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Resilience and renewal

Employee engagement and productivity: How Cooper Parry’s investment in staff training and well-being is paying dividends

Author: ICAEW

Published: 17 Oct 2023

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Accountancy firm and ICAEW member Cooper Parry has long taken an innovative approach to staff well-being and happiness. But in the post-pandemic world, things like flexible and remote working no longer made it stand out, so it’s updating its employee offer.

Staff recruitment and retention have proven challenging for many sectors in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, while research finds that there is also a growing culture of ‘quiet quitting’ as employees become less engaged with their roles. The result is that productivity levels are weak. The accountancy sector has not been immune from these challenges and employee relations and recruitment have not been as straightforward since the pandemic. “It became a candidate’s marketplace,” says April Homer, Chief People Officer at Cooper Parry. “It was really tough to hire, particularly at senior manager level and especially in the audit space.”

The Derby-based firm has long stood out for its ‘Rebels of Accountancy’ culture in what can often be a traditional and serious profession. Long before the pandemic hit, it had invested heavily in building a strong employee culture. It offered things like yoga and fitness classes on-site, as well as visiting hairdressers and other well-being practitioners, to boost employee health and happiness. It also tracked employee engagement through regular surveys and introduced flexible and remote working practices.

Taking a new approach

Yet in the aftermath of the pandemic, when flexible working became the norm, Cooper Parry has had to adapt its approach. “Flexible and remote working was quite a big differentiator before the pandemic. Now it isn’t, and we’ve had to step up our game,” states Homer. “That said, many competitors may not be as flexible as first appear, with many firms setting minimum expectations on the number of days worked in the office.” Cooper Parry has introduced its flexible and remote work approach, introducing its ‘work from anywhere, anytime, forever’ policy, which ensures employees have true flexibility in their work.

It is also trialling a shorter working week. “We call it the 100-80-100 approach, so 100% of the productivity, 80% of the time and 100% of the pay. That trial has been amazing for finding efficiencies. Some believed the work could not fit into the amount of time, but when you start to unpick working practices, such as how often you check email, which adversely affects concentration, it is normally possible to find a couple of hours each day,” states Homer. The early results are highly promising, “There’s nothing to suggest that reducing the number of hours worked is having an adverse impact on productivity; if anything, it is having a positive impact.”

Underpinning the rollout of these initiatives is a substantial investment in the firm’s managers, which supports the broader staff team. “The key is having really, really good people managers,” says Homer. “All of our managers go through our ‘rebel managers’ training programme, based on Gallup’s studies into what makes the world’s greatest managers. It helps our managers to have better competency and strengths-based conversations, and helps people to really identify what it is they love about their jobs and what they find draining so that they can carve out a role that really suits them.”

The management training programmes have been intrinsic to developing the Cooper Parry culture and their importance is recognised throughout the business. “It costs money and takes investment to put on the training programmes. Not just an investment of cash but a substantial investment of time,” states Homer. “Our heads of departments could say, ‘I don’t want my managers attending because they need to focus on client delivery’, but we don’t have that. We have real support across the whole business that the return on investment of training is equally as important as going out to a client and getting hard cash.”

Cooper Parry also sets great store by frequently monitoring employee engagement and listening to staff feedback. It conducts a weekly happiness survey, which is conducted by an external provider, as well as some bigger surveys every few months. The surveys are anonymous but enable Cooper Parry to understand trends at a team level and quickly identify areas of the business where there is discontent and, most importantly, taking action. “The key thing is not just listening to people, but also actually doing something about it,” says Homer. “You can do all the feedback surveys in the world, but if nothing changes, people get complacent and think there is no point in giving feedback.”

HR as an investment, not a cost

To achieve these initiatives, support from senior management and the finance team – along with a significant allocation in the annual budget – has been essential. “The people team budget is healthy. It allows us to do many things that other places aren’t doing,” Homer explains. “When I meet HR heads of other accountancy firms, they are often curious as to why we have such a big team. We do, but we couldn’t do half the well-being stuff, the engagement activity, if we didn’t have the people to do this. There’s been huge financial investment as part of a wider business strategy to do this.”

Those investments have also included a greater focus on technology and working practices. “We’ve invested heavily in technology and automation to improve processes. This has included a lot of investment in the people team to improve our own HR systems and improving our applicant tracking system. So, our candidates can have a better experience, so our managers can have a better experience,” adds Homer.

As a result of all this activity though, Cooper Parry’s investments have certainly paid dividends in fostering a strong culture where employees both thrive and create a more productive firm. Yet, it is not standing still. “There’s lots more that we can do,” states Homer. “We’re learning all the time, and we’re now working with a private equity house that really gets our culture and will help to build even more on what we are already doing.”

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