Professional services (e.g. law, consulting, investment banking) have a reputation for paying high salaries; they also have an equal reputation for requiring long hours of their employees. Asking interviewers how long hours are within a firm can be difficult as you don’t want to come across as shy of hard work but everyone wants to know the work-life balance they can expect in the job before they apply or accept a job offer.
For consulting, the hours vary between 8-16 hours a day due to the project nature of the work and this article will look at the factors effecting working hours and provide insight into the workload you can expect in a consulting career.
2) Factors that affect consulting working hours
The hours within the consulting industry can vary from extremely long and gruelling (16 hour days) to the typical 7-8 hours. The large variance in working hours stems from a number of different factors that affect a consultant’s working day.
These factors are:
Consultancy firms are global, for example, PwC operates in 150 different countries, McKinsey have offices in over 60 countries and BCG is present in over 50. The offices are run as separate entities and therefore working hours differ between locations. In an article by PwC, the firm stated that their African offices open at 10am whilst in Asia their offices open at 8am.
Variances in working hours between geographical locations is influenced by client expectations and competition for work. Consultants will often align to their client’s working hours so you can expect days to be longer in cities such as New York and London due to the long working hours of the companies that are located there.
These cities and markets usually experience higher competition for work as well due to the number of smaller consultancies located there. A key differentiator when selling consulting projects can be time to deliver, if a firm offers to do the work at the same price but in half the time then they have a higher chance of winning the work. However, this means that the firm must either increase the number of people working on the project or require the project team to work longer hours (or a mixture of both).
Consulting covers a broad range of job roles and there are many different types of consulting firms in existence.
Definition of consulting: The business of giving expert advice to other professionals
The majority of consulting work in a professional services context falls into two main ‘buckets’; strategy and management.
Strategy consultants usually work with senior business leaders (CEO’s and COO’s) on their biggest challenges at the very beginning. Entering new markets, cost reduction programmes, company acquisitions, new product launches etc. are all big, strategic projects that don’t occur very often. Strategy consultants provide the knowledge, skills and resources to design these types of projects or assess these problems. The nature of these projects are that they are short and complex with a high level of importance. This results in strategy consultants working long hours in short bursts to complete these types of projects.
Within strategy consulting there is also commercial due diligence work. This is an independent commercial assessment of an acquisition transaction. It will provide the buyer with insight on the companies market demand, commercial position, revenue and competitive threats. As these projects are short and work to tight deadlines alongside the rest of a transaction team (investment bankers, lawyers etc.) they also require long hours in short bursts.
Management consultants are responsible for the execution of a strategic project (e.g. digital transformation) and work alongside a business to deliver it. These are typically over 6 months and can last for many years in order to complete and therefore usually require the consultants to align to the client’s teams that they work alongside. This means that management consultants typically work close to 8 hours a day or 9am – 5pm when on a client project.
In short, consultants are temporary employees for a company (the client). This means that consultants will experience different working hours between each client as they have different characteristics.
Companies that are used to working with consultants can view consultants as expensive resource and therefore want to get as much for their money as they can, piling high expectations and workload on their consulting teams as a result. Without a strong manager willing to push back on the workload (if it isn’t in the agreed contract then it doesn’t legally have to be done) then the team will be required to work as many hours as it takes to complete.
This does work both ways however. Governments use consultants regularly because of the unstructured and unpredictable agendas that they pursue during their time in office. The expectations of government’s is usually that consultants work similar hours to them and ‘partner’ with them. This means the workload is typically sustainable and working hours are less.
Consulting is notorious for being a career that requires travelling (pre-covid). There has always been an expectation that the work needs to be conducted in the client’s offices and factories. This requires consultants to travel regularly and stay in hotels four days a week.
The client will pay for this travel but the time it takes to travel is not included in their working day. This means that if there is a 9am meeting on a Monday morning, the consultants will need to be in the client’s office by 9am Monday morning. Outbound travel will usually happen either early Monday morning or late Sunday night and travel home will usually be on Thursday night (after the working day).
The more travel required in a project or job role, the longer the working hours will be.
The culture of a firm is a big contributing factor to working hours. If senior members of the firm expect long working hours from their teams then the teams will inevitably work long hours. In firms with reputations for high quality work this is common (Bain, McKinsey, BCG etc.). The higher the quality of work the longer will be spent ensuring the quality and refining the small details, all the way down to the alignment of boxes, spelling and punctuation.
Profitability is also a driver of firm culture and approach to working hours. If a firm can ‘do more with fewer resources’ then they will increase their profit margins. Firms paying high salaries often require longer hours of their employees for this reason and employees feel obliged to work the longer hours due to the higher compensation they receive.
3) Hours compared to other industries
Most of the factors outlined above apply to other professional service careers such as investment banking and law but to varying degrees. The reported hours for graduates across the three industries show that investment banking graduates can expect the longest hours with an average of 15.5 hours a day versus consulting and law with reported hours closer to 12.5 hours a day.
As a consultant, you will not have full control over the hours you work and should expect to work longer hours than in industry (e.g. fashion, energy etc.) on average. However, you can take advantage of the flexibility that consulting provides however and choose to pursue work on projects based on the work-life balance they provide.
The reward of working the longer hours is the steeper learning curve it provides as you have more time to refine your skills as a consultant and a higher salary (usually).
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