The months leading up to April 15 can tax even the most diehard CPAs. Perks such as free food, massages and child care can make the workload more bearable.

About this time of year, William Sharp's two young sons ask when they can play again at the day care at Daddy's office. Sharp, a senior manager at Plante & Moran, tells them they'll have to wait until tax season begins in January.

"I've used our Saturday day care since we've had our kids. My two boys love it. They play games with the other kids. I see them during the day and eat lunch with them. I'm not home a lot during tax season, so I get to spend extra time with them. And my wife gets some much-needed free time," Sharp says.

On-site Saturday child care is just one of many stress-relieving perks accounting firms offer to help employees have some semblance of work-life balance during the grueling tax season. Plante & Moran offers the free service, which includes lunch, for children ages six months to 12 years.

"Firms today recognize the challenges that busy time presents for their employees. Most forward-looking firms try to help their staff cope with the demands of it," says J. Clarke Price, president and CEO of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

"In the old days, firms could just say, ‘This is your schedule. Take it or leave it.' That doesn't work in today's environment with today's workers. Now firms look for things that create buzz and distinguish them from the competition," Price says.

While other industries have bursts of extreme hours-think retailers during the holidays or law firms during big cases-Price contends the 100-plus-day duration of tax season every Jan. 2 through April 15 makes accounting unique.

From catered meals to dry cleaning pickup and delivery to flexible schedules, public accounting has come a long way in promoting work-life balance. Employees can keep their sanity. Firms enjoy improved employee retention, efficiency and morale that may lead to greater client satisfaction. It's no wonder Central Ohio accounting firms say the perks are worth every penny.

Stress Relievers and Time Savers

Even before tax season begins, Schneider Downs offers free flu shots to its employees. "Staying healthy benefits them personally, as well as the firm," says Natalie Donovan, human resources manager for Schneider Downs' Columbus office. It has 74 employees, with 40 CPAs and 24 accountants.

At Fentress & Barnes, employees can wear jeans on Fridays and Saturdays. Periodically from February through April 15, free 15-minute chair massages are available. Car maintenance is made easy, too. "We have company vehicles the employees can borrow if they need to get their oil changed or if their car is in the shop. They can take it home and return it the next day," says Jen Zarins, chief operating officer. The Columbus firm has 48 employees, 19 of whom are CPAs.

In addition, a mobile car detailing unit stops by Fentress & Barnes. Employees pay for that convenience if they use it. The firm also has an on-site exercise facility. "Employees can work out before or after work, or just take a 10-minute break and relieve some stress," Zarins says.

Because they spend so much time doing others' taxes, Fentress & Barnes employees get a pass on doing their own. "We have an outside accountant who used to work here come in and do our employees' returns, and then one of our partners reviews them," Zarins says. The service is free.

Free dry cleaning pickup and delivery is a perk that's common throughout the industry. "The extras really help out during tax season when we're working so many hours. The little things add up more than you think," says Brent Elsass, a tax senior at Schneider Downs. The firm surveys its employees to determine what benefits are meaningful to them.

At Plante & Moran, the basic offerings are the same firmwide. However, each location can customize outings to local attractions and venues. "We take into account the personality of each office and differences in the markets, so we can tailor our activities to Columbus," says Robert Shenton, CPA and managing partner of Plante & Moran's Columbus office. It has 110 employees, 60 of whom are CPAs.

Food and Fun

Accounting firms routinely cater in meals during tax season. As April 15 draws near, restaurants and pizza shops deliver dinners all over town to accountants who are burning the midnight oil.

Providing continental breakfast on Saturdays is typical. "We have it delivered or we take turns bringing it in. The staff is waiting for it when they hear the bags rustle," Donovan says.

In March, Schneider Downs holds a pancake breakfast. "We hire a vendor who sets up a griddle in the lobby. The catch is you have to catch your pancakes. You line up with your plate and he literally tosses the pancakes from his spatula. You should see the faces of the new hires as he tells them to back up and then back up some more. It's a lot of fun," Donovan says. The event also includes a pancake-eating contest to raise money for charity.

Some firms arrange to have fresh fruit delivered weekly as a healthful alternative to vending machine fare. After all, no one can subsist on ramen noodles alone. Potluck is on the menu at Fentress & Barnes. "We always have potlucks on Saturdays, so our employees can have a real meal with home-cooked food," Zarins says.

Fentress & Barnes also tries to break the tax return monotony with a monthly Fun Friday. "From 3 to 5 p.m. we have some fun team-building activity, a euchre tournament or something that's fun for all of us," Zarins says.

Plante & Moran has a committee that plans stress-relieving social activities, while Schneider Downs hosts TGIF get-togethers in January and February. "At the end of a long week, we leave about 5 or 5:30 and go off-site for a break in a more relaxed setting," Donovan says.

A Saturday family party is held in the middle of tax season. "We leave the office in the early afternoon and go bowling. It lets employees know we appreciate their hard work, and gives them some fun with their families," Donovan says.

"The mid-season party is a big thing to me. I can put more faces and names together and meet the family of the people I work with," Elsass says.

