How to Make Mandatory Saturdays a Thing of the Past

Dog sleeping in home office as woman works at computer in backgroundFour mental shifts to make.

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By Jennifer Wilson
On Staffing

I always challenge firm leaders to evaluate their “old school” practices and shift toward more engaging, motivating and even “cool” ways of operating to retain top talent.

MORE ON STAFFING: Guidelines for Flexible Work Policies | 10 Winning Traits of Accounting Firm Leaders | The Importance of Great Bosses | The 12 Reasons Your Staff Hates Your Firm | What Happened to the Relevancy of the CPA Profession?
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One of the ideas we’re hearing cool firms employ is the elimination of mandatory Saturdays during busy season. When I’ve shared this in group settings at CPA conferences, I literally hear a gasp of surprise because it challenges one of the most fundamental elements of public accounting – tracking, measuring and valuing time.

Today I want to explore the possibility of eliminating mandatory Saturdays – which does NOT mean eliminating overtime in most cases – and discuss ways that might help make this “new school” idea work and make public accounting an even cooler profession for up-and-comers.

To get us started, I want to address a few mental shifts I believe your leadership team will have to make to get to the place where you give up mandatory Saturdays:

  1. Most firms feel that they need a certain number of total charge hours per person (varying by level and role) to meet their top-line revenue goals. I want to challenge this and suggest that what firms really need is a certain amount of revenue charged, realized and collected per person or per client, to meet revenue goals.
  2. When you make that leap, your firm will also have to empower your team members to work anytime they can and anywhere they want to meet their revenue and client service objectives. I realize that this “anytime, anywhere” philosophy doesn’t work for all team members – especially those in their first year or two, certain administrative staff and those who simply cannot keep focused without the structure of their office workspace. That said, many professionals are capable of working from home, while traveling or from other locations and can produce high-quality work and perhaps be even more productive working remotely. Your firm must provide a mechanism for these self-directed people to do just that – or they will go to work for a firm that will.
  3. A related philosophy must also be banished: the attachment to “face time.” For many Baby Boomers, there is a direct correlation between seeing someone’s face at work and believing they are committed to their job, clients and the firm. Many partners speak of people they value as “putting in the time” and others they question as “never coming in early,” “not staying late” or “not being here as much as others.” When I ask whether these people work from home in the evenings, whether they are meeting their goals, etc., there is often an acknowledgment that their performance is not suffering. Be careful not to measure office or face time over the more important measurement of deliverables and results generated.
  4. So, if you can begin measuring contributions and results, supporting anytime, anywhere work styles and giving up some of your face-time expectations, then your firm may be ready to make the leap that some new school firms are making – eliminating mandatory Saturdays during busy season periods. Instead of mandating specific work days and hours, firms are instead:
  • Establishing specific revenue and realization goals for each staff member – broken down into a weekly number. Some firms will use charge-hour targets.
  • Establishing goals for client deliverables like turnaround time goals, filing objectives and workflow targets.
  • Teaching all team members the basic economics of the firm so they understand the drivers of firm growth and profitability and their part in contributing to the financial well-being of the firm. Most team members do not understand this concept!
  • Investing in technology to enable access to client workpapers, files and production systems anytime, anywhere with performance that rivals performance within the confines of the office.
  • Investing in tech support of personnel working remotely.
  • Measuring and reporting on firm performance against goals on a weekly basis, addressing situations where deliverables are not being completed.

22 Responses to “How to Make Mandatory Saturdays a Thing of the Past”

  1. Adelaide B Kent

    My firm required 70 hours of billable time per week in the busy season. Saturdays or Sundays made this more convenient. At the time (many years ago now) working from home was not really an option unless one took workpapers home.
    I would add that if one is in the field during the week, being in the office one day a week was helpful!

  2. Jody Padar

    Manditory Saturday’s is not the problem, the business model is. And until the business model changes, more hours worked on a different day is just lipstick on a pig.

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Jody – I agree that the model is inherently flawed and that many, many things must change beyond moving away from mandatory work days/times/locations. We are on the same page there! That said, MANY firms in this country are not in that conversation (as you can see from some of the comments below) and we are trying to appeal to even the tiniest of changes (flex, dress, pricing, tone, diversity, technology, advisory) to shift SOMETHING in these firms to keep the people they have NOW in our profession.

