How you manage your people is the most critical element of a project and central to its success.
Across the Big Four and beyond, resources are saturated with work. Individuals often juggle several projects for months or sometimes years in advance, with very little time to pause and think in between. As one task is completed, more work arrives, laden with demanding delivery dates, leading to scheduling conflicts, staffing shortages, cost and billing discrepancies. Eventually, something breaks, be it a deadline, a budget, or a person.
It doesn’t have to be like this. AI-led people management solutions combined with clear thinking and intelligent leadership can revitalise teams, allowing you to manage the present, plan for the future, head off project risks and avoid common planning pitfalls that lurk in the old way of doing things.
We’ve pulled together a short guide to the best practices in resource management today, gleaned from our experience working at the top of the accounting profession.
1. Recognise that demand is fluid
Simplistic thinking dictates that the sooner you nail down demand the easier it is to map out potential projects, chase those opportunities and allocate adequate resources.
While that does make sense, it’s a one-dimensional view of resource management that can quite easily backfire. Nobody knows how long the volatility affecting the global economy is set to last, and so moving people away from operations that do not maintain long-term targets is a risky strategy.
You’ve audited Retailer A for several years, and know well in advance what is necessary. The cyclical nature of auditing allows you to plan way ahead to ensure Retailer A and all the other companies like it on your books are catered for. Until one Friday evening when Supplier A goes bust, and suddenly Retailer A, B and C’s business models look incredibly dicey. Come Saturday morning, another team inside your firm has to be assembled at a moment’s notice and sent out to try and resolve or execute an administration, bankruptcy or restructuring of Supplier A, draining resources you thought were more or less guaranteed.
Success rests on utilising the best resources at the right time, regardless of pre-existing demand. Advanced analytics and smarter scheduling tools give you a live view of capacity and demand across the business, allowing you to optimise resource allocation, or in human terms, assign your best and brightest available associate for the job.
Yes, demand can be sketched out ahead of time, until a budget flare up arises or priorities change. Having a system that can automatically shift resources and adapt to the new requirements without upending another service line – or even better, has already spread best-fit resources around the business based on skills, availability, proximity, and multiple other factors – is far more valuable in the long run.
2. Never forget you are dealing with people
When resources are considered rigid and scheduling priorities are filled in advance, it might look good on a spreadsheet, but the long-term impact of pencilling in an associate for the next three years can be beyond demoralizing on morale, and force good, talented individuals to reconsider their career options.
Plotting too far ahead is a familiar story, and in 2020, when a pandemic appearing apparently from nowhere is still wreaking havoc across the business landscape, many firms are learning the hard way that versatility is everything.
All too often, the desire to have a long-term view of demand versus capacity can put a strain on people who don’t want their life planned out so far in advance, or don’t want to feel guilty about booking a holiday next year, or heaven forbid, want to start a family.
Intelligence-led assigning that caters for individual team member goals, development interests and is positioned to give someone more experience, rather than handed out to the same old names (who secretly may not want to be given all this work but feel unable to turn it down) can have an immediate and lasting impact on morale, productivity and in turn boost profits.
3. A live overview of resources is critical
A revolutionary moment in our industrial history is occurring, brought about via a catastrophic natural event rather than any great technological leap. The lockdown-enforced shift to remote working has been so significant many companies are considering making the change permanent.
While everything around us is changing, for resource managers, some of the most complex problems are not so different as they are magnified. With everyone working remotely, organisations can become diluted by the distance between teams. It is clear that there has never been a more critical time to have a holistic, live overview of your resources. Unfortunately, there has also never been an easier time for silos to form.
The downside of being able to draw talent from anywhere in the world is the potential weakening of bonds within a company which can impact motivation, staff retention, and ultimately the costs of doing business.
Whereas once it made sense to send the person in the Birmingham office to the job in Birmingham, now that everyone is working remotely, proximity can be eliminated from the planning. Teams can be broken up after a single job, and in large organisations working on global projects, individuals can form strong bonds with colleagues only to never work with them again once their task is complete.
Experienced resource managers know well how important continuity can be, and how quickly disenfranchisement can creep in.
Allowing teams to see what everyone else is working on, whose skills match up, who is available, and what they have worked on previously can have a transformative effect. Live overviews of scheduling with unbiased assignment criteria gain can be a vital tool to strengthen the fabric of the workplace when the usual adhesive – a strong, positive and nurturing office culture – seems so distant.
4. Flexible working solutions need not be a conundrum
The big one. Flexible working. You, your clients, your clients’ clients. Everyone in the market right now is trying to figure out what this means, what their staff want, what they can safely achieve, and what the positives and negatives are. At one time the idea of working from home two days a week was at one time so anathema to the culture inside the Big Four and beyond as to not be worth asking about.
We’ve spoken about this one before too, but the answer to the some of the big problems that have dogged the accountancy industry for so many years; turnover, burnout, discrimination against women and part-time workers, is now front and centre. Flexible arrangements can help you retain staff, stop your top talents from burning out, and encourage a more diverse workplace.
Even pre-pandemic, as far back as 2014, the trends were evident. Giving individuals more freedom around their working arrangements leads to a happier, more productive and more profitable workplace. The business case for intelligent resource management has long been made.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the issue and flexible work arrangements can come in a variety of forms, from allowing individuals to work from home, or letting them clock in and out based on their own circumstances. This kind of versatility can be crucial in encouraging mothers back to the workplace, or helping individuals who have struggled with mental or physical health issues to rejoin teams after time off.
Resource managers have a crucial role to play in the success of flexible work arrangements, which require buy-in from senior managers and leaders within your firm. Intelligent scheduling can not only measure productivity and success but track employees’ overall performance once more flexible options are introduced.
5. Think twice about the value of high-value projects
In times of economic uncertainty, it’s easy to push the message that your firm should be focussing on high-value projects at the expense of everything else.
The burden can fall on resource managers to quickly re-prioritise teams to ensure certain jobs or clients are catered for. Historically, this pressure has manifested itself in undercutting prices and loss-leading fees for larger jobs that can deliver profits elsewhere (i.e. through consultancy work).
Regulatory shifts are underway to ensure those days are over, but forward-thinking managers have already acknowledged the false economy of chasing high-value projects that can cause lasting reputational damage to your own organisation; accountancy’s turnover problem is no secret.
When firms put the focus on high-value projects to the detriment of everything else, the individuals charged with doing all the work become burned out and eventually leave, and those who miss out on the big jobs through lack of experience or a lack of visibility also become frustrated and leave. These voluntary departures are unpredictable and have unforeseen consequences that are harmful to your business.
Aside from the fact the costs of turnover are very high; it’s estimated that replacing an employee can cost 1.5 to 2 times the employee’s salary, depending on the level of seniority the financial burden can be great. Losing a partner to a rival firm doesn’t just mean substituting that individual, and the jump in salary that can come with it, it also means your firm is losing experience and knowledge built up through years of audits.
Follow our best practices for resource management
It is evident that in the post-Covid environment, accounting firms will have to think differently about how they retain talent. Training in new skills, career advancement choices, and even simple things like how feedback is delivered are all changing due to the need to work remotely. Insight-based approaches remove the bias from pressurised decision-making and can optimise staff resourcing, allowing uncovered gems to flourish whilst giving overloaded individuals a break.
Moulding an inclusive workplace where the best talents in the industry want to shine is the challenge for today’s leaders. These best practices for intelligent resource management is the smartest way to ensure those big projects won’t end up costing you more than you bargained for.