”

The standings were posted each, and within minutes, Adjaye-Mims says she would get emails from the different offices making sure all their posts were counted.

More than being a fun way to take a few hours off during a 70-hour workweek, the contest marked a major change in the corporate culture of a company where taking a break was once looked down upon — a change that started when BDO first introduced flexibility, and which is growing stronger every year. In 2014, an internal company survey showed that 81% of workers felt their leaders supported them in using flexibility. In 2016, that number had climbed to an impressive 91%.

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“I think it’s beyond these little contests here and there,” says Adjaye-Mims. “I think it’s a much bigger change.”

What’s more, the policy has been wholeheartedly embraced within BDO’s executive ranks. Offices received double points if they got pictures or videos of partners taking part in a Busy Season break, and the partners were happy to join in.

“This is truly a culture change for BDO,” says Bradford-Mundt. “I’ve been here for 13 years, and I can remember before BDO’s flexibility launch, when flex existed in pockets, but people didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t want it on the radar, didn’t want to broadcast that they might be disconnecting a bit here or there.

“This campaign makes it OK. It shows to the firm, to the leadership, that we’re having fun, we’re managing work and our lives, and we’re getting our jobs done.”

This article originally posted on OpenWork, a nonprofit committed to inspiring companies to continuously improve how, when, and where work is done for the mutual benefit of employees and employers.