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Let's give alternative work schedules a chance.

According to the overwhelming majority of those who use them, alternative work schedules allow both employees and employers to fulfill their objectives wihtout sacrificing quality.

This conclusion was confirmed by several findings of a survey of nearly 4,300 members of the American Woman's Society of CPAs. On the management side, 85% of managers who had allowed an employee to use an alternative work schedule said they would permit it again. From the employee's point of view, 52% of the women embarking on an alternative work schedule ranked their expected career sacrifice as 3 or more (medium to high) on a 1- to-5 scale. Yet, of those who had returned to full-time work after using an alternative schedule, only 6% believed their next move up the promotion ladder was denied because of the alternative schedule and only 16% believed it was delayed. A scant 7% and 6%, respectively, believed that their subsequent promotions were either denied or delayed.


Despite the satisfactory track record, many CPAs continue to doubt alternative work schedules are a viable option for a serious, career-minded professional. For example, 37% of those who have used alternative work schedules believe their careers were damaged to some degree because superiors questioned their competitiveness. The apprehension is even more pronounced among those who have not used alternative schedules. Of those polled, 77% expect the use of an alternative work schedule could result in moderate to great career damage because superiors would perceive them as being less than upwardly mobile. In addition, 66% thought damage could come from the negative attitudes of peers on this same question. The following case history shows what can happen when neither the employer nor the employee shows confidence in the system.

* A crisis of confidence. A senior staff member of a CPA firm was pregnant. She decided to work part-time during the last month of her pregnancy and for a few months after returning from maternity leave. She informed her office and found she was the first to propose such a schedule. Nevertheless, she negotiated a plan with the director of personnel and the details were distributed to her superiors. The schedule worked for a while, but problems developed when the tax season crunch hit. Her manager wanted deadlines met. The staff member felt her dedication to her career was open to question, so she put in the extra time to get the work done. The personnel director did not intervne because "the structure for a part-time schedule is there, and if she doesn't take advantage of it, it's her problem."

The result was that the senior staff member quit six months after returning to work so she could devote time to her family. The word got around that the firm did not really support part-time scheduling and two years passed before another high-performing woman asked for that schedule. In the interim, however, several women left to start families, even though management had discussed the possibility of working part-time with each of them.

This scenario and variations of it happen wi increasing frequency in all types of accounting firms. What makes alternative work schedules effective? What causes them to fail?


Contrast the case study above with the comparatively easy success of the alternative work schedule described below.

* Taking control. A woman CPA is a sole practitioner. Her husband is a pilot with one of the major commercial airlines. They have no children so they work out of the conflicting schedules of two demanding careers by using the flexibility allowed by her business. When she accepts a new client, she explains that she works a variable schedule. Sometimes, she works long hours in the office but, when her pilot husband is at home or she is traveling with him, she may be gone for several days. Although her schedule is flexible, she works out of a single location. She rarely does work or takes a nonemergency client call at home. Her answering service always knows when she will be back in the office and her clients do not seem to mind.

The success of this alternative schedule and the failure of the one mentioned previously point out the importance of controlling work time when using an alternative schedule. The woman senior in the first case study surrendered her control when she was under deadline pressure. While the absolute control over work hours maintained by the sole practitioner is rare, most CPAs can influence their own schedules provided they have the approval and commitment of management. This is perhaps the most crucial element in determining the success or failure of an alternative work schedule.



An alternative schedule can be either flextime (standard hours workd at nonstandard times) or part-time (fewer than standard hours). Quite often these two types of schedules are used in combination. Flextime and part-time schedules also are combined frequently with flex location schedules (standard hours worked at a nonstandard location).

The distinction is important because the type of schedule chosen can determine its impact on the CPA's career. Flextime is the only alternative work schedule widely believed to permit career success. Only 40% of the survey respondents believe part-time schedules are compatible with a successful CPA career. Those who work flextime often simply shift their schedules away from the norm by one or two hours. Many think this is a job benefit a professional deserves. For exam,ple, in any public accounting office almost every staff member knows of a partner who habitually arrives at six in the morning and another who arrives at nine. If the partner who arrives early also leaves early, no one in the office considers it unusual.

Part-time work is not a simple deviation from a normal schedule. It is an agreement to work fewer than normal working hours. Perceptions about part-time schedules are particularly pertinent because the reason most often associated with working part-time is to care for young children.

This does not mean part-time schedules cannot work. It means they take more planning and negotiation than flexitime schedules to be feasible. Here's how a woman manager for a Midwest CPA firm describes her experience with part-time employment.

* Keeping it quiet. "I came up with my own plan. I presented it and was prepared to answer all objections. I think because I was organized, they said yes. For the first year, people didn't know I was working part-time. The company attitude was, Let's keep it quiet. My coworkers didn't realize why I wasn't at work on Friday. Most of my clients didn't know. I was a senior when I started part-time and now I am a manager. I work almost 90% of the time and am keeping up on technical information. My impression is that I won't make partner until I return full time, which I plan to do."



