The Great Rethink: What it means for professional services

The Great Rethink has employees reconsidering what they want from an employer – and whether a job fits with their lifestyle and values. Here’s how professional services firms can factor this into the value proposition they offer staff.

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Last year, headlines screamed predictions that 40 per cent of all employees were about to resign – a phenomenon quickly dubbed the Great Resignation. In Australia, some employees have indeed resigned, but many are instead rethinking what they want from their work. This shift has been renamed the Great Rethink.

Organisational psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson says the foundations of the Great Rethink – like employees wanting greater flexibility in their working arrangements – have been in train for some time, but the psychological effects of the pandemic greatly accelerated change.

“We have experienced massive social change and burnout,” she explains. “A lot of people had time to ponder through lockdown and have reassessed what they want. What they thought they wanted before has now become hollow.

“People want to be seen as a person rather than a worker. They want to like or love their work. They want to feel they are respected.”

Gemma Corke, Associate Partner at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, says their latest research shows the percentage of Australian private sector employees looking to leave within six months is already up from 39 per cent to 45 per cent just since last year, and based on this she expects to see job mobility continue to rise.

If professional services firms want to remain progressive and attract staff, she says, they need to get on top of the Great Rethink and make sure they keep up.

Professional services seeing the pinch 

The Great Rethink is already impacting professional services firms at a fundamental level, making it difficult to find and retain good staff.

“There has been a significant increase in demand for accounting professionals over the past year, particularly for those in audit,” says Kate Stephenson, Principal Partner, Accounting and Finance, at recruitment firm Future You.  “Notably, even the Big 4 have struggled to get new staff – which is highly unusual.”

As a result, she’s noticed a shift in the power balance between firms and their staff, with candidates having salary and flexibility expectations easily met.

“People want to see how their role will develop and grow over time. Additionally, they want to know that they’re making an impact, both for their employer and for their clients,” she says.

“To resonate with prospective candidates, company values need to be embodied by the people in the business and experienced throughout the recruitment process. Candidates are assessing potential employers on what they are doing, but also on what they are planning to do.”

How do we respond?

According to McKinsey’s research, the top reasons employees are considering leaving their role in the next three to six months are:

  1. Lack of career development and advancement potential (cited by 43% of workers likely to leave)
  2. Inadequate compensation (35%)
  3. Workplace inflexibility (32%)
  4. Lack of meaningful work (31%).

While salary comes in second, opportunities abound for firms to consider their offering in the other three areas, says Corke.

“Professional services firms should focus on listening to their employees and really engaging them on what matters – now and into the future,” she says.

Anne Le Blanc, Senior Principal at Mercer Pacific, agrees, citing a five-point framework for the future of work developed by Mercer and the World Economic Forum. The five pillars – fair pay & social integrity, flexibility & protection, health & wellbeing, diversity, equity & inclusion, and employability & learning culture – support a ‘human-centric future’.

“Our research tells us employees value the opportunity to put forward their perspective. Whether you’re big or small, find those opportunities that represent the voices of your people,” she says.

From there, companies should “come off mute”, voicing what they stand for and seeking to uphold this. For example, if staff mention that caring for the environment is a personal value for them, then the firm might uphold this through reducing electricity consumption, cleaner supply chains, or a staff volunteering activity for an environmental charity.

Ferguson agrees, adding that other ways firms can create such opportunities include allowing staff to shadow a partner in that area or undertake a qualification – “perhaps they can eventually build it up as a new area of your practice,” she explains.

Another useful exercise is helping employees think about what they’re already doing, she adds. For example, KPMG’s 10,000 stories challenge saw employees describing what they do in terms of the value it delivers. Answers like “I help family farms grow” revealed the true value an accountant saw that he delivered in his day-to-day work.

Stephenson points out that candidates will research a firm long before they apply for a job. “The first thing a candidate will do is check your website – so make sure it’s attractive and reflects your business. Do you have good content on your careers page? Are your senior leadership teams’ LinkedIn profiles up to date, and are they portrayed as inspirational leaders?

“Provide your recruiters with something they can send to candidates, like a short brochure about life at the firm or reasons to join.”

Flexibility, career crafting and upskilling

Hybrid working may be a buzz term of the moment, but it’s an important one – because, according to Mercer’s data, 60 per cent of Australian employees will only join a company if it offers this.

Le Blanc says workplaces should think carefully about how to maintain company culture and collaboration while offering hybrid working. In-person connection is important but should be arranged “in the flow of work”, she says, connecting to create or solve a challenge, rather than mandating certain days or times that people need to be in the office.

Meanwhile, Ferguson refers to a concept called “career crafting”: people and their managers being more proactive about aligning their responsibilities with what gives them meaning.

“People got into law or accounting thinking their goal was to make partner, but now some have reassessed. They’ve realised they want to work in, say, ‘innovation’, because that wasn’t an option when they left university.”

Le Blanc adds that upskilling is also vital, and the key here is to embrace on-the-job learning and micro-learning. This can include micro-credentials offered by universities, the wealth of free content available, internal expert-led sessions and shadowing or secondments to other parts of the business. She adds that firms should think about tactics like hiring older people who have different experience and knowledge to offer.

The Great Rethink is something no professional services firm can afford to ignore, says Ferguson – because it’s fundamental to business.

“It’s important to remember that all this directly impacts productivity and profits,” Ferguson says. “Because if you’ve got happy workers who are growing and the organisation is growing, then that’s your recipe for success.”