"So what are you doing for the next five years?" Deborah Holmes laughed off Philip Laskawy's question. The chairman and CEO of Ernst & Young LLP couldn't be offering her a job. It was the fall of 1996. And Holmes, 36, research director of Catalyst, a New York City-based organization that studies women in business, had just presented her analysis of turnover among female employees at E&Y. And the news wasn't good. For years, half of the $5 billion accounting-and-consulting firm's new hires had been women, but the percentage of female partners and managers — not quite 20% — had barely budged.
More disturbing was that E&Y's turnover problem did not involve only women. Holmes's research revealed that corporate culture was producing equal-opportunity angst. A culture that equated face time with commitment and that consistently demanded that its employees sacrifice family for work was clearly out of whack. About 60% of the women and 57% of the men in senior management at E&Y told Catalyst that they were dissatisfied with working long hours. Each year, about 23% of the women and 18% of the men were leaving.
Imagine the cost. E&Y was losing not only talent but also continuity with its clients. And it was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fill each vacant position. Holmes told E&Y's leaders that if they wanted to buck that trend, they would have to make sweeping changes in the way they conducted business, and that such an effort would require the full-time attention of at least one person — and probably more than one person.
That was when Laskawy, 59, threw down the gauntlet: "So what are you doing for the next five years?" But it wasn't until Laskawy called Holmes at her office later that she finally realized how serious he was. She knew she was staring at what could be an opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to see whether the ideas that she had been developing for the past seven years as a work-life consultant would work in the real world.
"You realize that I'm not guaranteeing anything. My ideas may not work," Holmes hedged. Laskawy agreed: This was no layup. But "whoever cracks this code will be a winner with this workforce," Holmes remembers him saying. "So let's give it a try."
Today, more than three years later, Ernst & Young still hasn't cracked the code, but it certainly has made progress. Laskawy and Holmes are reshaping the work lives of 34,000 professionals in an industry where customer focus is crucial to survival. How do you bring balance to a profession that, by definition, demands brutally long hours? How can work be flexible when a client sets a tight deadline and expects to see you working around the clock to meet it? How do you make it acceptable to talk about personal needs with partners as well as with clients?
In late 1996, soon after Holmes was hired to direct E&Y's newly created Office for Retention, she launched four pilot programs to address those questions. Three of those programs — involving internal networking, mentoring, and external networking — were aimed exclusively at women, and all have proved reasonably successful.
The fourth, and by far the most ambitious, targeted all 34,000 E&Y employees. Its focus: balancing the work-life equation. That program had partners and staffers across the firm fundamentally reevaluating how E&Y does business. And the program wasn't about establishing flextime or job sharing; it was also about incorporating the reality of peoples' lives into the firm's business strategy.
By the end of 1999, 11 of the firm's 50 largest consulting teams and all of its 12 tax-and-audit practices had rolled out retention initiatives. From San Jose, California to Detroit, E&Y consultants, auditors, and accountants began experimenting with a variety of self-generated measures — among them, telecommuting, restricting consultants' travel, even curbing the temptation to check email and voice mail on weekends. (As this article went to press, France's Cap Gemini SA announced that it was acquiring E&Y's consulting practice. That deal will not affect the firm's work-life strategies.)
"What's impressive is the extent of E&Y's initiative and determination to create a wave — a set of changes — that will make the company look like a new organization in five years," says Stew Friedman, on leave as director of the Work/Life Integration Project (based at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), which recently did a case study on E&Y's efforts. "There is not just one measure here but a whole campaign that is being mobilized to engage everyone in changing the values and beliefs that drive the company."
Change hasn't come easily or quickly. E&Y remains, by nature, a deeply cautious place: Requests for even the most mundane information take weeks to process, while staffers ruminate over the implications of those requests. And many E&Y professionals still work an obscene number of hours, missing more anniversaries, birthdays, and vacations than they want to admit. Although some offices have seen retention improve dramatically — firmwide turnover among women had dropped by 5% between 1995 and 1998 — overall, turnover stands at 20%. Of course, treading water in this hot economy may be an achievement of sorts: A survey of 1,192 major U.S. employers, conducted by the American Management Association, found that between mid-1998 and mid-1999, turnover decreased in only 16% of those companies, whereas it rose in 28% of them. Yet Holmes acknowledges that E&Y has a long way to go. "Some of the work that we started in 1997 is only now beginning to bear fruit," she says.
Perhaps E&Y hasn't won the war, but it has turned life balance into a grassroots crusade with a momentum all its own. Many companies announce work-life programs with much fanfare, only to forget them within months. E&Y avoided that pitfall by implementing three critical strategies: First, Laskawy has made himself a visible and persistent advocate of life balance, ensuring that everyone understands that Holmes's office has his personal backing.
Second, Holmes doesn't dictate policy. Instead, she urges local offices to examine long-held assumptions and to invent their own solutions. In the past two years, hundreds of partners and staffers across the firm have formed "solution teams" to determine the scope and nature of life-balance programs. Says Holmes: "People who live with a problem can solve it better than anyone who rides in from headquarters on a white horse."
Finally, and most important, partners have tried to reflect change in their own work lives. Employees won't back off work until they see their bosses doing the same. So some of the most driven, hard-working partners now make a point of not checking or leaving voice mail on weekends or during vacations. "You simply have to lead by example," says Roger Dunbar, 54, managing partner for the northern California and Pacific Northwest area.
