Public Accounting vs. Industry—Work-Life Balance

In the Public Accounting vs. Industry blog series, NCACPA member Abby Smith outlines how a career in public accounting is different (or in some cases, not so different) from one in industry when it comes to: Work-life balance, technical resources, training, development of business acumen, human capital, control of information, and stress level. Abby offers a balanced perspective, drawing on her experiences in both worlds.

A new post in the series will be added every Tuesday through the end of April.

By: Abby Smith, CPA

Work-life balance is the most commonly cited difference between a career in public and industry. When I worked in public accounting, I used to joke that I had amazing work-life balance—my “work life” was full, robust, well-rounded, and involved a variety of vibrant issues. But this isn’t what most people mean when they refer to work-life balance. Typically, people with work-life balance have an interesting and fulfilling career but also have time throughout the week to connect with their family and friends, enjoy at least one hobby, experience a little down time to rest and relax, fulfill their spiritual needs, and then throughout the month or year volunteer and give back to their community. Work-life balance means different things to different people.

While I was in public accounting, I was more than happy to give up 10 winter weeks and 7 late summer weeks of my life to “busy season” for the return of reduced workloads in late spring and late autumn, along with 5-6 weeks of vacation plus 10 holidays. I enjoyed eating dinner with my coworkers in the evenings and I had plenty of time for drinks with friends outside of February and March. I love traveling, so on my time off I flew to see my best friend in Seattle and take an Alaskan cruise for a couple of weeks; spent 11 days driving SR-A1A down to Key West and touring the island; enjoyed time at an all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica and strolled on a volcanic sand beach; and jetted off to Singapore to ride the sky lift to Sentosa. A friend of mine took three weeks to go backpacking through Europe and another colleague took his wife for a month-long tour of Scandinavia. Extended vacations are common amongst public accounting professionals but that is often not the case for industry professionals. Now that I work in industry, I have two weeks less of vacation per year than I did in public accounting, but I spend more time with my family on a regular basis. We take more long-weekend trips to destinations within a few hours of home, and generally plan on less extravagant extended vacations.

Another big difference I’ve noticed having experienced careers in both public and industry comes down to family and household structure. Most seasoned public accounting professionals provide their family’s monetary support and have a spouse that works full time as their family’s primary care provider, or they had children later in life and are able to employ a full-time nanny or au pair. Public accounting professionals spend time with their children, but they are not home attending every basketball game, making dinner every night, helping with homework, or getting their children bathed and off to sleep. Most professionals in public accounting who I know choose one regular family activity for which they are responsible—dinner, homework, making it to basketball games (while they respond to emails during halftime), or bedtime duty. Industry professionals have more time outside of work to be involved in the day-to-day care of their families, but I still don’t know any full-time, career-oriented professionals that can be everything at home and work. Industry professionals that I’ve known seem to more often have spouses that work at least part-time and have a more even split of familial and household responsibilities.

Work week structure also differs quite a bit between public and industry. A typical busy season week in public accounting for me was 75 working hours, which included being in the office on Saturday for 6-12 hours with the possibility of a few hours worked remotely on Sunday. By 6:00 pm during a regular busy season weekday, public accounting professionals were busily chatting about the day’s challenges as they filled their plates from dinners catered in the break room. If someone needed to be home for their family, you could find them online shortly after dinner plugging away and readily available by email, cell, and instant messaging. Conversely for industry professionals, by 6:00 pm during busy season, these professionals are scarcely seen or heard from and are not online working remotely. If someone has additional work to accomplish, you will likely catch them between 9:00 pm and midnight. Because expectations are not standardized in industry, constant communication is much more important. This past busy season (my first working in industry), I worked closely with my associate to set daily expectations for work in the evenings and on weekends. While I worked most weekends because I needed the quiet time to review work papers and returns, I did so remotely—probably averaging 60 hours per week. My associate and I only met in the office one weekend and I let her pick the day, so we went in on a Sunday afternoon from 2:00–8:00 pm.

Some professionals prefer to think about work-life balance in terms of flexibility over total working hours.  Here, the consensus is split almost directly between staff and management. Generally, I find that staff feel as though industry positions provide greater flexibility, whereas management feels public accounting provides greater flexibility. I personally believe public accounting provides greater flexibility. Public accounting is structured for professionals to arrange a work schedule that meets their needs and recognizes that needs change over time. A year in public accounting is generally based on 2,380 working hours per year (40 hours per week multiplied by 52 weeks is 2,080 working hours per year, plus 300 hours a year of budgeted overtime). Public accounting is also very friendly towards remote working arrangements for one to three days per week. Finally, public accounting professionals are not bound by a 9:00 am–5:00 pm work day. Because there is so much overtime and client meetings often can be scheduled outside of normal business hours (i.e. over drinks or dinner), it is common for professionals to take personal appointments in the middle of the day and work through the evening or night to ensure their work is completed. Many people with young children find that a part-time schedule or alternative work arrangement (AWA) in public accounting is more beneficial than an industry position. As children age and enter into a regularly scheduled school day, it is not uncommon to see professionals accept full-time positions in industry for more money and roughly the same total hours as a part-time position in public accounting because of the added benefit of a predictable workday with normal business hours.

After speaking with a number of staff about why they feel industry is more flexible, I still have trouble documenting their reasons. My conclusion is that someone with only one or two years of experience in public accounting rarely has the need to implement an AWA or have personal appointments fall in the middle of normal business hours. Fewer total working hours in industry equates to more flexibility to plan events outside of work, and a less time-intensive busy season means they don’t have to put off their life for months out of the year.

Stay tuned for next week’s post when I cover technical resources!

Abby SmithAbby’s career began in 2005 at a small public accounting firm in North Georgia, where she largely worked with clients in the music and entertainment industry, as well as in real estate. In 2007, Abby joined a regional public accounting firm based in South Carolina, where she focused on pass-through entity taxation for partnerships and subchapter S corporations in the health care, real estate, agricultural, and not-for-profit industries. Abby joined KPMG in 2010 to focus on alternative investments, a melding of pass-through taxation and not-for-profit unrelated business taxation. Since 2014, Abby has worked with TIAA assisting with US tax compliance, structuring objectives for alternative investments, and specifically building out TIAA’s REIT expertise and US tax analysis of financial instruments.