And on April 15, firms usually mark the end of another tax season with a celebration.

Nights and Weekends

Working evenings and Saturdays is a given during the first three and a half months of the year. "We don't have mandatory hours, but most us do need to come in on Saturdays. It's dictated by the work that needs to be done," Shenton says.

Crowe Horwath's policy is for workers to leave at 5 p.m. on Fridays. "We work on Saturdays during busy season, so going home on Friday night helps," says Angie Lewis, a CPA and senior manager of audit and financial advisory - public sector services for Crowe Horwath. The firm has 123 employees, 51 of whom are CPAs, in its Columbus office.

While the hours are long, technology gives employees flexibility in where they work. "I see the influence of technology to be mobile as one of the biggest changes in the industry," Shenton says. "When you're balancing a professional career with family responsibilities, technology allows you to do more from more places. You can get to the soccer game or the basketball game."

Plante & Moran employees frequently log in remotely so they're not chained to their desks. "I personally prefer that people keep more regular office hours, so they have balance. They can go home, spend time with the family and sign in later to finish whatever needs to be done. The flexibility of technology and mobility lets that happen," Shenton says.

Fentress & Barnes also offers remote access. "We have a number of employees with young families. It really helps them when their kids are sick. They can be home, yet be in touch with the office. The next day back to work won't be as horrible, because they've been able to at least clear e-mails and maybe get some work done," Zarins says.

About a year ago, Fentress and Barnes upgraded its software. "It gives us real-time updates of where we stand in the workflow process. We know at any given moment what still needs to get out the door. It's really lowered the stress level, because everyone knows the expectations for the week. It's also improved our internal communications, since we're all on the same page," Zarins says.

Flexible Schedules

Changes in technology have helped enable the industry's adoption of flexible work schedules. "From my viewpoint, the missing piece in accounting had been a nontraditional approach to let the employee set their work schedule and trust that the work will get done. Increased flexibility leads to employee happiness and client satisfaction, both of which flow back to the firm," Lewis says.

Crowe Horwath employees can apply to work flexible hours. "You create a business case for the hours you need, taking into account not just what you need, but what the firm and your clients need. It's reviewed on a case-by-case basis to ensure that all of the work gets done and the clients get served," Lewis says.

Each arrangement varies in terms of the number of hours and days worked, as well as time logged at the office and remotely. Lewis has worked on a flexible schedule for five of her 11 years with Crowe Horwath.

"I work more hours during busy season and less during the rest of the year. Our network is real time, so I can log in anytime. I don't have to be at the client's office or my office to get work done," Lewis says. "The partners here stand by our flexible schedule and other work-life balance policies. They make it work. It means a lot to know your firm and co-workers care about you as an individual. I'm a lot more willing to give back, rather than just go in and do my job."

Crowe Horwath accountants who spend more than 30 percent of their scheduled workdays traveling can take advantage of the firm's Road Warrior program. Instead of flying home, an employee can fly to another destination or have their significant other or a friend join them at their location.

Fentress & Barnes has a number of employees who only work 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. during tax season. "Several of them are moms. We're more than happy to have their help for the time they can give us. Tax season is when we need them the most," Zarins says.

Plante & Moran employees also have the option of working alternative hours. "The real secret is having balance in the schedule throughout the year," Shenton says. "Certainly we're busy from January through April, but we try to have projects come due throughout the year. That leads to a more consistent schedule rather than peaks and valleys."

Mutual Benefits

Firms of all sizes offer employee perks, whether it's a chance to go casual and leave early on Fridays or being wined and dined in a suite at Ohio Stadium. Industry veterans say larger firms don't necessarily have a recruiting or retention advantage over smaller outfits, because individual employees have different desires in a work environment.

"Candidates and employees consider how a firm allows them to grow professionally, while letting them have a private life. The firms who can deliver that have lower employee turnover and greater client satisfaction," Shenton says. "Clients want consistency year-to-year with their tax professionals. They like to have recurring staff that provides them value beyond the financials."

"We feel strongly that what we offer are attractive features to recruits and in building camaraderie among all of the employees. New hires ask about these things and take them into account," Donovan says.

That was true for Elsass. "I definitely considered the benefits, and they were an initial reason why I came here. Schneider Downs gives me a sense of family. The personal attention we get here matters," says Elsass, who joined the firm four years ago as a new graduate. "A lot of my friends aren't in public accounting anymore. I love it, though. All of us know we must get our work done, but we have flexibility that lets us recharge our batteries."

While perks come with a price tag-child care, dozens of pizzas and sports tickets don't come cheap-firms consider them to be a valuable investment. "Employees spend more time here than at home. Happy employees are productive employees. It's that simple," Donovan says.

"We do many things to retain the best-qualified people. We know there are a lot of opportunities they could leave for. We invest so much in our people because we want to keep them," Zarins says.

"The cost of the perks we use to retain our staff is far less than the cost of excessive turnover," Shenton says. "The benefits are one way we keep our staff engaged, challenged and feeling good about their career at Plante & Moran. We think that's a good way to spend our money."

Lisa Hooker is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the September 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.