Flexibility and sabbaticals

Ryan improved retention by giving employees control of their schedules

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Print this page by Marjolijn Bijlefeld
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Mike Allen says myRyan reduced attrition and improved
employee satisfaction. Photo by Mark Rhodes

In 2006, when Mike Allen became the 32nd partner nationally and the first in Virginia for Ryan LLC, a global tax services firm based in Dallas, “there were three of us rattling around a 5,000-square-foot space” in Arlington. Now that number is rising to about 50 people, and the firm has grown from a single practice area to six.

The fast growth is the result not only of demand for one-stop tax consulting, but also the uncommon corporate culture that measures work on performance rather than on hours worked. “If employees are working on a project like crazy for two weeks, they shouldn’t have to come in on Monday [after the project has been delivered] and have nothing to do,” Allen says. That kind of workplace flexibility extends throughout the year, giving workers an unusual control over their own work/life balance.

This approach is good for the company’s recruitment and employee retention. “Half of our entire workforce is under the age of 25. We recruit people right out of college, and we were having attrition, with people leaving after five to seven years,” says Allen. That employment pattern is fairly consistent among big accounting firms, but it wasn’t sustainable for Ryan, which was incorporated in 1992. So the company implemented a work-to-meet-your-benchmarks initiative it calls myRyan.

The company’s attrition rate is now below 10 percent annually, and employee satisfaction is high. In 2013, the company made best places to work lists in Dallas, Kansas City, Los Angeles, South Florida, Illinois, Canada and Working Mother magazine. “We have people who don’t come into the office until 10 a.m., so they can get their kids on the bus, and those who come in at 5 a.m. so they can get home early,” Allen says.

One unanticipated consequence of instituting myRyan was that employees tended to take fewer vacation days. That’s because they didn’t need to. They already have the flexibility to do what they need to do each day or take a long weekend here or there by working extra hours on other days.

That spurred Ryan to make another unusual corporate move. It now mandates vacation. In fact, after five years of working with Ryan, employees are given a four-week paid sabbatical.

Steve Thompson, one of the original three employees in the Virginia office, took a sabbatical in August during which he and his partner toured Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic and Spain.

Thompson, a director of the property tax business line, says he and others were a little apprehensive when mandated leave was first announced. “But I figured if the company is endorsing it, I’ll take the attitude that the work will be here when I come back. I was able to find a time of year — August in D.C. — when workflow slows down.”

He also worked with his team, developing contingencies for who would handle different situations. Then he called clients to let them know he’d be out of the country with his cellphone and email turned off. “The input I got from my clients when I told them what I was doing and who would be handling their questions was, ‘What a great benefit.’ I was actually taken aback at how positive the response from clients was.”

Thompson also was delighted with how effective the strategy was. “On this trip, I was able to completely recharge,” he says. “Even if I take days or a week off, I’m still tied to my iPhone.” 

Because he knows he will have another sabbatical in five years, it has strengthened his loyalty to the firm. Thompson, 32, already had worked for two other companies since graduating from Georgetown University in 2003 but he plans to stick with Ryan, where he’s now been for seven years. “The flexibility is part of that. It cements my place here.”

Best Places to Work 2014 list of large employers


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