PWC’s millennial employees led a rebellion—and their demands are being met

Thinking about more than profits.
Thinking about more than profits.
Image: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
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A few years ago, PwC recruiters noticed a change on the blue-chip campuses that produced so many of the consulting behemoth’s new hires.

For decades, fresh graduates had simply accepted they’d be signing away nights, weekends, and any semblance of a normal family life or social calendar in exchange for bragging rights at a big-name firm, a big paycheck at the outset, and the promise of a much bigger one when they made partner later on. It was a deal new recruits were willing to take.

Until, suddenly, they weren’t anymore.

“We sort of pride our selves on, ‘Ah, we don’t need to have lives, we just forge ahead,’” says Anne Donovan, the company’s US “people innovation leader,” summarizing the mindset that prevailed at PwC for most of her 34 years there.

But millennial employees, who by 2013 represented two-thirds of the company’s workforce, were no longer so willing to shelve their personal lives indefinitely for the possibility of a lucrative partnership years down the road. And those who did start as associates were far more likely than their predecessors to complain when flexibility promised in the recruiting process failed to materialize. The old model was broken.

This is where moaning about millennials typically starts: Ugh, they’re so entitled! But when executives at PwC stepped back, they realized that the concerns of the company’s youngest employees were not all that different from those of older colleagues. A new generation of workers was simply pointing out a truth that management had been willing to ignore, as long as everyone was still staying late and the work was still getting done: Virtually everything about the economy that PwC serves has changed in the last 20 years. Why couldn’t its culture?

From one kind of crisis to another

Like a lot of workplace conventions, the grind awaiting young consultants was a holdover from an era when the rank and file was dominated by men from single-earner households. But as the workforce evolved, so did its priorities.

At first, PwC and its competitors could afford to look the other way. Whatever struggles employees were having with work-life balance, they were more concerned with basic job security, first as the industry’s role in the accounting fraud that took down the energy giant Enron shook the sector to its core, and then as the global recession hit.

But as the economy began to improve, PwC faced “crisis-level attrition,” says Jonathan Amy, a PWC training executive. (The firm’s titles skew grand and opaque. Amy’s official title is “chief learning architect for learning and development.”) The attrition, coupled with reluctance at college recruiting events, made clear how unenthused the new generation was with the company’s culture. PwC’s youngest employees were leaving at rates incomparable to previous generations. As soon as they got the opportunity to go somewhere else, they went.

So PwC did what consultants do best: a study. In partnership with the University of Southern California and the London Business School, the company undertook a review of its own workforce. Between 2011 and 2012, the company surveyed 44,000 employees around the world.

Millennials, they found, did not object to long hours outright. They were as committed to their work as older colleagues. But they were also more willing to question long-held assumptions about how that work should be done. Given the abundance of connectivity, why was it necessary to be in the same physical building for 15 hours (on a good day) to get a job done? Why couldn’t they work from home when a project allowed?

But here was the real surprise: Non-millennial employees wanted exactly the same thing. Virtually identical percentages of millennial employees and non-millennial workers said they would prefer to be able to shift their work hours to schedules that could accommodate both their personal and professional obligations—heading home early for family dinner, for example, in exchange for an early start or signing back on once the kids were in bed.

The only difference was that millennials were willing to speak up about their dissatisfaction, and to opt out when problems couldn’t be resolved. Over and over again, the results of the survey made clear: work was important, but a personal life was, too.

Donovan went to PwC’s executives, showed them the results, and explained: This is your company’s future.

Flexible schedules, burnout-fighting retreats

In December 2011, PwC rolled out a flexibility plan. It gave employees the right to ask for flexible work policies that suited their roles, like compressed work weeks, telecommuting, or job shares. Today, 90% of PwC employees incorporate some kind of flexibility into their schedules, public relations director Beth Parker says.

A “flexible” schedule as a consultant doesn’t mean an easy one. It’s still a demanding job. For those on the accounting side, the “busy season” of January to April in particular remains an all-hands-on-deck slog. But the new policies proved something remarkable: People could work from home, or leave early on Tuesdays, and the company wouldn’t collapse. In fact, people were actually more motivated at work when they knew they had some control over their time.

Since implementing the flexibility policy, “There’s been zero [negative] shift in our productivity as a firm. Zero shift,” Donovan says. (It’s also helped to reduce the company’s US real-estate footprint by a third, according to Parker.)

In 2013, the company rolled out another investment in its employees’ wellbeing: a four-day retreat for US employees who are promoted to senior associate. It’s called Discover, and nearly all attendees are in their mid- to late 20s.

PwC envisioned Discover as a reward for earning that first promotion to a managerial role. But it’s also a way of seeding the management ranks of the company with employees schooled in a new brand of self-care, and a way of making clear what PwC needs from them in return.

