How McKinsey does work-life balance

Easing the consultant life.
Easing the consultant life.
Image: Reuters/Vincent Kessler
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Leading management consultancy McKinsey joined with a number of other prominent companies to announce an effort to improve employee health this week. But McKinsey is unusual because its employees join and leave the firm young. The average age is 35, and over 80% of the staff are under 40.

The firm has much lower rates of chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease than other companies. So its wellness efforts as described in the report, released by Bipartisan Policy Center’s CEO Council on Health and Innovation, don’t focus on biometric data or fitness, but on the notoriously poor work-life balance of its consultants.

McKinsey charges extraordinary rates and demands a great deal from its employees. They work long hours, and travel constantly. It’s one of the reasons that the company is so young: People tend to burn out and leave for more stable corporate jobs.

The firm isn’t likely to change that entirely, but is attempting to improve the situation, according to the report, which gives a fascinating view into the definition of work-life balance for a firm defined in some ways by its absence.

The company launched in 2012 its “Take Time” policy, which lets consultants take additional unpaid leave of 5 to 10 weeks between projects, used to pursue personal interests and attend to family. They’ve added the ability to take on temporary or permanent part-time roles, where consultants work 60% to 80% of the time in the form of three- or four-day work weeks or consistently longer breaks between projects.

Longer unpaid leaves are available to extend maternity leave or attend to other personal commitments, with benefits for up to six months. And the firm has made it easier to transition from the traditional consultant role to a more stable support role for either a defined period of months or years—or as a wholesale career change.

The company has also made a distinct effort and management changes to make sure teams on actual projects acknowledge personal boundaries and the need for some balance.

Before every client project, teams discuss their family and lifestyle constraints and commitments in the context of the projects (“Team Learning”) and come up with guidelines (“Team Norms”) for how they’ll work to accommodate them. Each team member is responsible for making sure they’re adhered to, and is evaluated on it at the end of the engagement.

In true McKinsey fashion, the organization has attempted to quantify the impact of all of these programs: 13% of consultants take advantage of the flexibility. Since its introduction in 2012, “Take Time” has been the most popular option.

By the standards of companies outside of finance and consulting, those are somewhat meager benefits.. A substantial portion of the uptake is the “Take Time” program, which is the sort of extended leave option that only gets used a few times over the course of an upwardly mobile career, even though it’s technically available yearly.

But it’s an important acknowledgement that home and family life are an part of an employee’s well-being. With the ability to switch tracks and go part time, it’s increasingly possible to have a longer career at the company instead of serving as the newest rotation of temporary elite school talent.