The accounting profession has long been identified with long hours and challenging busy seasons. However, many people who are entering the profession (as well as a number of those who have been a part of it for years) expect a certain amount of balance between their professional and personal lives. In this podcast, we talk to Mike De Stefano, vice president of finance for Lucknow-Highspire Terminals LLC in Middletown, Pa., about the revitalizing nature of time off and how managers can keep their staffs engaged when hours away from the office may not be feasible.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
Let's face it: the accounting industry is one that is known for its long hours and busy seasons, but the people who are entering the profession crave a certain amount of balance between their professional and personal lives. To accomplish this, it takes an understanding leadership but it also takes a talent for time management. Today, we will be discussing the evolution of both the accounting workplace and the people who drive it with Mike De Stefano, vice president of finance for Lucknow-Highspire Terminals LLC in Middletown.
The accounting field is one where working long hours has been like a badge of honor, as I mentioned before. How has that evolved over the years, if at all, and, if it has, why do you think that's the case?
[De Stefano] It clearly has evolved over the 20 plus years I've been in the professional workforce. When I entered the workforce after college, I was in public accounting and there was an expectation that you would work a minimum of 150 hours of overtime in the really busy season at that point but, over time to provide the top-level customer service that you want to deliver, it turned into all year and it wasn't uncommon to work over 2,500 hours. Now I understand that's public accounting and that's part of providing excellent customer service.
About 10 years ago, I made the transition into the private industry and, as you enter the higher levels of management and you backstop the organization, there isn't an expectation to the number of hours that you need to work, but you need to do what you need to do to get the job done. Over time though, as we've hired people and gotten a feel for how different generations view the hours, there absolutely is an evolution, where it was commonplace that you accepted what was 100, 200, 300 hours. That's not the state today and I think it's because some of the generations following my generation and certainly the ones that preceded me have a different view and mind-set on work-life balance.
Many can say they probably have it better than we did in terms of sorting that out. As a manager though, sometimes that can be frustrating when you're trying to deal with projects and deadlines. But overall, it's absolutely changed because I think people put more of a priority on that, on work-life balance, and companies had to evolve to be able to attract and retain that talent.
How important do you think it is from the worker's perspective to mix in some occasional time-off in order to deal with an environment that's still driven by deadlines? Can it make someone more productive in the long run if they take some of that time off?
[De Stefano] I do believe it can make them significantly more productive. You need time to recharge your batteries. For people to get away from the office and be away is good. It rejuvenates you. It lets you clear your head. We also find, too, that providing flexibility to people to be able to take time off for medical reasons or if they have a child who has appointments or is sick, that takes the stress out of their normal day and that is real life. And if you're worried about, oh, I’ve got to get my doctor's appointment done and I’ve got to go home and I’ve got to get this done and I’ve got to get the kids here, that's where the flexibility comes in. And we try to give people time off.
We explain to them what the expectations are of what their role is and we give them the flexibility and the latitude to accomplish it within the hours that they need to put in. Sometimes people need to leave at three in the afternoon. But the understanding is if you need to do your work before the next day, then that's where the flexibility comes in and you allow them to decide when those hours are going to be. But I'm a big proponent of taking time off and providing time off to people so that they can get their life in order. So when they do come to work, they can be performing at a higher level.
What should a person's average day off look like at this point? It's interesting with how connected people are. Are they supposed to handle the occasional email or is it important to just turn off for that day?
[De Stefano] I quietly chuckle in my head because I think it depends on what an ideal day would be versus what reality is. An ideal day is you are completely unplugged from the office. You're allowed to fully vest in wherever or whatever you're doing that is away from the office. The reality is I don't think that's the case in today's world anymore because of how fast the pace is in a lot of instances, and how connected we all are through phones and the accessibility that affords people.
