Accounting for lifestyles

At Sisterson & Co., people are always coming and going. And that’s the way they like it.

It’s not mass confusion. In June, Sisterson & Co. implemented an alternative work schedule program for its 75 employees, and so far, it’s working as planned. The firm’s main criterion, meeting the needs of its clients, does not appear to have been compromised in the process.

“People’s alternative work schedules don’t seem to be getting in the way of getting it done,” says Donna DeFilippi, a tax partner at the firm who was closely involved in the process of developing alternative work arrangements.

When executives decided to reinvigorate the firm a few years ago with a new strategic plan to lift it out of the doldrums, they wanted to give their staff a big say in how the 73-year-old company was going to accomplish the task.

Leaders concluded that employees needed a more detailed system for performance evaluation that would focus on development and implementation of their career goals, rather than simply pay raises and supervisors’ evaluations of past performance.

But Sisterson & Co. wasn’t satisfied with simply a new evaluation system. One of the proposals that came out of discussions that led to a new strategic plan was establishing alternative work arrangements that would fit the evolving and contrasting lifestyles of employees.

“As part of that, we thought the next thing we wanted to tackle were lifestyle issues,” says DeFilippi.

Sisterson & Co.’s timing is probably right.

“In order to retain the best employees, companies need to move and provide as one of the benefits flexible scheduling,” says Kevin Klinvex, a partner in Select International, a Pittsburgh-based employee selection and recruitment consulting firm.

His company has seen a number of professional services companies move toward similar arrangements, nearly always with positive results. With such arrangements, says Klinvex, companies send a clear message to employees that they value performance over simple adherence to set work hours.

Sisterson & Co., like many businesses, is finding it more difficult to attract and retain talent. Pulling from the other end is the demand that the company be willing and ready to serve its clients, primarily private companies with annual revenue of between $5 million and $150 million. So it came up with a way to better meet employees’ scheduling needs while making sure the change didn’t interfere with its ability to meet clients’ accounting and consulting requirements.

Company executives thought the only way to ensure buy-in was to have employees engaged in the planning and managers involved so that employees understood and had an opportunity to provide input.

To set its strategic plan into motion, Sisterson & Co. hired a consultant to work with the staff and develop a list of issues that were important to them. High on the list was the desire for flexibility in work schedules. Over about six months, much of it during their busy season, the employee task force came up with a variety of new work arrangements. Managers reviewed them and made suggestions to tweak the proposal.

Employees now can work under one of the following structures:

Flexible work arrangements. Employees can vary their schedules from day to day, choosing either to begin or end their workdays earlier or later than standard times, as long as they are on the job during the core hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Staggered hours. Employees commit to a fixed schedule each day, say 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. This works well for administrative employees who need to be available to others in the firm at predictable times.

Part time. Employees can choose to work fewer than 40 hours a week.

Variable schedules. Some employees work full time during busy periods and part time during slow times.

At Sisterson & Co., employees simply apply for an alternative work schedule. But during the planning stages, the firm wrestled with how it was going to grant requests and if it was going to require justifications on the part of employees to grant an alternative schedule. In the end, the essential criteria is whether the request can be filled while still meeting the needs of the company’s clients.

“We decided there is not going to be a reason,” says DeFilippi.

The process has had some pleasant secondary benefits, says DeFilippi. First, because employees were involved early on in the planning process, they saw first-hand what it was like to come up with solutions that would work. For instance, they had to decide how part-time employees would be compensated.

Second, DeFilippi says, the varying arrangements tend to make managers take a more disciplined look at what staffing needs will be in coming months. She says some employees say they are more productive when they have greater control over their schedules, a notion with which Klinvex generally agrees.

“It creates more of a challenge to get the work done and done well, but so far, it’s working,” says DeFilippi.

And working is, after all, what it’s about.

How to reach: Sisterson & Co., (412) 281-2025 or www.sisterson.com; Select International, (412)358-8595

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