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Retaining Female Employees During COVID-19

01.05.2021

Lauren Sanders, HR Director, recently shared with AccountingWeb strategies Brown Smith Wallace has implemented over several decades to ensure the retention of female employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges for women in the workplace as they face the demands of balancing work and motherhood from home. This “always on” environment can be intense and stressful, causing many women to lose their career drive. According to McKinsey’s annual “Women in the Workplace” study, women—particularly mothers, senior women and African American women—are 1.3 times more likely than men to have considered stepping out of the workforce or slowing down their careers due to the pressures of COVID-19.

“The most difficult part of the transition to working remotely has been remembering to turn off work,” says Brown Smith Wallace Tax Principal and mother of two Casey Pelech. “Back in the day, when we were at the office, I had to leave at a certain time to pick up my children from daycare. This provided me with a definite stopping point. Now that I am working from home, it is easy to log back on in the evenings or on the weekends to cross one more thing off my to-do list.”

The difficulty of working from home during a global pandemic has been tempered for Brown Smith Wallace professionals thanks in large part to the firm’s recognized history of flexibility, alternative work schedules and open communication.

Trailblazers

Brown Smith Wallace, a Top 100 CPA and advisory firm, employs nearly 350 professionals in the Midwest. More than half of these employees are women, including 11 female partners out of 33 total partners. For the past four years, the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance has named Brown Smith Wallace an Accounting MOVE Project Best CPA Firm for Women. In addition to this recognition, the firm was also named a 2020 Best Firm for Equity Leadership.

This recognition reflects a longstanding culture of retaining talent at the firm. Alternative work schedules have been offered long before the accounting industry embraced the idea, which has allowed Brown Smith Wallace to retain so many talented women throughout its 48-year history.

“Both of my children are in college today, but as they were growing up, I worked very hard to balance my professional goals with my most important role: being a mother,” says Audit Partner Kelly Weis. “I was fortunate to find work/life integration at Brown Smith Wallace. When my children were younger, I worked four days a week and spent the fifth day at their school. Leaders of the firm and my husband both supported me in my professional and personal goals. Without their encouragement and flexibility, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

In 2014, Brown Smith Wallace created a dynamic internal and external women’s initiative. Through its external initiative, The Bridge, the firm hosts events for St. Louis women leaders of today and tomorrow to network, have fun and learn. Internally, women leaders meet throughout the year to present timely professional development topics, as well as gather for internal networking and book club discussions. Brown Smith Wallace also offers paid parental leave, private in-office areas for nursing mothers, flexible schedules and more, including unlimited time off for managers and above.

Throughout her career in public accounting, Weis’s original plans changed as she continued her career at Brown Smith Wallace.   

“Honestly, when I left college, my plan was to be one of those ‘five year and out’ professionals. The people and the continued growth of our firm changed my perspective. I have been with the firm for 25 years; I started here as a staff and today I am a partner. I grew up surrounded by a group of kind, talented and motivated professionals that I feel honored to call my friends. It has been an amazing ride.”

Pivoting to the Work-From-Home Norm

The COVID-19 pandemic has added even more stress through extreme changes in the way we work, communicate and care for our loved ones. Although the way we live is drastically different than a year ago, the transition was made easier for Brown Smith Wallace employees since flexibility in schedules and online meetings weren’t new ideas.

 “We recognize that our people define who we are as a firm and we invest a lot of time and energy to ensure they are happy and growing professionals,” says Weis. “COVID has thrown some challenges at us in managing our people and ensuring their safety. We continue to work on ways to stay connected through Microsoft Teams and other platforms. Maintaining our culture, which is instrumental in our recruitment and retainage of people, is paramount.”

Throughout 2020, the professionals at Brown Smith Wallace are connecting in new ways to continue fueling their growth and remain valued members of the firm. Virtual book clubs, breakout-room networking events, firmwide and practice-level virtual happy hours, online trainings and virtual performance reviews are some of the ways the firm is maintaining its mission of supporting the growth of colleagues.

“During this difficult time, I have attained a newfound appreciation for my career,” says Tax Principal Emily Sill. “I have been working from home consistently for the past eight months, and although my “new” associates (children ages 8, 7, 5 and 3) are fun, I know that the time I dedicate to my career is my time to advance professionally and build relationships with my coworkers and clients.”

Retaining Talent Through a Pandemic

Here are a few tips for firms to implement as they are looking to retain their established and up-and-coming female leaders:

Offer the opportunity for employees to create their own flexible schedule. Trust that your employees can get the job done in the time that they’ve set aside for themselves.

“The flexibility and understanding from all levels at Brown Smith Wallace have been keys to helping me balance a career in public accounting while being a parent,” says Casey.

Encourage your employees to take time off work.

“Working from home during the pandemic has certainly come with challenges, especially in drawing a line between work time and family time,” says Emily. “However, I have come to enjoy the decreased sense of urgency to rush between work and family.  Staying at home has afforded me additional time with my children which has been a blessing.”

Encourage your teams to keep their cameras on while communicating with each other.

“I have found that designating time to virtually connect with my Firm family and connections on a regular basis keeps me engaged and fueled,” says Emily. “Spending time engaging in person with other professionals both internally and externally is so important to my growth and the development of the firm, so communicating virtually through a webcam has taken on a whole new meaning.”

The talent and continuity of a firm’s professionals are its greatest asset. Implementing policies that enable and encourage work/life balance benefits everyone, creating true equity in the workplace and allowing firms to future-proof their talent and not compromise on quality.

Team

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