Industry Trends

Working Long Hours Doesn’t Help

Caleb Newquist Editor-at-Large, Gusto 
pay transparency

July 22, 2021

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Work (quality) and life balance

Accountants of all kinds tend to work too much, and auditors, especially, seem prone to overwork. Clients accept audits as a necessity, but that doesn’t mean they have to like it. That puts a lot of pressure on auditors to do the work fast and hit deadlines. That usually means long, hard hours that require sacrifices—friends, family, personal hygiene—to get the job done.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, all that sacrifice doesn’t lead to quality work:    

Auditors don’t put much emphasis on work-life balance, but the quality of their audits tends to suffer if that balance is absent, according to a recent study.

The study, by Jagan Krishnan, a professor of accounting at Temple University, and Joshua Khavis, an assistant professor of accounting at the University at Buffalo, recently published by the American Accounting Association, found that work-life balance Is associated with high-quality audits, though job satisfaction is not.

It comes at a time when many auditors have spent more than a year working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving them more experience with work-life balance than perhaps they ever enjoyed in their careers.

It’s weird that auditors would have experienced more work-life balance during the pandemic since all anyone could do was complain about working all the time. Was it because they got to be around their dogs or in their sweats all day? Unclear.

On the other hand, the long hours ≠ quality audits makes perfect sense to me. Auditors accept that grueling hours, forgoing sleep, time away from loved ones, and lack of leisure are costs of doing business. But what they’ve been denying (or silently accepting) for years, maybe decades, is the negative impact that imbalance has on the quality of their work. Meanwhile, the research is clear. Working long hours has a detrimental effect on productivity, work quality, and beyond that, worker well-being. 

The irony is, many auditors I’ve known love their jobs. It’s intellectually challenging, financially rewarding, and most of the people are nice. Those types of jobs usually are very satisfying. Unfortunately, that satisfaction doesn’t make a difference on work quality if you’re constantly overworked: 

Most people understand that when you are overworked, you are more likely to make mistakes. Job satisfaction can’t make up for that. For accounting firms, it drives home that recruiting and retaining good personnel isn’t enough. Work-life balance is important to ensure auditors do their jobs well  

I’m a little skeptical that the pandemic actually gave auditors—and accountants more broadly—more work-life balance than they ever experienced. In some cases, the opposite is probably true. What’s clear as ever is that working long hours will not result in high-quality work. And of all the bad habits accountants have, that might be the hardest one to break.

Excel

Would you ever stop using Excel? For many accountants, it’s a scenario too terrible to contemplate: giving up a versatile tool that has been part of their daily professional lives, in some cases, their entire careers. Some accountants, I’d wager, would give up coffee or their second monitor before they gave up Excel. Every time I mention that I use Google Sheets to an accountant, they chuckle, shake their heads, and give me a look that says, “You used to be an accountant?” 

But despite its popularity, Excel has its share of fervent detractors, including a number of CFOs:

Finance chiefs are still trying to get employees to move away from Microsoft Excel, the ubiquitous spreadsheet program loved and loathed by accounting professionals.

While many still see it as a helpful tool, some CFOs say finance teams rely on it too much, often for tasks that Excel isn’t well-suited to handle. That can lead to mistakes and wasted time.

Over the years, I’ve heard two main counterarguments from Excel enthusiasts against those who dare oppose it:

  1. Excel is the most versatile tool you can find in a single package. It’s the Swiss Army knife of software. You wouldn’t separately carry around a knife, a nail file, scissors, a Phillips screwdriver, a corkscrew, a can opener, a saw, an Allen wrench, a compass, a fish scaler, a cigar cutter, spring-loaded needle-nose pliers, and a toothpick, would you? No, you would not. So why would you use a slew of different software applications when one of them does all the things adequately, and in some cases, better than most standalone programs?
  2. Excel doesn’t make mistakes. People make mistakes.

The beauty of blaming technology, of course, is that technology doesn’t offer excuses. Humans, on the other hand… excel at giving excuses. (Why else do you think they are building the robots?) Until technology starts speaking up for itself, humans will have the upper hand. 

Still, there is no shortage of infamous Excel blunders that have had real-world consequences. In many cases, human error played the starring role. And although Excel has been in the cloud for some time, at least one guy says the pandemic made things worse: 

Last year’s abrupt shift to remote work during the pandemic, which forced finance chiefs to manage corporate finances and close the books remotely, highlighted shortfalls in using Excel, said Glenn Hafler, a principal at advisory firm Hackett Group Inc. “The pandemic really exposed the vulnerability that finance teams have as a result of their dependence on Excel,” Mr. Hafler said.

Okay, sure. People couldn’t cruise by Kevin’s desk to ask him why that formula seemed screwed up and talk it out. And because they couldn’t handle another Zoom call, Excel likely took part in a few extra goofs. 

Aside from CFO gripes, part of me can’t help but wonder if makers of would-be Excel substitutes just like complaining out loud about its shortcomings while their products largely consist of cells… for inputting data… arranged in… rows and columns. And I get it! If you build a better spreadsheet, the business world will probably beat a path to your door. It just seems that no one’s built it yet. 

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Caleb Newquist
Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.

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