  3. Barbara Evarts, CPA

    As a young staffer, I worked for a regional firm who’s approach to this issue was more like Saturdays were optional. If you put in the extra time during the week to get done what needed to get done, then not coming in on Saturday was fine. If Saturday did not work for you, but Sunday did, that was fine too. Of course there was the basic office work hours during the week, but we were given the freedom to determine how to get the extra hours in needed to complete client projects. I am a partner in my own firm now and we take the same approach. Most of our staff come in on Saturdays mainly because it works for them. The fact we lure them in with morning “donuts” and having Saturday lunch brought in also helps. Outside of some basic policies for being in the office during the week to have collaboration on projects that is more effectively done person to person, our employees set their own schedules. Each employee has his or her own particular challenges balancing filing season demands with family and home life and giving them the ability to work out their individual balance works well for us and for them.

    • Jen Wilson

      I love your approach provided there’s no penalty — overt or covert — for not coming in on Sat. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Allan Boress, CPA, CVA, FCPA

    Saturdays are our most productive day of the week, as there are less diversions than during the work week. Much of the resentment may be due to working a full day; 9:30 – 2:00 works for us. Having most of our resources in the same place for one day is very conducive for the amount and quality of communication that goes on in our firm. Thus, I am more in line with Doug Doty’s comment, but open to any alternative as technologies improve. Also, Doug, busy season is our “bumper crop” – but how much of that winds up in the pocket, or to the benefit, of staffers? My experience in management consulting to hundreds of CPA firms over a 20 year career, is very little in the vast majority of firms – leading to resentment, destruction of morale, and turnover (in actuality, or in lack of effort). We have to win the hearts and minds of our people every day (including their families). Why not turn the matter of moving to no-Saturdays (or mini-days) to a team of staff to determine the logistics, benefits and costs – and have them sell it to the management?

    • Jennifer Wilson

      I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion to hand this to the staff to determine how to make (and even exceed) the firm’s production goals and meet the needs of those for whom Saturdays — morning, afternoon or all day – don’t work. If we hand it to a team of top talent, my bet, based on years of coaching next gen leaders, is they will make sure there are no “mandatory” work periods.

  5. R. Lee Haight

    The number of hours worked and when they are worked has everything to do with providing service to clients and meeting their needs. I notice that many consider the needs of employees to be superior to those of clients. There are no employees without clients. That being said, the proper management of when effort needs to be expended to meet client needs is most important. Working mandatory hours without a real need is a ridiculous concept. We need to work whatever is necessary to meet our clients’ needs but not more than is necessary. At the same time, we always need to be respectful and considerate of the needs of our personnel, and do our best to blend those needs with those of our clients. It is not only possible, but absolutely attainable with planning and foresight.

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Lee — to me, the question isn’t meeting the needs of employees OR clients. It is more about HOW to meet the needs of the clients AND the needs of our talent. And, we’ve never had more pressure on talent than we have today — so if they can get their production goals met and serve their clients working extra hours from home at night after the kids are asleep, or Sunday night because it works better for them, they should be empowered to do so. Making Saturday the mandated “extra effort” time period — and making the work take place at the office, grates on MANY staff members and is one of the complaints of young people leaving firms (and our profession). Mandating the time (and place) is what next gen talent are objecting to — not the extra effort needed to meet client needs during compressed work periods.

  6. Steve Smith

    As a former staffer who worked at a “mandatory” Saturday shop for a few years, i can tell you its counter productive. Your good people will understand that if the work is there, they should be there getting it done. But as a staff being told you have a mandatory 8 hour saturday when only 2 hours of work are on your desk, your enthusiasm…dips. I questioned this once and was told that the guys across the street were doing full Saturdays.

    I left there and the firm I went to told me that if I had the work , then I should be getting it done but if not, then take my time away. They effectively gave me ownership of my work and that greatly improved my mindset.

    I also worked at a big 4 firm once on a job where we had a lot of down time Mon-Thurs waiting on the client to deliver information which was always delayed and then when it came in on friday we suddenly were on mandatory late weekend shifts. Morale killer.

