In his 30 years of business, Richard A. Berkowitz has seen his share of recessions. But the current downturn has outlasted them all. And the longer it drags on, the more it raises the level of tension in the office.
“This is just a terribly stressful time for people because of this economy,” says the managing director of Berkowitz Dick Pollack & Brant Certified Public Accountants & Consultants LLP. “People are afraid. They’re concerned about their future. They’re concerned about taking care of their families.”
So Berkowitz keeps his 150 employees in the know as changes transpire. He also busts stress with games and keeps their workloads steady because he wants the working environment to remain pleasant at the accounting firm, which posted fiscal 2008 revenue of $34.8 million.
“You’re trying to do everything you can do to reduce stress in the business workplace,” he says.
Smart Business spoke with Berkowitz about keeping your employees calm during stressful times.
Comfort employees with communication. I’ve heard how people are notifying people of changes in their company by e-mail, by text, by Twitter or Facebook. It is really a time when [leaders] have to make the effort to get out in front of people and reaffirm what their mission is, reaffirm what their companies are about, reaffirm that they are managing not only for the present profit but for sustainability in the future. You have to get out there all the time, and you need all the C’s. You need to be certain that the information you’re giving is consistent with what you’ve told people before, that you’re truthful, that your communication is clear and it’s constant and it is done in such a way that it’s credible.
Back in April, we had a meeting, and one of the members of the firm said, ‘Can you tell us what’s going on?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will do that on a consistent basis as time goes on so that you know what I know.’
You can say that to mollify people or to get off the hook, but I’ve been back to that. We’ve had several meetings, probably one every four to six weeks. We’re consistently communicating. We have firm meetings on a regular basis, even if we do it by video in the various offices. Last time, everybody was stuffed into four conference rooms in our three offices.
What consistent and open communication does for the business is it creates trust. If you’re out there and you’re telling people what’s going on, you’re telling them the truth and you’re consistent about it even if the news is bad news or is news that involves change people will appreciate the fact you’re letting them know what’s going on. If they believe that you’re going to keep telling what’s going on, then it makes them feel more comfortable. It takes a lot of the stress out of the workplace.
The way we’ve built our firm is through high communication and based on the philosophy that high communication equals high trust. If you have high trust, then people will enjoy what they’re doing more and will be more enthusiastic with their clients and with the people that they work with.
Lighten the mood. The first thing you need to do is lower stress in the environment. It’s a major demotivator for anybody. Motivation comes from being in a positive environment as opposed to being in a negative environment.
You can tell when people are stressed. It makes people short-tempered and irritable. They tend to snap at people.
So we have things like stress busters where we’ll have birthdays for people with cakes. We have various contests that we do, like all you can eat within a certain period of time. We give out BDPB Bucks, which people earn by working more or doing certain types of projects. They can spend that; we’ll auction silly stuff off. It’s trying to reduce stress and make it an easy environment to work in.
During the busier times, we do a lot more of that type of thing. Over time, you gain experience to understand what the balance is. A couple years ago, it seemed as though we were having auctions every 15 minutes. We had all these interruptions going on and it was clearly too much. There’s a point at which you know it’s really counterproductive. What happens is if the amount of this type of activity is excessive, a lot of your best performers won’t show up. They’ll vote with their feet.
Keep workloads in check. We really urge people to help one another as opposed to trying to hold on to the things they have to do in order to justify their work. In times like this, people want to make sure that they appear to be busier and valuable. They don’t want anybody thinking that they’re not working because if they’re not working, then they’re not needed. We’re encouraging people to not hoard work and to make sure that they delegate work to the appropriate levels.
So it’s communicated firmwide in our overall message on a regular basis. And as we give people work, we’re trying to be clear as to who gets that work and [make sure] that they understand why they’re getting the work.
If they don’t have enough [to do], you tend to see too much time being put into work that shouldn’t take that long. Alternatively, if they are overburdened, they become very harried.
You have to send the message that that’s what you want people to do. The message really is that there’s different levels of complexity of work that we do, and we want the right person at the right level doing that work. It’s better for the people because they do what is a challenge to them and they’re more interested in it. It’s better for the client because less complicated work gets billed out at a lower rate. The best way to do it is to appeal to people’s reason and their common sense, which is: If it’s not challenging and if it’s work that is routine to you, then you need to delegate it down and train others.
How to reach: Berkowitz Dick Pollack & Brant Certified Public Accountants & Consultants LLP, (305) 379-7000 or www.bdpb.com