But in the high-powered world of consultancy how realistic are such policies?
McKinsey has nothing to say on the subject but others are more forthcoming. Deloitte Consulting, for example, is the torchbearer. Its parent, Deloitte & Touche, recently featured in Fortune Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For In America for the fourth consecutive year.
UK md David Owen says work/life balance is more visible than ever before. “Such programmes have never been more important for us in terms of recruitment and retention. We are interrogated on the subject consistently by potential recruits.” But, he adds: “Such concerns have to be correlated with the fact that our clients would say competition and competitive influence and the need to get things done successfully and expeditiously have also never been as demanding as now.”
The conditions under which Deloitte people operate are very heavily dictated by that working reality, he says, and it is important to be very upfront about that when recruiting.
Consultancy has two particular characteristics, says Owen: “Travel – almost inevitably a large proportion of work is done at client or third party premises; and unpredictablity. People join consultancies for the quality and breadth of experience and the quality of the people they interact with. If you want breadth, with it comes a degree of unpredictability. For example, a deadline will be moved and work has to accelerate.”
The key thing, says Owen, is to be open, explicit and honest about the reality of market conditions and then to have a mindset and working practices that address it. “We can’t make it go away. If we say to clients ‘we are not going to work at your site’ or ‘we are not going to work flexibly’, we would run the risk of becoming irrelevant. We have to respond to market demand but increasingly we have to identify and proclaim the terms on which we can and will respond, which includes something which is equitable and sustainable in terms of our people.”
One of the things clients like least, he says, is unexpected changes in team composition. “If those changes are forced upon us because people make career decisions based on work/life distress, then we would say to clients it is in our mutual interest to work at ways to get the job done as quickly and as well as possible in such a way that it works for individuals as well.”
He says this balance is key. “We are increasingly seeing recognition that it is not just what works for the client and what works for the firm, but what works for the individual.” This goes back to the importance of work/life balance on recruitment and retention, he says. “It has become a lot more visible in the last 12 months and has our attention, big time.”
So, given the constraints of client pressures, what can the firm do for staff in practical terms? Says Owen: “We recognise that different industries operate in different ways. For example, it is quite possible that much financial services or public sector work would be City-based, while communications and manufacturing work tends to involve greater likelihoods of sustained travel or work on large project sites in continental environments. We help people to channel towards the industry they are most stimulated by and which works best for their lifestyle.”
And, more generally, says Owen, the firm tries to negotiate contracts with clients which take work/life balance into account. “Whether you are talking about flexible working arrangements for whole teams or individuals, the key thing is to have explicit conversations with clients about that at the earliest possible time.”
He adds: “In my experience, clients are very receptive, particularly when building sustained relationships, to things that will be equitable and work for individuals within our business as much as for the clients themselves.”
Many are keen to agree working practices that are likely to increase motivation and productivity, he says. And if staff see their interests being protected that is likely to be the result.
But there is another challenge here. “The vast majority of our work is client based and in situations where our consultants are intertwined with the client’s own people. So we have to work out what is equitable for the client’s personnel as well as our own. There is an important relationship ingredient there.”
Amanda Carslaw, a strategy consultant working in Deloitte’s communications industry practice, has direct experience of flexible working. With two young children, she works three days a week, picking up voice and e-mails on her days off. “The opportunity to work flexible hours made an enormous amount of difference to my ability to continue my career,” she says.
But it does require a great degree of flexibility. “Three days’ work is my base level but some weeks it might be four or five days, or I might have to swap days so that I can be at the client for key project deliverables or review meetings. I see that as part of the process – it goes with the territory.” She adds: “When you only work three days a week every minute counts. You have to be good at communicating with teams and clients. It’s about good project management – planning ahead and respecting everyone’s work/life balance, not just mine.”
Colleagues know that they can contact her if they need to on her days off, she says. “Voice mail and e-mail are valuable tools – but the mobile’s something of a double-edged sword.” The most difficult aspect of balancing her work/life commitments is drawing a line under her work-related activities, she adds.
Travel has not been too much of an issue for her: most of her work, pre and post children, has been in and around London but that doesn’t mean that travel is out of the question.
Carslaw’s working patterns have never been an issue for clients, she says. “In fact, one of the clients I worked with after my first bout of maternity leave saw it as a very positive attribute of Deloitte Consulting. And that is increasingly true, particularly if the clients are in their 30s or 40s with young families, facing similar work/life challenges.”
As far as her employer is concerned, she says, expectations are very high. “There are absolutely no concessions – part-time staff are expected to perform as well as their full-time colleagues, which is the way it should be.”
And, it seems, working on a part-time basis has not damaged Carslaw’s prospects. She was promoted to senior manager grade last summer. “That is a strong message from the organisation – it’s about performance rather than working full or part-time,” she says.
Accenture is another consultancy where part-time working is possible.But, says Tim Robinson, HR director for the UK and Ireland: “It isn’t the case that part-time working can be effective on all client projects or at one client at any time. We try to point people towards projects that can cope with that or can do so for a certain period of time. We review that on a six monthly basis.”
He says work/life balance is becoming increasingly important but in consultancy it is always going to be a challenge to get it right. “People understand the demands of consultancy and that we are in the business of providing outstanding client service, but, while it is difficult, we can’t sit back and say this is too tough – we have to go as far as we can because of the competition for good people.”
