Blog|7 min

Building and maintaining a strong culture as your firm grows

Jeannie Ruesch, Director, Marketing

The term “new normal” is omnipresent today—brought on by a world-wide pandemic that caused major disruption across every level of operations within every industry. For the accounting profession, application of the term “new normal” has focused, primarily, on the transition from on-premise to virtual workspaces. However, there’s much more to it than that.

Jina Etienne, CPA, CGMA and Principal Consultant at Etienne Consulting, is an expert in helping businesses develop winning cultures. This is accomplished by building a work culture of inclusion and belonging to retain staff and attract the best candidates.

So, beyond the pivot to remote workspaces, Etienne sees a much bigger opportunity for improvement. Still feeling the aftershock of mass disruption, firms have the opportunity to make longer-lasting, transformational change—like building a strong, healthy culture that offers staff a true sense of belonging.

“At the heart of a successful business is culture. A healthy culture drives engagement and motivation among staff…makes them feel valued and respected [inclusion]…makes people stay longer and attracts the best candidates.”

- Jina Etienne CPA, CGMA
Principal Consultant, Etienne Consulting

Read on to learn more about what diversity and inclusion mean when it comes to culture and how you can start building and maintaining an uber-healthy and winning culture as your firm grows.

Breaking down diversity and inclusion

According to Etienne, diversity and inclusion are often fused together as a single term. And this is simply not accurate. Consider each individually:

  • Diversity is defined as being composed of different elements. At its core, it represents numerical representations—we have this many of this and this many of that. In the workplace, diversity is represented by its many parts, including gender, race, age, role, religion, geographic location, and more. Diversity is finite and does not speak to the quality of the relationships among these parts.

  • Inclusion is inherently more complicated. Inclusion is made up of elements such as encouragement, opportunities, and a welcoming atmosphere. Inclusion requires intention in order to create an environment of connection among staff and build healthy relationships.

Etienne stated: “Inclusion is not just about being allowed to be part of a diverse group. It’s about being valued as part of the group.”

Clearly, diversity and inclusion are separate building blocks within a healthy culture. And only when the two work in harmony can you create an environment of true belonging—where everyone feels part of the team, the vision, and the business overall. According to Etienne, when belonging is achieved, it positively affects staff on many levels.

The elements of culture

Every aspect of how your firm operates adds to its overall culture—including values, norms, shared vision, and mission. And your culture is the primary driver of how your staff “feel” about working for the business.

So, when we put people at the center of culture, the key is to create that feeling of belonging that drives a healthy work environment and keeps your best staff with you and attracts the best candidates to your door.

Let’s dig deeper into the separate elements and sub-elements of culture:

  • Values: These are your guiding principles that govern how everyone works together. Your values should be in writing and over communicated to staff. Your values answer such questions as: What are the expectations on how people are treated? What’s the appropriate workplace behavior?

  • Leadership: Leadership plays a big role in setting the tone of the firm’s culture. Ask yourself: Is leadership living the values? Are leaders representing values every day? Are they communicating values to staff regularly?

  • People: The people represent the dynamics of the group. What cultures and subcultures are represented within your firm and are they connected?

  • Motivation: What drives different people in different groups to perform? This is where inclusion is particularly important. When true inclusion exists among people (core groups and sub-groups), it sparks belonging. People are most motivated when their own values align with the company’s. For example, for those who desire more work-life balance, does the company support flex schedules or remote offices?

  • Workplace: This represents the space you’ve created for people to work within. This can include onsite or virtual. Because the new normal includes remote workspaces, offering virtual work options can be a key motivator. Does your firm offer workplace flexibility to support your employees' need to balance work and life? Have you set up workspaces where people can connect and feel comfortable?

  • Technology: At the heart of a well-run firm is advanced technology. When you offer staff the right technologies to perform their jobs (whether that’s onsite or remote), you further enhance culture.

  • Tools: What tools do you offer people to ensure they are successful in their given roles? This can include training (think career path), accommodations (e.g., to support an employee with a special need so they start out equally to other staff), or other workplace resources (e.g., standing desk, monitors, etc.).

When all the elements of culture come together, the result is a proper blend of inclusion and diversity, which leads to that coveted status of belonging.

Etienne offered a notable statistic to drive home the importance of belonging:

“When staff feel a sense of belonging, they take 75% fewer sick days, which speaks directly to an engaged workforce and a healthy culture.”

Fostering inclusion in your firm

We know that inclusion leads to belonging and belonging leads to a more engaged and motivated workforce. So, how do you foster inclusion in your firm to achieve a sense of belonging and create a healthy culture overall?

Here are a few tips to get you started…

  • Define a safe space: Workers want to feel safe in their place of employment. This includes feeling heard, included, and valued. Creating a safe space starts with values—those governing principles of how you work together. Be sure to write down your firm’s values and share them with the team. Also make an effort to over communicate values so they’re always top-of-mind. When staff feel safe…they stay!

  • Be flexible: We have a more dispersed workforce than ever before. Individuals are working onsite, from home offices, and shared workspaces. Also consider that many employees are also caregivers—be it to children, elder parents, or pets. As such, it’s important to support staff with flex work options. This can include supporting full- or part-time remote work. It can also include flex schedules, which allow individuals to work outside of the traditional 9-to-5 workday for better work-life balance.

It’s also recommended that you have remote work policies in place so everyone is following the same set of expectations. Are there certain blocks of time that everyone is required to be online. For example, weekly all-staff meetings.

Also, be intentional about technology to support flex workspaces and schedules. Look into applications that keep people connected, despite their location, such as Zoom for video conferencing and Slack or Teams for instant messaging. Be sure to also offer a VPN for secure connections.

  • Up your benefits game: What additional benefits can you offer staff to make their lives easier? Consider partial reimbursement for child care or a meal delivery subscription. Reimbursing staff for purchased office tools such as computer stands or HD cameras for online client meetings. The key here is thinking about where you can offer staff a little added relief.

  • Walk the walk (at all levels): Businesses are often made up of multiple levels, including leaders (owners, partners), middle management (team leads), and front-line staff (individuals: the heart and soul). For true belonging to occur, everyone at every level must walk the walk in terms of company mission and values. Are leaders living the values every day? Are managers promoting core values to front-line staff based on what they observe from top leaders?

  • Measure results: Put some time into tracking and measuring results. You can’t know if your culture is improving (or declining) unless you measure results. Consider conducting a quarterly employee survey to collect feedback. Also be sure to ask for feedback regularly in meetings or within internal message boards.

Start the journey…

Achieving diversity and inclusion is an ongoing journey…not a final destination. And that means you must consistently work to foster both in order to maintain a strong feeling of belonging among your staff and build a healthy culture.

When you understand the core elements of culture…when leaders are intentional about inclusion…when everyone at every level of business fosters belonging—then and only then can you build and maintain a culture to support growth.

Jina Etienne believes strongly that when a business strikes a healthy balance between diversity and inclusion, the results can be amazing.

“Fostering a strong sense of belonging drives motivation in your organization; it improves recruiting efforts and will greatly improve retention rates.”

Culture is a huge animal. So start small. Etienne advises that you choose just one thing to work on to start your journey to building a culture where people love their jobs.

Ready to grow your firm for the modern era? Follow our Scaling Growth webinar series to hear from today’s industry thought leaders who have been there, done that, and are sharing what they've learned along the way.


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