Julia Whistler is operations director at M&A and consultancy specialist Foulger Underwood

Training isn’t a new concept for accountancy practice leaders – far from it. Technical development is embedded in most firms’ operations. But things are moving on and the pandemic has only enhanced the need to act – and fast.

Clients want more services and advice. They want the existing offering provided more efficiently, digitally and without fuss. They want some of the new working practices adopted due to Covid-19 to remain.

You should ask your people what they need, rather than rolling out something generic

Meanwhile, employees have had a taste of flexible and hybrid working. Firms are juggling four generations of workers, all with different needs and expectations of the working environment and their own role within it.

In particular, Generation Z want a good work-life balance, rapid advancement, career opportunities (not necessarily in the same profession) and skills acquisition, according to ACCA’s recent research Groundbreakers: Gen Z and the future of accountancy.

Managing all these demands requires firms to implement a clear training and development programme.

Be bold

Developing employees’ technical accounting and tax skills is relatively straightforward. It is the communication skills, business development, IT skills and client relationship management that present more of a challenge.

There isn’t an easy way to introduce new types (and increased breadth) of training into an organisation, but it is time to be bold and place training at the heart of the firm’s growth strategy. This may well include asking your people what they want and need, as opposed to dictating to them and rolling out something generic. This could be done via questionnaires or during appraisals.

Soft-skills training is a broad spectrum, including communication (listening, negotiation, presentation skills) and problem solving (from handling conflict, leading change and team building to time management, diary organisation and leadership).

Choosing what to prioritise will vary significantly between firms, depending on the business strategy, the make-up of the team and individual needs.

Understand Gen Z

Those firms looking to attract or retain Gen Z should consider offering soft-skills ‘fundamentals’, especially if there have been gaps left in the last 15 months due to Covid-19. Start with the simple skillsets and build up with discussion. Remember that this group are happy to take a lower salary for better work/life balance and feeling looked after in the workplace.

It also becomes more complicated when we understand that Gen Z are hungry for new work experiences. They are keen to learn. But why spend time and money on people who may well leave in two years? This is where risk-taking and forward planning are so important for practice leaders. Can you offer them multi-disciplined roles within your business, or will you expect them to leave in two to five years anyway? This is something to think about as the world of accounting continues to evolve.

The cost of staff churn and subsequent new recruitment assignments are now so high that – coupled with the current shortage of available candidates – it is well worth investing some effort and training and development into the excellent talent you already have. Work to keep what talent you have happy.

Appropriate provision

If you are a smaller firm without professional HR support, much can still be done by working with your employees and talking to them during their appraisal and as a team. They will appreciate the opportunity to influence and feel included.

For medium to larger firms with an HR presence, training and development should be the norm and should be included in practice strategy.

For those medium-sized practices just below the threshold of needing a permanent HR team onsite, much can be achieved by working alongside a good, solid independent HR advisory business that can understand the practice, needs and culture, and be a continued presence in the delivery of practice training.

Develop new paths

Whatever the age range or career stage of your team, getting your training and development right will support your recruitment attraction strategy. A happy, engaged and valued employee will always spread the word. Consider ‘refer-a-friend’ offers – they can be much cheaper than agencies.

Being a brave and laterally thinking practice, with a buoyant group of junior staff, can be a powerful tool in your talent attraction strategy. Being able to build a ‘waiting list to join’ would help fill gaps quickly, as and when the work demanded or when someone suddenly leaves. Some practices have even put a committee of junior employees in charge of the trainee recruitment campaigns.

The traditional career paths will, to an extent, dissipate. Gen Z in the workplace don’t like being pigeonholed. We expect that even trained accountants will look to other roles (for example, in HR, IT or business development) as opposed to purely staying in finance.

Leaders will have to be more open-minded than in the past, think more laterally, offer more variety. Firms will have to be proactive in gauging people’s skillsets, their career desires and provide them with the opportunities to develop.