Increasingly, he adds, clients are facing work/life balance pressures themselves and many have innovative schemes to help employees. “One of our guiding principles is to work consistently with the culture of our clients. So as clients become more flexible in their approach, so can we.” But he says: “No-one is saying the clients will not come first – they must come first. And it is only realistic to say that there are times when flexible working cannot be accommodated.”
Normally, he says, the client would talk about the end result and to a large degree how to go about it would be up to Accenture. “But there are situations where the client is linking in particularly to a key role and we would respect that in scheduling our people.”
The firm has a whole range of initiatives aimed at helping people manage work/life pressures. These range from time off in lieu of overtime between projects, leave of absence of up to a year after 18 months with the firm, a concierge service to send flowers, book theatre tickets or house-sit, to health awareness days, focused on coping with a heavy travel schedule, for example. And the firm is rolling out equipment to facilitate homeworking.
Yet, despite all these schemes, true flexibility of working style is unlikely to be found in big firms. Says Martin Hancock of recruitment firm, Prism: “Smaller consultancies can offer the possibility of lower travel and more self-management. Some have been set up by people from bigger firms, who want, among other things, to achieve a more sensible balance between life and work.”
Lucy Sykes, an ex-Accenture consultant, has worked at CRM specialist Sophron Partners for about a year. She says the culture is completely different from her old firm. “At Accenture you very much had to be seen to be at the office early and stay late,” she says. “Now I work at home every Friday, visit the office every couple of weeks and manage my own workload. If I want to take an afternoon off during the week and catch up at the weekend, I can.”
At the moment she spends most of the week at a client site in Bristol, getting home early on Thursday evenings. It is a far cry from her days at Accenture. “Accenture’s seven to seven policy (whereby consultants shouldn’t have to leave home before 7am on a Monday and should return home before 7pm on a Friday) just doesn’t happen,” she says.
Sykes is on a salary with Sophron but most people get paid a day rate for client work, she says. “I could probably be making double what I earn if I did that but I like the security of a salary. A lot of people only work a four day week – but while the rewards are bigger the risks are greater.”
Partners for Change, set up by ex-KPMGers Tim Connolly and Mark Smith six years ago, operates a similar model. Says Connolly: “One of the frustrations we felt in a big firm was the lack of freedom to organise your working and personal life. We were expected to act like grown ups with clients but were not treated as such by the organisation.”
At Partners for Change, he says, it is acceptable for individuals to make their own call. “Paying people by the day allows them to have a say over how much work they do.” But, he adds, the reality is that consultancy is ultimately driven by what the client needs.
A lot of people find, he says, that they can have the best intentions of working three days a week but client demands are such that those three days become five. “Whether they are talking about where they are willing to work or how many days, most consultants recognise that they have the freedom to apply constraints but that doing so can mean that it will be difficult to get work.”
John Tiller, a consultant with the firm, agrees. It is important for him to be around for his teenage children, who are preparing for exams this year. He says: “If the only bit of work going is in Scotland for six months you have to take a risk and weigh up how much you need the money against how much you want to be at home.”
Mayuri Vyas joined Partners for Change three years ago from KPMG. She says: “Consultancy is incredibly demanding: for 10 years I had roamed the planet and I had reached the point where I wanted a bit more control over my destiny. I had become a bit of a workaholic and wanted to develop outside interests. At KPMG there were occasions where I would get a call on a Friday to tell me that I would be in a different country on Monday.”
Ironically, she spent her first six months with Partners for Change in South Carolina, but then said that she would only work in the UK, specifically the south-east.
A part-time MBA at the London Business School was followed by a family crisis, which made her very glad to be with Partners for Change. “My father became extremely unwell and required a lung transplant,” she recalls.
“My mother is disabled and my brother and I had to take responsibility for them on a day to day basis.” She spent six weeks at Papworth and managed to maintain existing clients, working one or two days a week. She felt comfortable with this because of the model the firm operates, which combines a daily rate with performance-related profit share and equity.
“With that combination I can be in control of the number of days I work and still feel part of the business. I plan how many days I want to work for clients (typically 150-175 a year), and business development work is rewarded by equity and profit share. That gives me three to four months a year to play with.”
The pattern of Vyas’ work, however, depends on clients. “You have to be quite flexible. Some clients want you to be with them for six months in a coaching role, working two to three days a week but others want more.” At the moment, she is working on a cost reduction process for a large corporate. “Realistically, I know that I will have to be here five days a week for the next six months. But I had a choice – I knew what it would be like.” After this intensive period of work, however, she plans to take a big chunk of time out to go trekking in the Himalayas.
Such self-determination is not for everyone, though. Says Vyas: “You have to be an experienced, grown-up consultant who can sell and deliver safely. The risks are higher but so are the rewards.” A good network is essential, she says, especially if you are placing geographical constraints on the work you will do. “You do have to network and build relationships so that you can call on contacts and proactively look for work for the company. You have to look after yourself and get involved in proposals.
I have sold a lot of my own work.” She adds: “You can underestimate how much influence you have for control.” And it is that control over her own destiny that Vyas prizes most.