Consulting: from “work hard, play hard” to the search for meaning at work?

26 May 2021
By Bertille Madéore and Annabelle Pannethier, Audencia Grande Ecole students.

Nowadays, 87%[1] of employees want to have a meaningful job, with missions that respect their values and a good work-life balance. Is this trend impacting the consulting industry? For a long time, consulting has been associated with the “work hard, play hard” way of life (busy schedule, stressful job, but high salary expectations). But it seems that what used to be true ten years ago is not really the case anymore: junior consultants have begun to question their working conditions and their workplace sooner, calling for a better work-life balance, and looking for a “search for meaning” in their job. Laurent Alix, HR consultant and founder of Pluvian Conseil, provided us with his informed perspective.


The search for meaning at work, a new trend in consulting


Within ten years, the aspirations of consultants have completely shifted. The so-called “work hard, play hard” myth doesn’t make people dream anymore, even if it is still a widespread practice in fields like auditing. According to Laurent Alix, this myth is today “perceived as a compulsory step to gain experience in a short space of time before allowing yourself to move to something else”. Neo-graduates instinctively adopt this philosophy to improve their CVs and to gain solid working experience, and aim at big consulting firms. But due to the frantic pace of work, they do not consider audit and consulting as long-term career projects: 90% of young employees change companies after 2 or 3 years[2].

The reasons why graduates choose consulting have also evolved. Before, consultants wanted pragmatic missions, a competitive salary and a rapid evolution in the company. Even though the salaries are really attractive (at the beginning of their career, a junior consultant may earn up to 60,000 euros ($72,709) gross a year, and this amount may reach 150,000 ($181,774) euros gross 5 years later[3]), junior consultants are now looking for diverse missions which make sense for them. But more importantly, they are thinking long term to stay in consultancy.

This search for meaning at work usually leads consultants to question their jobs. In ten years, the time scale after which they do so has drastically reduced. Juniors used to ask themselves if they wanted to stay in the same company after having worked in it for at least five years. Now, juniors switch to another structure after two years and may even consider a professional reorientation. Put briefly, in Laurent Alix’s mind, “30 yearish old consultants now experience a mid-life crisis”.

This last trend directly stems from the previous issues: there has been a wake-up call for a better work-life balance. This equilibrium between professional life and private life was still taboo ten years ago, but it has significantly grown in importance.



Big firms have already understood and started to tackle these issues


This work-life balance has become an essential driver of attraction and retention of the most talented workers. Consultancies, which strongly depend on their workforce, are attentive to its needs and have tried to adapt to them rather than imposing their vision. Indeed, consultancies are aware they need to meet their workforce’s expectations if they want to recruit talent and retain it. This comprehensive mindset is all the more important as young people are each year more sensitive to employer branding.

Mobility is another important topic. Nowadays, 68%[4] of executives are considering moving from Paris to a smaller (and greener) city. And consultants are no exception to the rule. “Being sent to the provinces used to be a bane for them, whereas today consultants are often the driving force behind this decision”, Laurent Alix explains. This completely disrupts the way human resources are managed in organizations.

This is not an isolated improvement, and consultancies are often innovative with human resources subjects. Regarding telework, they were used to this long before the COVID-19 pandemic, because their mode of operation requires flexibility and mobility.

To hold on to their employees, consultancies have also worked on transparency: they were one of the first sectors to disclose their remuneration system. This allows them to build loyalty at the start of a career, and to retain youngsters by providing them with a vision of their evolution.

Some firms have decided to address their internal processes. In 2018[5], Mazars abandoned its annual evaluation system, which was considered stressful by most of the consultants. It was not fitting in with the expectations of the younger generation so they switched to continuous, permanent evaluation, with monitoring of precise indicators on a daily basis.

In fact, the consulting sector has already started to take measures concerning the search for meaning at work. Most of the firms are not behind, but “some consulting companies are not up to date and suffer from comparison with their competitors”, Laurent Alix highlights.



Indeed, there is still room for improvement to satisfy the new aspirations of consultants.


First, something could be done about the attribution of missions, especially in the generalized firms. By identifying the preferences of candidates during recruitment, they could then assign consulting missions according to the employees’ wishes. This would trigger a “win-win” situation, because not only would they retain their workforce, but also their consultants would be more likely to excel in their missions.

A structural transformation could also be considered. Laurent Alix believes the next consultancies should be more flexible and agile to cater for clients’ technical and quality requirements. Thus, a consulting firm that is organized as a network - intertwining internal employees, external experts and freelancers that it could call on at the right time - would attract customers and young talent and increase loyalty. This structure would allow good elements that want to leave to stay in touch with the company: they could remain active for the consultancy as independent experts. This network structure closely fits in with Laurent Alix’s vision of the “ideal” consultancy. But it seems no one has built something similar yet.

Lastly, consultancies are not fully embracing the CSR model. “It can seem like a pet phrase, but people are now increasingly asking companies for it NOT to be a pet phrase.” Consulting firms could really stand out if they focused on the S: what do they do for their employees? “When we think about well-being at work, we directly picture yoga classes, meditation. “Gadget” activities, when in reality there are important topics to address.” Consultancies are reluctant to tackle subjects such as paternity leave, part-time work, etc. That is a pity considering the resources firms could use. Consultancies could train their employees to gain more skills or invest more in human resources to build a better future for the younger generations.


[1] According to La Super Agence – 10 chiffres sur la marque employeur à retenir pour 2019

[2] According to compta-online.fr – Pourquoi les Big4 attirent toujours autant de jeunes talents ?

[3] According to consultor.fr – Turnover : une bataille perdue d’avance ?

[4] According to a study by Cadremploi conducted in 2020

[5] According to Mazars’ website


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