I do encourage people to try and stay away, but I am the worst at that. When I go away ... you know, I think some of it is the level that you're at in an organization. The higher up you go, the harder it is to be detached. When people first come in, I think it's easier to step away from the office and truly be away. But as you move up and have more responsibilities and more direct reports, more problems tend to find you and, for me, it's important to be able to keep things moving and keep people from spinning their wheels and getting frustrated.
If I'm off in Disney on vacation and somebody is stuck with something, I encourage them to send me an email or shoot me a text and then I'll work in a time when I call them and address that. But that comes with the territory too. Being more of a senior-level person, that's sort of the understood ground.
For the person who's managing people, as I know you do, how do you deal with people who are looking for time off during a particularly busy work period? Do you announce times when people can take off? Might that be part of an original orientation, or is the impulse to grin, bear it and give them the time off. How do you manage that?
[De Stefano] You touch on a couple points there that are exactly how we manage it when we bring people in, whether it be part of the interview or the orientation. We're in the finance department. Month-ends are always a little busier so there's a general understanding everybody has in the organization that when you come in we encourage you to try not to take off the first few days of a month. That's not to say that you can't and, if you do need to take off, then please give us as much notice as possible so that we can plan and allow for some cross-training so that the process can move along and flow well.
There are also times when we enter super- or hyper-busy periods where we will tell people, and we try to limit it to maybe one or two days a year where these days are just off limits. And if you see that being a problem, please let us know now so that we can make these same accommodations to be able to work around it or maybe there's some flexibility on the vacation side. What you can never really truly plan for is somebody getting sick or being out for a reason that's out of your control. In those instances when it pops up, you make do but I strongly feel that communication is the key, the more you can be in front of it. If somebody needs to be off on the first of the month, they can do a fair amount of prep work in advance to minimize the impact. They can sit with somebody or have somebody sit with them for multiple days. If you're far enough out in advance, they could sit with them the prior month and learn the process too.
I'd add one other thing into this: we try to document as many procedures as we can so that, in the absence of someone not being here, the fear and stress that comes with the person who has to sit in that role is minimized to the extent that you can do that.
For the times when people ask for time off and they're told that they can't have it because it's particularly busy, how do you keep that person engaged and make sure they know their work is appreciated?
[De Stefano] You will always run into those situations. I am a cheerleader for people taking off time when they want to take off time. We give everybody multiple weeks of vacation a year and that is your time to use at your discretion with the exceptions maybe from the prior question where there are a few days that are off limits per year.
In terms of people who, if you want to go skiing at the beginning of January and you're determined to do it, well, that's not just a month-end close, that's a year-end close and that's not ideal in our business. So what we try and do is provide people flexibility to flex their schedule out and in. So we typically don't work weekends but if somebody really wanted to be off on a Monday and a Tuesday early in a busy time period, then we won't force them or ask them to work on a weekend, but having the understanding that this is your role, these are the responsibilities of your role. If you don't do your job, then someone else has to do that and pick up the burden and there is a give and take in there.
I've had people and I'm thinking of a very specific instance where someone came in on a Saturday and a Sunday because they knew they were going to be going off on vacation the following Wednesday and they made sure the effort was there because they didn't want to put out a fellow team member to have to pick up the slack for them. They didn't want to be the cause of a deadline. So there's a lot of pride in their work and when you can find employees who are willing to step up in that manner, they in turn pay you back with appreciation for the time off and so it's a reciprocal of give and take where they want to take off. I want to accommodate them to be able to take off but to do that they know they have to give something back to not let the team down or not let the organization down.
You just mentioned it there with the person who came in on Saturday and Sunday in order to be able to take the time off: you need to be able to get your work done while you're in the office. It comes down to time management really. What are a couple tips you adhere to to make sure you maximize your work time?
[De Stefano] The first one that comes to mind is one that we could probably all benefit from, but I learned the hard way. That when there are deadlines you're trying to manage, there's a priority that you need to do, it's okay to ignore emails and phone calls if you're trying to push something through to be able to do that. And I'm not saying ignore them forever. I'm just saying, in that moment, set it aside. It's important what you're working on and if there's a deadline to it, the phone call, the emails, they can wait. It's hard not to check your email all the time but sometimes you just need to close it down and focus on the project at hand. That'd be the first one that I'd throw out there.
