Rethinking the Traditional Approach to PTO
An analysis of common problems experienced with the traditional approach to paid-time-off policies and responses impacting ours.
Rethinking the Traditional Approach to PTO
Originally published July 1, 2021
One of the nicer benefits offered by many accounting firms is a comparatively generous amount of paid-time-off (PTO), including for new and first year staff members without any prior industry experience. It is not uncommon for even small accounting firms to offer a minimum of two weeks of PTO, with some firms offering upwards of three or four weeks to younger staff members, and additional time to more experienced team members or those with higher annual hours expectations. This is typically in addition to 8-10 firm paid holiday days off.
This amount of PTO time is reflective of the nature of the industry as a whole, with consistent 60+ hour work weeks commonplace for many. Increased PTO time is offered as one way to compensate and allow staff members time to disconnect from not only what can be long hours, but the general mindset and focus required to perform most day-to-day responsibilities. It can also be used partly as an enticement into the profession - I can recall from my college days students asking recruiters about whether the rumors of long hours and days were actually true. Most would answer affirmatively, and then move directly into the various PTO packages their firm offered. And while truthful, traditional approaches to PTO offerings can often leave much left to be desired and lead to unintended problems.
Summer is the perfect time for evaluating, updating, or establishing new policies and firm processes with the goal of better aligning them with the value and expectations of having them in place to begin with. This past year has had no shortage of turbulence and change in awareness; rethinking some of the components and approaches in firm policies is a critical component of the firm’s overall evolution and responsibility in action.
The objective of LEACIF’s paid-time-off policy is to offer PTO that allows staff members the most effective use of their time off in the ability to relax, unwind, and disconnect, along with the flexibility to best accommodate their own unique plans.
In rethinking the approach to paid-time-off as a whole and how this objective might best be accomplished, problems that often lead to the ineffective use of PTO and that are contrary to its success were first identified. These include problems such as distractions, scheduling conflicts, and even the non use of otherwise available PTO in many cases. Even for those who ‘thrive on work’, burnout, stress, and lack of effective use of PTO are not positive traits. Staff well being, client interaction, and the day to day success of firm operations and quality control can all suffer greatly when ineffective PTO use or policy are mainstream.
Problem # 1: Difficulty in scheduling PTO
Accounting firms are often busy year round, with repetitive work scheduled far in advance, sometimes a year or longer ahead of time. Combined with tax season demands, training and continuing education requirements, recurring client deliverable deadlines, conflicts with other team member's schedules, and the timing of regulatory deadlines, many staff members find it difficult to schedule their time off. Often, the planning and effort required to do so may be time consuming and difficult to fit into otherwise busy days, so the task is put on the back burner. This can lead to a habit of forgetting to schedule PTO and letting it roll forward year over year, while simultaneously accepting the burden of a never ending workload as an unavoidable reality. In some environments, this can also lead to a competitive mindset in terms of ‘who can work more’. Both of these behavioral traits can be highly toxic, even with the self-intention of only allowing them short term.
Problem # 2: Scheduling and project management conflicts related to ‘prime’ days off and holidays
Often, staff members may try to maximize their time off blocks by scheduling PTO near firm holidays. An issue quickly arises however in that not everyone can take the same ‘prime’ days off. Or, in response, PTO days are staggered out during peak periods, such as November through December, or June through August. This also means staggered engagement teams however, where typically everyone is less effective as a result. In general, the effectiveness of firm operational focus has limited time windows, with drivers pertaining to workload management or other responsibilities in focus at other various times during the year, as noted above. This can be detrimental not only to client deliverable quality, but also to team and engagement morale. After all, it is inherently more difficult to complete projects when all team members are not present, especially for extended periods of time. Delays in work completion, untimely feedback, and lack of cohesiveness amongst engagement team members can cause significant problems in aggregate and over the long run.
Problem # 3: Ineffective use of PTO due to interruptions or distractions
Interruptions during PTO from clients or other team members are common. Even with an out of office email response and setting out with every intention to ‘ignore work’, oftentimes staff are pulled into these distractions, whether by their own unwillingness to let go, the drive to respond to a client need, or through no perceived choice of their own. While these occurrences may not necessarily be detrimental if isolated, they degrade the value of PTO nonetheless.
Additionally, PTO days staggered here and there, whether due to firm holidays or scheduled flexible time, are not as effective in terms of being able to relax and avoid distractions. It is generally understood that for many, two day weekends are filled with catching up on day to day activities like cleaning, shopping, appointments, or general maintenance. Staggered PTO days are often utilized the same way.
