Creativity isn't something that many people would associate with accountants, but the economic crisis has provoked inventiveness among Hong Kong's Big Four accounting firms in dealing with reduced revenues and managing the downturn without making staff redundant. Since people are the largest business cost, each firm has put in place a voluntary leave programme to reduce this cost, maintaining the workforce and continuing building business for the longer term. Ernst & Young was the first to announce its programme late last year. It asked for volunteers to take unpaid leave for 20 days in the six months up to the end of June 2009. Staff can take the time as a block or as days as and when they prefer, providing that there are no existing client or work commitments. The unpaid leave is also being used by the firm as an opportunity to encourage staff to carry out volunteer work and give time to some of the local and mainland-based charitable programmes in which it participates. Of the firm's 8,500 staff in Greater China, 95 per cent are participating in the programme, according to Bin Wolfe, Ernst & Young's Greater China people leader. 'When we first announced it, we weren't entirely certain how it would be received. But it was met with a lot of support and we are extremely grateful for the teamwork our people have exhibited in getting through this period together,' she said. Deloitte China also has a voluntary unpaid leave plan, but about 8,000 staff are being asked to take off four days a month between April 2009 and May 2010. Flexibility to schedule days based on work commitments and how they want to use the leave is encouraging participation. Those with certification exams coming up, for example, are being encouraged to take several weeks or a month off to study. The firm is also identifying some volunteer activities that dovetail with its corporate social responsibilities. Of the four firms, Deloitte's leave of absence programme is one of two that has set an end date well into 2010. 'One of the things we wanted to do was to get employee engagement and ensure that our people understood the economic environment and current factors affecting our business,' said Christina Antoniou, HR partner at Deloitte China. 'We've stressed to staff that we will cease the programme as soon as the opportunity allows. That opportunity will be marked by stability in revenues and a sense of consistent and positive growth.' PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has designated 15 days as unpaid leave between April 1 and September 30 this year. Many have been added onto existing public holidays, for example, May 1 and the dragon boat holiday at the end of May. 'People can plan to do more than they would otherwise have done,' said Dave McCann, HR partner for China and Hong Kong, PwC. 'The message is that we're in this together. If we can make this work, we don't have to take more serious action at a later stage. So the more people get involved and take part, the more we can manage our way through this crisis.' In terms of cost savings, PwC's programme represents three weeks of unpaid leave over a six-month period, which is roughly an 11 per cent pay reduction for each individual. If everyone in the firm participated, the programme would represent that 11 per cent as a saving of the total cost base. KPMG China's scheme encourages staff to apply for up to 40 days' leave in the 12 months from April 1, 2009. Unlike its peers, the firm's voluntary scheme is 20 per cent paid. For those staff who take more than five days in a month, the 80 per cent salary deduction is spread over the following three months to minimise the affect on monthly incomes. In a global staff survey last year, KPMG's HR managers found that people wanted additional time off to spend with their families to travel and to take exams. The voluntary leave of absence scheme addressed that, said Melissa Wu, the firm's partner in charge of HR. 'It's a win-win situation where our people get some benefit and the firm keeps its workforce intact without having to make any redundancies. We take redundancy seriously because once we make people redundant, it's difficult to get them back when the economy recovers,' she said. In each firm, redundancy was the last option. At PwC, Mr McCann said he did not believe the firm would have made redundancies this year without the leave of absence of programme. 'Redundancy was one option that we absolutely were not prepared to countenance because we felt it was the wrong strategic decision,' he said. 'We have invested a lot in the people we have in the firm and we know things are going to pick up. Hopefully they will pick up here quicker than elsewhere. There are still opportunities - it's not like the world has fallen apart in China and Hong Kong, it's simply slowed [down],' Mr McCann said. At Deloitte China, Ms Antoniou said that the option of laying people off was at the bottom of a very long list of options. 'Deloitte more than any of the other Big Four firms has grown quicker and so the pool is limited in terms of the talent available. Our list of potential options was long, and that's how we identified what made sense from a cost perspective, a business perspective, and a people perspective,' she said.