Lifestyle issues – When are they going to stop treating you like a drone?

A consultant’s life is a tough one. Long hours, lonely nights in hotel beds, and deadline pressures are their lot. That isn’t about to change. But consultancies are sufficiently concerned about losing talent that they are increasingly looking for ways to soften the impact of the challenging consulting lifestyle.

There have always been, and always will be, some consultants who reach a stage where they have family commitments and young children who decide they need a more settled lifestyle. There will be others who simply get fed up with being on the move and living out of a suitcase, family ties or not. What seems to be happening now is that those considering entering consultancy, particularly at graduate level, are weighing up pros and cons before they start and increasingly deciding they aren’t prepared to pay the price. “We do the milk round at a number of the universities and what comes up again and again is work-life balance,” says John Everett, senior partner at Deloitte Consulting.

Ernst & Young’s consulting practice has also noticed a change in attitude among potential recruits. Nicolas Mabin, director of recruitment for MCS, believes that managing lifestyle issues well is extremely important for recruiting. “It’s critical in a very competitive market,” he says.

“People raise it at almost every interview. They want to know our policy on it. I can’t stress enough how important it is for us.” So is managing the lifestyle issue seen as an important part of becoming an employer of choice? “Absolutely,” says Pam Evans, human resources director at E&Y.

“People do have choices. They will pick jobs in places where they feel challenged but where the various parts of their world can work together effectively.”

Life as an issue

The question of how to achieve an acceptable work-life balance has recently shot up the agenda of many firms. E&Y’s senior partners, for example, have included lifestyle as one of their three key themes for the year, along with leadership and learning. The firm has brought in an external consultant to help it examine lifestyle issues in more depth. “She is surveying many consultants and getting feedback,” says Mabin. “We are at the research stage, but we will be making some major changes so that we have a coherent stance on lifestyle issues.”

One point all firms stress is that they can’t wave a magic wand and turn a consultancy career into an easy option. “There will always be long hours and travel in consulting,” says Mabin. And nor do consultants themselves want a life without stimulus. “People want to work for the most challenging clients,” says Everett. “That does include giving quite a lot of yourself.

We say to people that they are joining one of the most challenging professions.

We would be lying to them if we said it was a nine to five job.”

Working to the bone

Even though working hours can’t be restricted to nine to five, the need to keep them down to acceptable limits has been boosted by the new Working Time Directive which came into force last September. The directive established that staff should not work more than 48 hours a week averaged out over a period of 17 weeks, unless they are in managerial or executive positions.

Other staff can agree to waive their rights. Most firms are making sure that all employees are aware of the directive, but are down-playing its impact. “The principal is to avoid having tired, stressed-out people,” says Robert Ingram, human resources director at Cap Gemini. “Our people do have quite a bit of discretion as to how, when and where they do their work. In general we are not interested in how many hours people work.

We are interested in how productive they are. So we have invested in technology. People have laptops and most do some work at home.” Giving staff the option of spending some time working at home is widespread among consultancies. “I occasionally work from home because it’s quiet, thinking time,” says Evans. She was indeed speaking from home when interviewed.

And in line with consultancies’ increased willingness to be flexible, part-time options are also more common than in the past. Both men and women have taken up this option at Deloitte Consulting.

Managing the time that consultants spend away from their homes is also a high priority. Andersen Consulting operates a 7+7 programme, which promises that when consultants are assigned away from base in the week, they won’t have to leave home before 7am on Monday morning and they will be back by 7pm on Friday. “It protects their weekend,” says Tim Robinson, Andersen Consulting’s HR director for the UK, Ireland and South Africa.

In a similar spirit Deloitte Consulting tries to agree a “3,4,5 weekly rule” up front with clients when taking on a new assignment. The rule establishes that consultants will be away from home no more than three nights a week and on the client’s site for no more than four days a week.

They will have the option to work from home or from the firm’s offices on one day in the week.

Bringing consultants back to the office from client sites can also help strengthen bonds between staff and with the firm itself. Fostering relationships between consultants is on the agenda at Andersen Consulting, which has introduced “communities” that divide staff into groups of 100 to 150 people for social and other activities. “People get to know each other better,” says Robinson. Deloitte Consulting also brings all its consultants together for team-building and networking on the third Friday of every month.

As a bonus, this means they avoid travelling long distances home on Friday night and benefit from a full weekend with their families.

The family circle

The importance of the family in consultants’ lives is respected by pretty well all firms these days. Take the needs of new fathers, for example.

E&Y and Cap Gemini introduced their paternity leave polices this year.

Cap Gemini allows five days’ leave which can be split into half days and taken as needed. “What you want is a bit of flexibility so your partner doesn’t have to spend whole days on their own with a new baby,” says Ingram.

Andersen Consulting also gives parents adoption leave. “We have a working parents group who meet periodically and share ideas,” adds Robinson.

“They share among themselves best practices for balancing work and family.”

Cap Gemini has also firmed up its policy concerning other special leave available to staff, for example if close family members are ill. “We have put a little more structure round that so that if you need more time off we can work something out between us,” says Ingram. “We are not a rule-based company.” Time off for non-family reasons may also be possible.

For example, both Deloitte Consulting and Andersen Consulting run sabbatical schemes. “After staff have worked for 18 months they can take a period of time off, from four weeks to two years,” says Robinson of the Andersen option. “That’s a popular scheme, particularly for the graduate intake.”

Help at hand

Back in work, consultancies seem keen, where possible, to help minimise the hassle in ordinary life and there is a current trend to offer a concierge or help desk service. For example, a concierge service operates out of Andersen Consulting’s London and Manchester offices. “They will carry out services like letting the gas man in, organising cleaning, buying flowers for someone’s birthday, or taking the car to be serviced,” says Robinson. Consultants are charged #5 for every hour they use the service, which is heavily subsidised by the firm. Deloitte Consulting is currently piloting a similar service and so is E&Y. “Our consultants are very keen about it,” says Evans. “The pilot is about seeing how we can get to the services that meet their needs.”