Problem # 4: Stress surrounding the use of PTO
There were several causes of stress surrounding the use of PTO, notably including perceived or pre-set expectations, unknowns in scheduling availability, limitations to engagement planning, variability in response from clients, and factors around planning holiday or other personal events.
To align with the firm’s policy objective, addressing these issues and challenges was fundamental. In incorporating the desire to have a strong PTO policy staff members can be comfortable with and rely on to meet its intended purpose, along with balancing the needs and expectations of clients and firm processes, redesigning the firm’s approach to PTO was appropriate.
While it is important to also balance flexibility and personal choice, increasing the focus on firm holidays as part of our overall PTO policy offers a solution that addresses most of the common problems previously identified.
Pushback to this approach is generalized by the loss of flexibility. For example, if the firm’s PTO package includes more days for firm holiday PTO vs. flexible PTO days, couldn’t this defeat some of its purpose and be too large of a detriment? Additionally, from the firm’s perspective, couldn’t this make it less competitive or efficient? In redesigning the approach, these reasons and others for potential pushback were considered. The loss of flexibility as a detriment however can be mitigated with intentional planning of the days to designate as firm holidays and by reducing or eliminating the other earlier identified problems.
After consideration, the best approach in designing a PTO policy for the firm was to allocate approximately 70% of the total PTO days as firm holidays. While our policy will still include two weeks or 10 days of flexible PTO, the firm now recognizes over 20 days each year as firm holiday PTO. These days are carefully selected with the goal of enabling better use of the time off.
As a result, firm holiday PTO includes 10 day blocks of time off in both December and July, a 5 day block in November, and two 4 day blocks in May and September. Blocks include weekends and may or may not change slightly year to year based on how calendar dates fall. A minimum of 32 paid days off per year, including firm holidays and flexible PTO should be expected in any given year.
Specifically addressing each of the four problems previously identified, this approach accomplishes the following:
Difficulty in scheduling PTO and the risks of putting PTO days on the back burner are lessened significantly. Firm holiday PTO days coincide with times during the year when PTO days are likely already to be most requested. Additionally, time blocks do not interfere with the traditional busy season or other peak workload times. Staff members no longer have to ‘fit in’ the majority of their PTO days, or worse, risk not being able to take time off with confidence or at all.
The majority of scheduling conflicts are eliminated, with an increased ability to better plan client engagements and deliverable timing, and team members less likely to be scattered or in competition for popular days off. Like mindsets (hopefully) refreshed and back together after time off allows for a more cohesive and balanced environment. When teams can all work together versus in pieces, wellbeing is likely to be improved, accomplishing tasks or projects is more efficient and able to be done in a timely manner, and opportunities for feedback remain relevant. Additionally, many small businesses and even some major auto companies commonly have similar ‘shut down’ periods occurring during the winter and summer months, offering other support of the use and success of this model.
Firm holiday PTO days are designed to better allow for maximum use of time and accomplishing the goal of ‘unwinding’ instead of just ignoring emails for a day here and there, or being out of the office but still needing to be responsive to active team members who are at work. As mentioned earlier, a common complaint is that two days off in a row, or the weekend, is not enough time to accomplish anything too spectacular. Intentionally incorporating two 4 day weekends into our policy still may not adequately allow for anything spectacular to occur, but hopefully will increase the ability to unwind during this time. Firm holiday days are more likely to be distraction free, with all team members being off and the firm’s office being closed.
Common stresses of utilizing PTO are reduced, many of them already mentioned, such as related to scheduling unknowns or lack of availability during commonly requested timeframes. Additionally, time off via firm holiday PTO can more easily be communicated to clients and appropriate expectations set, as well as provide a more level ground for expectations within the firm itself. “So and so is off today” vs. “Our office is closed today” can produce very different connotations, for example. Time blocks around traditional holidays are also lengthened with other planning in mind.
Additional benefits beyond reactions to problems were also considered. With increases in deliverable consistency and process efficiency, the ability to set clearer expectations and conform to operational processes, and improvement in the general cohesiveness of the firm itself, this approach fairly supports both the policy objective and the firm’s overall mission in response to real circumstances.
In recognizing the importance of revisiting the relevance of any policy, changing social drivers, business processes, and other expectations require the need to remain flexible and consider the exploration and adoption of new changes as time progresses. In addition to PTO, LEACIF offers work from home and flexible scheduling arrangements, regardless of legislative or other similar disaster responses. We recognize and value the need for continuous improvement to our firm’s policies based on relative change, feedback, and new ideas.
Copyright LEACIF LLC 2022
All of our publications are the property of LEACIF. For information on licensing content copy, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Innovate your expectations.