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Answers for Tax Professionals

Understanding the value of driving staff engagement at your firm

Will Hill  Manager, Training & Consulting Services, Tax & Accounting, Thomson Reuters

Will Hill  Manager, Training & Consulting Services, Tax & Accounting, Thomson Reuters

Among the biggest challenges facing professional service firms – whether law firms or accounting firms – is staffing, especially finding, retaining and advancing the best people into the right roles that make the best use of their talents and abilities for the firm’s benefit.

Staff engagement – the commitment of an employee to the organization and its goals – is of vital importance for a firm, simply because when employees become more engaged, they use more of their discretionary effort on behalf of the organization.

And it pays off. Recent in-depth Gallup polling results showed that organizations with high employee engagement ratings had demonstrably better levels of productivity, profitability and higher customer ratings, while having less employee turnover and absenteeism. Or, to put it more succinctly, as Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup, said, “To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.”

Staff engagement can be thought of as a “psychological contract,” an informal balance of expectations between employees and management. When workers feel that their employer has fulfilled their obligations under the psychological contract, they’re more motivated to uphold their end of the perceived bargain by working hard and staying with the company.

We can see there is correlation between engagement and various measurable business outcomes, but how can organizations drive better staff engagement to reap these benefits and most importantly, get everyone moving in the right direction? Often, I get frustrated by what I see as the lack of actionable information on this topic, especially for a business in motion. To combat this, we should look at three aspects of the staff engagement picture:

1. Diversify your strategy

Your approach to driving engagement should vary based on the employment level of your staff. New hires usually come to a firm in one of two ways, either as new workers in the industry, or as experienced hands who are new to your firm.

These differences matter. I believe that taking a single approach to your whole staff in terms of engagement is a recipe for frustration. It will sound good, but it is not flexible enough. To succeed, you need to diversify your strategy according to the experience level of the person you are on-boarding. There are different engagement mechanisms at play: For new-to-the-industry hires, you will want to school them in your firm’s culture, clients and processes; for the more experienced people, the culture piece remains important, but special attention also should be paid to what they can bring to share.

Too many times I’ve seen firms that bring a new or even an experienced person on board and absolutely bury them with knowledge and information in order to get the biggest return out of them as quickly as possible. While this is understandable, it’s also a mistake and may be one reason many organizations have trouble keeping the best people.

2. Create engagement through development

One of the most common elements of engagement mechanisms is Learning & Development; simply put, it’s the ability to gain success by learning a piece as opposed to having to wait until the whole is learned.

It’s no surprise that how employees are taught their jobs is a vital component of their future success and that of the organization. If you offer learning opportunities in small, bite-size chunks, it allows for more steady frequency and deeper adoption. Remember, early on, new employees will crave learning and obtaining knowledge.

On the other side of the career spectrum, more experienced hires often crave sharing their knowledge with others to use. In that case, the shift might be toward respecting their institutional knowledge and honoring the eventual legacy they may want to bestow on the firm.

Keeping the learning manageable, contextual and structured satisfies these cravings and, not coincidently, increases the level of dialogue, trust and staff engagement. When employees experience applicable learning opportunities, it shows trust, builds engagement and gets everyone moving in the right direction.

3. Find true staff value

Where does your firm’s value come from? As you can see by the equation below, value comes from the exertion that your staff gives on performing the tasks that comprise their job, creating your firm’s overall output.

So, as this model demonstrates, having a positive impact on output isn’t about the tasks, it’s about the quality of the staff!

Staff can impact your firm’s output through their skills, experience and knowledge. In fact, the staff members who have the biggest impact on your organization’s value will be those who demonstrate an innate talent for applying the right mix of these three aspects at exactly the right time.

Your staff holds the key for being the true value differentiation of your firm, so if you want to have your own impact on output, invest in promoting and furthering the skills, experience and knowledge of your staff.

Remember, staff engagement is not just about the new people; nor is it just about those whom you identify as the future of the firm. When you think about staff engagement, think back to your goals. To achieve what your organization is truly capable of, everyone needs to be giving what they can, maximizing the psychological contract and moving in the same direction.

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