The second one, again learned by trial and error, is take advantage of the opportunity to delegate responsibility and workflow, and that may be hard initially. But it does pay you back in spades over time. First, it affords the other person an opportunity to learn something new and to feel that they can contribute to the goals of the organization a little bit more. Obviously, it will free up your schedule. Yes, it's always that conversation, “Well, it'd just be quicker if I do it myself.” And then you're going to be doing it yourself forever.
What you need to do is allow other people to have an opportunity to maybe step into that because there will be times down the road where that will truly be a benefit to everybody involved. So that would be the other one that I do: don't be afraid to delegate down assignments. People will surprise you and I think they'll be appreciative to understanding a different aspect of the company than what their primary role may be.
We're talking here about the importance of taking this time off, how it rejuvenates you. Do you ever find yourself having the opposite problem? Dealing with an employee who doesn't take any time off? What do you tell someone like that about the benefits of getting away for a while and how it can help the workplace?
[De Stefano] As I think about the question, I do recall an example where we had an employee who would typically not take time off during the course of the year. There might be a half-day here, or a half-day there, but normally that person would just be here 51 out of 52 weeks a year. And, in this instance, she did not necessarily want to let anybody else down. We run lean in our company so when you do step away, it does put a burden on someone else for the daily processes.
What I would say to that person now and in the past, we just kind of let it go, but she is now taking time off. And what I would say to her if I could turn back time and encourage her to take time off, and we always did encourage her, like you should take more time off. What I would do is I'd put more of an emphasis into cross-training and having a backup. So the person doesn't feel like they're letting the organization down and putting the burden back onto someone else.
That's how I would do it, where I could make them feel comfortable knowing that if they stepped away, there'd be somebody else who could come into the job, do the things that had to be done, the rest of it can wait until another day. I do love how much pride she takes in her job and how she wants to not let anybody down in doing it, but I'm also thrilled that she's taking the multiple weeks of vacation a year that she has because it does let her come back and keeps her from being frustrated and feel like there is no one else who can do the job.
Out of it, we're all a little stronger because now we have multiple people who can fill that role and she's able to take the time off that she's earned and deserves.
Workplaces are becoming more and more flexible to adjust to the desires of employees, and we're not just talking about hours here. I wonder what your feelings are on people working from home in a deadline-driven environment. Is that something that works or are there times when it's just more valuable for people to be in the office?
[De Stefano] This is one that I think about regularly because I do understand that people would appreciate the opportunity to do that and I try and find a balance with the back part of your question where it's important to be at work. In our business, I'm a firm believer that it's very important to be here five days a week. There's a fast pace ... we're in the petroleum industry so there's a fast pace to that. And if you're not here, because of the size of our company, you're missing out on things, and if you're out and you're not present week in, week out, you're going to miss out on the things that are happening in the company and play catch-up.
Now we have email, there's phones, there's text messages, there's websites, there's a lot of different ways to do it. But for me, it's hard to replace the feel and flow of the work in an ordinary day when you're not here. I do realize that there are times that it's important to be able to have access to your systems and be able to do your job while you're not in the office. So it's not "you must be here every single day," but it's more of a backup in emergency.
If you're the primary caregiver, and your son or daughter gets sick and you need to be home, the place for you to be is at home. But we try and have, whether it be through Citrix or the use of iPads, we try to get people the tools to be able to do their job remotely. But we do want people on site every day. It helps build the team. It's a lot easier to have face-to-face communication and conversations than an email.
Sometimes you just need to get out of your desk and go over and ask somebody, "What did you really mean by this?" You can't do that when you're not in the office. Over time, will we evolve to that? I believe it's possible. It's probably not on our short-term horizon though.