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Taxing times: finding the flexibility in professional services

Flexible working in professional services with Frank Birth

True flexibility can be hard to find in the professional services sector. Many companies make promises but these can be a far cry from the reality. Niche tax firm Frank Hirth explains how it strives to support its employees in work and life.

Head of human resources Victoria Patricks has worked at Frank Hirth since September 2017. She has experienced the company’s flexible approach first hand, having applied for a position advertised as full-time. When she applied she asked to work a four-day week and to leave the office at 4.30pm.

“They were completely open to the suggestion – and I had applied to other places that weren’t,” she says. “Some working patterns may not be suitable, but we will always have a conversation about it.”

Flexi-time as standard

Founded in 1975, Frank Hirth is a niche firm that specialises in UK and US tax advice and compliance including personal tax, corporation tax, owner-managed businesses, trust and estate taxation. Although it has grown to around 200 people, with offices in London, New York and Wellington, it retains a family firm culture. 

The firm offers flexi-time as standard – based around the core hours of 10am to 4.30pm. Employees are then free to decide how to make up their hours between 8am and 6.30pm. A two-hour lunch break is also possible. This allows individuals to manage their workload in a way that fits their other commitments. 

Retention is strong, with 44% of staff having been at the company for more than five years and another large proportion of workers who have joined from school or university in the last five years. At busy times the whole team work together to meet deadlines and good communication is encouraged to make flexibility work for all.

“We don’t have a divide between fee earners and support staff,” says Victoria. "Everyone sits together and the only people in offices are directors, who have an open-door policy." 

As well as the flexi-time option, some team members work part-time or from home. The MD of Frank Hirth, Robyn Limmer, is a mother of three grown up children who has experienced life as a working mother and understands the challenges.

A positive experience

Victoria’s own experience has been extremely positive, and she is keen to ensure mothers have access to flexible roles in the business. Not all roles are suitable for people who would like to work from home, for example reception staff - but in these cases other flexible options are considered.

“Having had a child and experienced redundancy at the same time I know you can lose confidence when you have a break from work. It’s silly really, but it’s a reality,” she says.

“We know how productive someone can be when they have other things outside work. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to us if you are a mum or want to do charitable work and pursue other goals, we know that people have a life and we want them to enjoy it.”

Families are invited to the firm’s annual summer party, this year taking place in Brighton, and the office is closed between Christmas and New Year in addition to normal holiday allowances. There is an energetic board driving progress and an employee committee implementing initiatives focusing on employee engagement and making Frank Hirth a great place to work. 

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Flexibility works for the clients too

“The flexible approach is not an issue for clients,” says Victoria. “In fact, there is strong feedback from them on service and response time.”

A genuinely flexible approach is rare in professional services – with employees often finding that the reality does not match the promises made. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

“Flexibility is harder to implement in professional services but only because of the attitude,” says Victoria. “It tends to be that a number of senior roles are held by men. Women still tend to have the main childcare responsibilities and this, coupled with inflexible working hours, means they may never progress as far as they should. This is gradually changing in the industry but Frank Hirth is ahead of the game.”

The fact that Frank Hirth is not a partnership helps maintain a flexible balance. “We are a privately-owned company, with more than 50% owned by an Employee Benefit Trust. Not being a partnership helps as that can drive certain behaviours and our directors aren’t assessed on their own P&L.”

Candidates should be upfront about their childcare needs

Using 2to3days is part of the company’s open approach around flexibility. The firm feels candidates should not have to hide their childcare needs and family lives. Instead they should be upfront about their requirements and what they can offer.

Associate Director Laura Knight says this has made all the difference to her career advancement and she has returned to the business after taking maternity leave twice.

“I am fully supported as a respected employee and have continued on in my career, having been promoted since having two children and only working part-time,” she says. 

“There are no boundaries apart from those we set upon ourselves and being a parent has not stopped me from achieving my goals. The firm offers flexi-time which helps fit around childcare and the support given helps make the juggling act so much easier.”