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Work-life balance in consulting: an oxymoron?

Consulting probably isn’t the first industry that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “healthy work-life balance”. Indeed, the dreaded “grind” is as much an institution of the sector as PowerPoint decks and flipcharts are. There’s always been a sort of Faustian bargain at the heart of consulting: Young consultants implicitly accept that they’ll be working long hours, in exchange for generous compensation packages and the opportunity to develop their careers at a faster pace than peers who went into other sectors.

Recently, however, talent managers within consulting firms have started to question the long-term sustainability of this model. While firms have long claimed to appreciate the need to protect the mental and physical wellbeing of their employees, it’s only recently that they’ve started to fully appreciate the longer-term impact that failing to do so could have on their ability to attract and retain talent—and, by extension, their ability to service client demand. There are three reasons, in particular, that have forced firms to start taking these issues more seriously.

For one thing, there’s the fact that cultural attitudes towards work-life balance have shifted a great deal in recent years. There’s a plethora of demographic research out there that suggests that Millennial and Gen Z employees want to work for companies that take issues of personal wellbeing seriously—even if it means foregoing some of their earnings potential. Indeed, data we collected for our recent report on “Consulting’s New Talent Crisis” shows that work-life balance is now one of the top three factors that new graduates look at when selecting consulting firms to apply to.

Secondly, there’s the shifting competitive landscape in the war for talent. In the past, consulting firms were mainly competing for top graduate talent against the financial services sector, and other parts of the professional services industry—in other words, sectors with their own longstanding issues relating to work-life balance. Now, however, most large consulting firms have come to see the technology sector as their biggest competitor for talent. And that’s a sector where many businesses pride themselves on the quality of their working culture and the flexibility and autonomy they provide even their junior employees. Talent managers in consulting have started to realise that, unless they start to promote a healthier work-life balance in their firms, they risk losing even more of their top performers to the tech sector.

And lastly, there’s the impact of COVID. Across many industries, the shift to remote working has further blurred the already hazy line between people’s personal and professional lives; one study earlier this year found that white collar workers in the UK were working almost 25% more hours than they were prior to the pandemic. It’s no surprise, therefore, that some consultants—many of whom already felt they were being overworked before COVID hit—have now reached their breaking point. In a recent survey of early-career consultants, we found that 31% of them were considering exiting the profession as a direct result of the pandemic—with deteriorating work-life balance in the sector being the most commonly cited factor.

For all these reasons, it’s now clearer than ever that there’s a commercial imperative for consultancies to pay attention to the mental and physical wellbeing of their employees. The question remains, however: Is there anything firms can actually do to promote a healthier work-life balance within their organisations, without compromising their ability to meet client expectations?

Over the past year or so, many of the larger consulting firms have launched internal initiatives designed to address that challenge. Several firms, for example, have started to provide better training to project managers on how to identify and address work-life balance related issues within their teams. At the same time, many firms have started to promote the idea of creating “respect and inclusion” charters at the beginning of client engagements—establishing more explicit guidelines around when people are expected to be able to attend calls, respond to emails, and travel to the client’s offices. But if firms are serious about promoting employee wellbeing within the industry, they will also need to be prepared to make larger, more structural changes to the way that client engagements are delivered. Investments in project automation or offshore project support centres, for example, could go a long way towards eliminating some of the more mundane and repetitive tasks consultants are expected to carry out, particularly at the bottom end of the resource pyramid.

In any case, the industry is unlikely to change overnight. But there are some positive signs that the industry’s leaders are finally starting to recognise the seriousness of this issue. There’s a growing acceptance within consulting that any talent strategy that doesn’t seek to address the industry’s historic work-life balance failings is a fundamentally unsustainable one. And, over the coming months and years, we may start to see that translate into tangible changes—changes which, ultimately, will benefit both consultants and the firms that employ them.