Firms also offer on-site facilities and information sources to help daily life flow more smoothly. PricewaterhouseCoopers offers a range of employee benefits available to all staff throughout the firm, including an on-site doctor, dentist and travel shop. There is also an on-site occupational health and fitness department offering physiotherapy, nutritional programmes and personal fitness training. Extra benefits are offered exclusively to management consultants. For example, a “Partner Survival Course” gives advice ranging from food and diet to personal fitness and one-to-one training is available. Cap Gemini’s lifestyle programme flags up helpful information on the firm’s intranet covering topics such as healthy eating, advice on how to sit at a keyboard, how to avoid spending a lot of nights away in a hotel. It also offers discounts at health clubs. “There are lots of little things to help us be more aware of how to get the balance right,” says Ingram. “It’s not macho in this company to say you have worked longer hours that anyone else. It is macho to say you are better than anyone else.”

The good samaritans

As for emotional support, confidential counselling services are also increasingly common. Andersen Consulting simply knows whether or not people are using the service, but has no details as to whom. “The feedback about it has been good,” says Robinson. Cap Gemini also provides a confidential employee assistance programme that offers counselling, and has piloted a management trainee programme so that managers have more awareness of how lifestyle issues and stresses can affect staff. “The first training courses are being rolled out,” says Ingram. “This is one element of the lifestyle initiative. We think it’s important.”

Firms’ normal in-house counselling procedures are also seen as essential, not only for providing support and guidance to staff, but also as means of gaining feedback on how people feel about the firm and their working lives. In addition, consultancies use other methods for gaining an insight into how consultants are feeling. “We tend to be quite keen on surveys at Andersen Consulting,” says Robinson. “That can be useful for highlighting issues.” Consultants are surveyed on each project, going into some detail about the working conditions and all aspects of the job. Moving beyond surveys, some firms send their top team out on the road to talk face to face with staff. Ingram was tracked down in Edinburgh where he and three members of Cap Gemini’s executive board were on a leg of a national tour.

The group were moving round the country meeting all 8,000 or so staff in group question and answer sessions covering a range of issues, including lifestyles. “We think it’s very important,” Ingram said.

The gender question

At Deloitte Consulting a “gender and diversity” committee has been set up, chaired by a partner and containing a cross section of the firm’s staff right down to new graduates. “The committee works hard to make sure we respect gender and diversity,” says Everett. The committee has already highlighted some differences in the way that people do things, as Everett explains: “For example, a man will typically be very proactive in terms of pressing for changes to his career to make sure his work-life balance is in place. Women tend to grin and bear it, but then leave without really complaining or trying to change things. So we have to be more proactive in enquiring whether people are suffering from things like this.”

Creating an environment where consultants can achieve a reasonable work-life balance is a complex challenge. “A lot of this is to do with the culture of your company,” says Ingram. “If you are a company obsessed with macho behaviour, presenteeism, then whatever you do it won’t be the right environment for a balanced lifestyle.” Presenteeism doesn’t rule life at Cap Gemini, says Ingram. It is totally accepted that parents can leave at five, and then, with their laptops, catch up on things later in the evening.

Team 121, a somewhat smaller SAP business consultancy, has also developed a family-friendly culture. “We have company days that are for the family,” says chairman Iain Barker. “It’s a company meeting, but last year there were things that other members of the family could enjoy, such as dodgem rides. It’s part of the culture and belief of the organisation.”

There is no perfect answer to the lifestyle challenge. “One size does not fit all,” says E&Y’s Evans. “People come into consulting because they like the challenge, the stretch and the push. But as they go through their lives, things happen. For example, they develop family responsibilities.

We are looking at what the really key things are that make a difference.” However, Evans doesn’t believe that it’s just down to firms to make the difference. “It’s about the organisation and the individual working together to come up with ideas,” she says. “It’s about personal responsibility but also about making sure we are developing the culture that allows this to happen effectively.”

At its simplest, achieving an acceptable work-life balance for consultants boils down to increased flexibility on the firm’s side combined with realism all round. Barker sums up: “We offer part-time packages to people who want that. People can work from home. I don’t think I have come across an organisation that is as flexible as we are on this. But at the end of the day you have to be competitive. Consultants are travelling a lot of the time. I don’t think any of them are there because they think the organisation is best at looking after their pastoral needs. There has to be a point in time where the organisation can’t be responsible any more.”

There are clearly limits to what consultancies can do to foster a sensible work-life balance for their staff. Even so, they seem willing to go further than in the past to keep their consultants happy, and on the fee-earning team.

How concerned are the consultancies?

Tim Robinson, Andersen Consulting’s HR director for the UK, Ireland and South Africa: “We are very much concerned about the lifestyle issue.

It’s one of the biggest challenges we have on the people agenda. When people join as graduates we are at pains to say mobility and balance of life will always be an issue. That can be fine when they are younger, but as they get older it becomes more of a concern.” Nicolas Mabin, director of recruitment for Ernst & Young MCS: “Certainly it’s a major issue for us. We recognise that a major factor for people leaving consulting, if not the single factor, is all to do with the lifestyle.

Their needs have changed. They want a more predictable lifestyle or to work shorter hours or to have less travel. We could lose some major talent unless we think about these things seriously.”

John Everett, senior partner at Deloitte Consulting: “As we switch from the baby boomers to Generation X, the things that people are looking for from their careers and their life balance are changing. Many partners are baby boomers; many of our staff are Generation X. We have to understand what they want and one of the things that matters to them is the work-life balance.”

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