At a recent Discover retreat, held at a sprawling, Spanish-style resort in southern California, more than 400 “seniors”—the PwC term for a group that more closely resembles graduating university students than people of advanced age—gathered in a ballroom to hear DeAnne Aussem, head of the company’s in-house executive coaching center, talk about giving themselves a break. She asked them to “choose wellbeing.” She urged them to “ennoble renewal.” She had them all stand and hold their breath in an exercise intended to demonstrate mindfulness, then abruptly ended the activity when it became clear that some of these chronic overachievers were turning it into a contest.

A typical Discover agenda is a mix of fun and the fundatory. There are breaks for yoga and rock climbing. There is wine and beer at dinner. But participants spend the bulk of the trip shuttling between sessions with titles that seem generated by a motivational buzzword bot. Day Two starts after breakfast with “Personal Leadership” followed by “Maximize Your Energy to Act With Intention,” then moves onto “Optimize Your Performance” before wrapping up with “Creating Capacity and Renewal Choices” and, mercifully, dinner by the pool.

Despite the generic names, the sessions get deeply personal. Amy and Parker showed off one of the ocean-facing suites where small groups of 10 to 12 seniors will meet throughout the retreat with their assigned executive coach. Each group’s first meeting is an intensely revealing get-to-know-you session called “Who am I?” Boxes of tissues are placed in easy reach around the room. I asked Parker and Amy, both Gen-Xers, if they remember ever having felt encouraged to cry at work in the early stages of their careers. Both of them blanched a little.

The millennial generation often responds well to vulnerability and personal disclosure. There are, of course, many exceptions. One former PWC auditor slammed the forced intimacy of coach meetings and oversharing colleagues in a much-publicized 2013 resignation letter (it included the hashtags #icantdeal and #soforced). But it’s also a generation whose parents—again, with many exceptions—in some cases went overboard in smoothing out challenges in their children’s paths. As employers and university officials have noticed, there’s a higher percentage of people in this cohort who struggle with independent decision-making, even when they’re highly accomplished.

“From a technical skills perspective, a business perspective, they’ve got it. What they don’t have are the life skills,” Amy said. “All of a sudden when they have to make a decision about, ‘Do I really want to buy a house? Do I want to buy that dog?’ they don’t know who to talk to that will help them make that decision.”

This is the dual nature of the Discover retreat. The chance to meet one on one with a professional who is trained to help people identify and plan toward life goals is undoubtedly personally valuable to the seniors, and not always in ways that directly benefit PwC. People sometimes leave the sessions energized by the realization that what they really want is to leave consulting and, say, open a yoga studio.

But intervening with this group at this particular time is also an investment in PwC’s future. The firm is training employees to manage their time and energy now, so that they don’t burn out five, 10, or 20 years down the road.

Reaching the rest of the firm

In December, the firm launched a new corporate wellness program called Be Well, Work Well, an extension of the flexibility policies rolled out in 2011. Flexibility proved that the firm could rethink the culture of long hours without taking a hit to its profits. The emphasis on wellness is a way of getting employees to think holistically about how they’re managing time and energy in all areas of their life, so that they’re not just pinging endlessly back and forth between work and home obligations until they collapse from exhaustion.

PwC uses a curriculum designed by the Energy Project, a productivity consulting firm founded by former journalist (and Trump ghostwriter) Tony Schwartz. One of the Energy Project’s guiding principles, managing director Andrew Deutscher says, is that companies see better results when they encourage employees to manage their time better, rather than simply demanding more hours.

Research has found that productivity drops significantly after about 50 hours per week of work. Long hours come at a cost to employee health (paywall), which in turn leads to absenteeism, loss of productivity, and higher insurance costs for employers. It’s a game no one wins. Millennial workers were just the first generation to call the game out as bullshit, in numbers large enough to force the rules to change.

Not every industry is on board. A recent Vanity Fair profile of Goldman Sachs’s president and probable next CEO David Solomon praised his commitment to “healthy work-life balance.” At Goldman this means working no more than 70 hours per week—so long as no pressing deals are in the works.

The Energy Project has worked with clients including Google, Facebook, 3M, Coke, and Pfizer, but not a single law firm has signed up. Industries that bill by the hour have no financial interest in adopting a leaner workweek. “Many people will say, ‘Diminished returns are better than no returns. I have to get the work done,’” Deutscher says.

There may come a tipping point at these companies, too, when the pressure to change will be too strong to ignore. When the results of that first workforce study came out, people at PwC like Donovan had to convince executives that hey couldn’t afford not to change the way they did business. Definitively changing the culture, though, will fall in large part to the people just starting their careers at the firm. Some 12,000 seniors have already gone through the Discover program, and they’re the ones who will set the example for incoming workers, for years to come.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that 550 PwC seniors have gone through the Discover program; the correct number is 12,000.