Director keeps close eye on 'happy index'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 August, 2009, 12:00am

Many professionals set their sights on the corner office or executive suite, but that's the last place Janet Bibi Ferreira wants to be. As director of human resources and administration for accountancy firm Baker Tilly Hong Kong, her preferred location is at the heart of an open plan office, surrounded by talk and activity, where she can be in touch with colleagues and always approachable.

From that position she is also able to see patterns and detect signs that others may miss. It may be nothing more than observing which teams take coffee breaks together, or how readily individuals share information and bounce around ideas. But, for Ms Ferreira, these small indicators all register on an informal 'happy index'.

Along with the results of internal surveys and regular appraisals, they allow her to gauge the mood in the firm and create a friendly working environment that values learning and promotes career development.

'When you listen and observe you see what is going on and what needs to be changed,' Ms Ferreira said. 'There is a pattern to a harmonious work environment, but what I look for is two or three people working together on an assignment, managers talking to teammates and staff arranging activities such as barbecues. These little things tell me they like each other and are learning from each other.'

Ultimately, she said, everything came down to good communication and a commitment to teamwork. In an industry where long hours are unavoidable and working practices can often be quite solitary, it is important to encourage interaction and closer co-operation.

'We want to see small groups having chats and hear people talking. This is the intangible part of a learning culture,' Ms Ferreira said. 'We also have soft skills training to improve communication and we expect managers to reinforce the point, so it gets into people's heads.'

To push that forward, she said, Baker Tilly did not divide audit staff into specific groups, unlike the Big Four accountancy firms. Instead, junior employees are all part of the same pool, which means they work with different partners and colleagues on a wider range of assignments.

Allied to that is a continuous effort to teach staff to work smarter. Naturally, it entailed all the usual technical and on-the-job training, but there is also special emphasis on achieving efficiencies through proper planning and best work practices.

The objective is to be clear about deliverables, fully understand expectations of clients and managers and realise that something as basic as taking notes in meetings is a useful discipline to avoid later uncertainties.

'Audit is an art, you can approach it a hundred ways, but if you think before you start your assignment you can actually work [fewer] hours,' Ms Ferreira said. 'It is important you don't just jump into your work.'

In monitoring general levels of staff satisfaction, she keeps a close eye on several other indicators. One is the number of job applicants referred by members of the 200-strong workforce. Clearly if employees are prepared to introduce friends, acquaintances or previous colleagues, it is a fair sign they are essentially content with their role and their prospects. Most applications had come via this channel in recent months. Another broad measure is the willingness of staff to raise issues and discuss problems. These may concern anything from training needs and work arrangements to peak season stresses or requests for support. By being accessible, Ms Ferreira shows she is ready to listen and act.

'That again is about communication,' she said. 'Staff will come to me and talk when they perceive a problem instead of keeping it quiet. If they do that, I know they are committed and want to improve. They do not just sit passively.' Although long hours are inevitable during each reporting season there are still ways to ensure auditors maintain a reasonable work-life balance and do not risk burnout. Ms Ferreira regularly checks the attendance log to identify 'midnight leavers' and will then discuss the need for additional help and reallocate resources as necessary.

The firm also has a relatively strict system of compensation leave. For every hour of 'effective' overtime after 6.30pm - doing real work not just sending personal e-mails - staff can take an extra hour off in lieu. 'If I observe people have been working long hours I will assign leave,' Ms Ferreira said.

Protect and serve

Important to gauge the mood of the working environment

Communication and interaction the key to good teamwork

Training ensures junior employees get broad experience

Leave entitlements 'enforced' to guard against burnout