  7. Doug Doty

    I have been the majority partner in my firm for the past 35 years. I have always used the analogy that “tax season” is to the CPA as “harvest season” is to the farmer. The physical presence of the entire crew is necessary to maximize the efficiency of client intake, delegation of work, training, implementation of new software, morale boost for team members, comradery and ultimately celebration of a job well done. Tax season is not a negative aspect of our profession but rather the culmination of our hard work to bring in new work, develop client relationships, develop staff by giving them new work challenges, etc. The reality is that tax season is finite and as any athlete knows, it’s the last hundred meters that is the mark of a champion. Final thought, have you ever heard a farmer complain about ” bumper crop?”

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Doug — thanks for the comments. I can appreciate your analogy, but our experiences are different, because I believe that you can work as a team and move work productively and boost morale with people working from different locations at different times. I run a completely flexible, virtual business and we have compressed work periods (the ones where you’re not buried because we serve CPA firms). We appreciate our bumper crop, but we harvest and make hay at different times of day, on different days, from different locations and it truly works. This kind of flexibility is critical for retaining young parents and next gen top talent.

      Also, in some firms, the “farm hands” don’t share in the bounty to the same degree as the “farmer” so their enthusiasm for the bumper crop isn’t as high if they feel it also impinges on their personal lives. If you’re sharing that bounty proportionally, I’m sure it takes some of the sting out. Thanks for reading and sharing your story!

  8. John Michel

    Our profession (and many other professional service providers) is plagued by sorry business practices. Mandatory Saturdays are the result of firms that don’t plan, haven’t developed a staffing model that fits the business, and are emblematic of firms that often have a compulsion to serve once a year low rate per hour work (i.e. be H & R Bloch). And staff compensation models that emphasize charge hours (inputs) versus results (outputs) are likely the default when there are undefined performance assessment criteria (i.e. management is unskilled a defining the business drivers of success). Good news is that competition and mergers are making many of those firms a thing of the past.

  9. Lisa A. Vachon, CPA

    I agree with Frank, working Saturdays is more about making deadlines and less about billable hours. But I do agree that making work time and work space more flexible will go a long way in retaining good staff.

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Thanks for the comment. Please see my response to Frank below. And, I’m glad you believe that flexibility is important to retention. I believe it is IMPERATIVE!

  10. Frank Stitely

    Working Saturdays has nothing to do with tracking time and billable hours. It has to do with getting client work done on a timely basis during tax season. Unless staff will become magically more productive by not working Saturdays (17% to throw out a number), or are willing to work an extra couple hours per day during the week (beyond 10 to 12 already), staff will still need to work Saturdays during tax season. That’s just the reality of workload compression and our market.

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Frank — I appreciate your comment very much. Our profession is facing a talent crisis. Next Gen leaders don’t want to work in a profession that demands 12 hour days and mandatory Saturdays — especially if it all has to be worked in the office — no matter that it is “just in busy season.” If that’s what it takes to meet client needs, then we need to change our staffing models and raise rates/change the pricing model or move to non-traditional staffing with seasonal contractors. Or go to a 9 month model like the teaching profession. Something to make working in a CPA firm appeal. The numbers don’t lie — turnover is up, CPA exam passers and takers aren’t near the numbers of those graduating with accounting degrees (so we’re not keeping them in public accounting after graduation like we used to) and we’re facing PR challenges. We surveyed 700+ young accounting professionals with IPA and 60% of that group said the #1 factor they like least about working at their firms was THE HOURS. And, their #1 stay factor — the thing that would make them stay in public accounting? WORK/LIFE BALANCE. We have to work together to change our business model — with virtual, flexible work, smarter positioning, pricing and packaging practices and other changes — so that young people want to call public accounting home.

      • George Prytula, III CPA PLLC

        My firm is Closed on Saturdays, so not an issue for us. We do work a 12 hour day on Sundays.



      • William Stanke

        I used to work for a CPA firm that required Saturday attendance. One year I had to move in early January, during one of the worst snow storms in years. I came back to the office on January 4 to discover a note from the managing partner that they were docking my vacation leave for one day. I quit soon thereafter…

        Professional staff are professionals! they need to understand that during the course of tax season some overtime will be needed in order to service our clients. We have a VPN so they can work from home, and structure their own “extra” work time. If you run a factory straight out of Dickens your staff will flee at the first available opportunity. Your CPA firm will simply become a post-graduate training center, and a gateway to a “good” job.