The reasons for using alternative work schedules can be grouped into two broad categories. First, there are child-bearuing, child-rearing and academic responsibilities that require a person to spend time away from the job. These reasons, which usually necessitate part-time schedules, were cited by 46% of the women surveyed who had used alternative schedules.

A second group, consisting of 43% of those who had used alternative schedules, referred to life-style considerations, such as a desire to coordinate with a husband's work schedule or an ability to work at home or a wish to avoid rush hour traffic. For the most part, these women used a flextime schedule to accomplish their goals.

Of the women choosing part-time schedules, 57% cited family or academic responsibilities, while 33% mentioned life-style considerations. For those using flextime schedules, the reverse was true. Life-style reasons were given by 56%, with 34% citing family or academic responsibilities. The point to be drawn from these findings is that family and academic obligations are difficult to handle in a flextime schedule. The usually require reduced hours on the job and result in a possible slowdown in career advancement. Thus, what is universally considered to be the most important reason for using an alternative work schedule--caring for small children at home--also may have the greatest negative impact on the woman CPA's career.

However, that may be changing. Here's how a womna partner in a California CPA firm who left accounting to bring up a family, returned part time and then full time sees it.

* Only a matter of time. "Acceptable reasons for part time? Having to take a college course during the day is one, because the company will benefit in the long run. Rearing children is another, of course, although any arrangement has to work into the company schedule. A part-time schedule requires a committed employee because it's up to the individual to handle it. There's no doubt flextime will be a standard policy in the future, especially in California with the traffic as it is. As more women enter accounting, part-time will be fully accepted, too. It's inevitable."


The majority of alternative work plans in existence, both in public accounting and industry, are informal and almost always negotiated on a personal basis between employer and employee. On 8% of the women employed by public accounting firms reported formal plans for flextime or part-time schedules. The situation was not very different for women CPAs in industry, where only 14% and 16%, respectively, reported formal flextime or part-time plans.

From an employee's point of view, this is both good and bad news. The good news is that a negotiated schedule is more likely to meet the needs of the employee and employer. The bad news is that an individual plan seldom comes with any guarantees and its outcome relies on the negotiating skills of the parties involved and their willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to assure the success of the plan. Also, if the request to use an alternative schedule is denied, the employee may carry a stigma because of the request.

Still, many women have been able to carve out negotiated agreements that keep their careers on track while they are meeting family responsibilities. One woman CPA who would shortly begin a part-time schedule after the birth of her first child had this to say.

* Not perfect, but workable. "My plan is to work three days a week. I expect to work more than that during the busy season. I will have fewer clients but I can't give up professionalism, which means if I have to come in on a Monday or a Friday, I will. I don't object to being called at home. It's hard to predict how it will work. Right now, I'm saying I will stay part-time for a year and then take a look. I can't see it working indefinitely. The firm is not ready for part-time partners and I do expect it will slow down my promotion track. But it doesn't bother me to lose a year. It's simply a decision I was required to make."



Public accounting is seasonal and unpredictable. Even with a reduced number of clients, deadlines must be met. During the busy season everyone, including flextime and part-time employees, is expected to share the burden. Therefore, it is often difficult to maintain alternative schedules during those times. The sooner a CPA using an alternative schedule adjusts to the particular demands of the profession, the better the chances the schedule will work out well.

Even when the motivation is there, an alternative work schedule is not always easy. The experience of a senior manager with a national firms appears to be typical.

* A juggling act. "After my second child, full time was just too much. But I found it very difficult to leave entirely, so now I'm working three days a week. I may come in four days a week, depending on the work. The arrangement is what I anticipated, a smaller client load--two instead of four. But, if both clients have emergencies, I may end up working longer hours. Often, it's easier to come in an extra day than to try to deal with the work from home. Sometimes, the level of stress at home is high. I get business calls and I take work home and can't complete it because of my children's needs. At work, I'm running to get all my work done in three days. People think working part-time creates less stress but that's not always true."




As the proportion of women CPAs grows, the need for the profession to address quality-of-life issues, including the desire to raise a family, becomes more pressing. The survey results and the case studies described here indicate many women are willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to maintain an alternative work schedule. It is quite likely many more would do so if they were convinced their chances for a successful career would not be damaged seriously.

Alternative work schedules clearly are becoming more important to women CPAs. When asked whether alternative schedules were a consideration in deciding on their current positions, 80% said they were not. However, 60% said the availability of alternative schedules would be a factor in selecting a new position. Thus, unless the public accounting profession can begin to change the widely held belief that alternative work schedules are incompatible with a successful career, it risks losing the contribution of a significant portion of its women CPAs.

KAREN L. HOOKS, CPA, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Accountancy, University of South Florida, Tampa. A member of the American Institute of CPAs, the Florida Institute of CPAs, the American Woman's Society of CPAs (AWSCPA) and the American Accounting Association, she is the author of previous Journal articles. Funding for the survey discussed in this article was provided by AWSCPA and the College of Business Research Grant Program, University of South Florida.
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Author:Hooks, Karen L.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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