The work-life initiatives have energized E&Y, infusing its people with invention and purpose. Once-sacred truths — "serve the client at any cost," for instance — are questioned openly. In many offices, partners dare to raise their staffers' life-balance issues with clients. In fact, some actually work with clients to reinvent processes, making them family friendlier for employees on both ends. "For me, being part of the process and getting people to talk about these issues has been invigorating," says Jayne McNicol, 34, a senior audit manager in Palo Alto, California, who helped create one of the firm's first life-balance prototypes. Dunbar agrees: "That process has given me my passion back."
The Accountants: Balancing the Books
On the surface, Phil Laskawy is a conventional man who has taken a conventional path. Throughout his 39 years at E&Y, he's toiled and traveled for clients while his wife, Patricia, raised their two sons and worked part-time from home. Still, Laskawy places high value on balance, even leaving work at mid-afternoon to coach his sons' soccer teams. "My family has always been most important to me," he says. "That doesn't mean I don't work hard. The key is to balance that hard work with the rest of your life."
As he rose through E&Y's accounting ranks, Laskawy began noticing that the firm's female employees, most of whom were married to men with demanding careers of their own, were having a tough time striking that balance — and, as a result, were leaving the company. When he became chairman in 1994, he announced that improving the firm's retention of women would be one of his top priorities. Over the years, he had seen many internal efforts to boost women's retention fail, but he was determined to create a program that would work.
When he heard Holmes's report, Laskawy says, everything fell into place: "This wasn't just a women's issue; it was everybody's issue. We needed to make big, big changes."
From the start, Laskawy made sure that everyone knew how critical he believed Holmes's mission to be. He gave her a staff of three (now up to eight) and named her director of the Office for Retention (OFR) — a newly created function and perhaps the only one of its kind at a major U.S. company.
That wasn't all. Soon after Holmes signed on, Laskawy asked her to present Catalyst's findings to the firm's 2,172 partners at one of its triannual meetings. Then he took her on a six-week "road trip," during which he introduced her to senior leaders at the firm's top 19 offices. Laskawy made a point of telling the partners that Holmes's office was on the 26th floor, just down the hall from his, and that she reported directly to him. "I wanted people to know that this wasn't just a new flavor of the month," he says.
And his support has not flagged: He meets privately with Holmes once a month to plot strategy, and he often talks up the OFR in his companywide voice-mail messages to employees. "Seven times over the past two decades, we've focused on women's issues. But this time, we're seeing real change," one male managing partner told the Wharton researchers. Why? "We now believe that those issues are a real business imperative. And Phil has made them a priority."
Holmes understood how to leverage that support to effect change in a staunchly traditional organization. She had seen companies like E&Y before. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Holmes began her career representing the Alyeska Pipeline Co. in the Exxon Valdez oil-spill case. But two years of litigation dampened her interest in a corporate career. So she quit the law, married a musician, and spent the next seven years advising Fortune 500 clients on work-life issues, first as a consultant at the Families and Work Institute, in New York, and then at Catalyst.
As a consultant, Holmes had watched many of her clients' best-intentioned diversity efforts fail. At E&Y, she realized early on that her office had to create highly visible prototypes that would involve as many employees as possible. To do that, she began canvassing senior leaders, looking for allies. She wanted to establish the first programs in offices run by partners who were recognized as both innovative leaders and big moneymakers. "I was looking for people who could bring a lot of credibility," Holmes says.
Within two months, she had zeroed in on two offices under Dunbar's aegis — the San Jose and Palo Alto tax-and-audit practices. Despite its stature as one of the firm's most lucrative offices, the San Jose office was bleeding staff. Set in the heart of Silicon Valley, the roughly 600-person practice — today, it has nearly 1,000 people — was losing so many people to technology companies that by 1997, half of its professional staff had been at the firm for less than two years.
A self-described maverick who sports a beard and peppers his conversation with New Agey contemplations on leadership, Dunbar threw himself into the program. He quickly put together a steering committee of 16 top partners and senior managers. In January 1997, that committee spent a full day with Holmes and her colleague Susan Sweet, 38, thrashing out the causes underlying the retention problem.
At first, some partners pushed for opening a day-care center or starting concierge services. "That's a Band-Aid," Holmes told them, "not an answer to your problem." By the end of that first meeting, the committee had identified the substantive issues that could drive retention — among them allowing telecommuting, making leaders role models, and instituting an evaluation-and-feedback process. The steering committee then created eight teams — made up of 100 mostly rank-and-file managers — to study each issue and to come up with some viable solutions.
Four months later, the teams had generated about a dozen proposals. Some were modest — for example, making every day a casual-clothing day and encouraging people not to check email and voice mail on weekends or during vacations. Other suggestions cut to the core of how people worked, communicated, and related to clients. "Some of those things may sound obvious," Sweet says, "but they have been revolutionary in terms of their impact on the culture."
Walking through the quiet halls of the Palo Alto practice, past a sea of cubicles and cookie-cutter offices, it's hard to envision their clean-cut inhabitants as revolutionaries. But partners and managers bear witness to the change. Take McNicol, a senior audit manager in Palo Alto. Before McNicol started telecommuting, she would spend as many as three hours a day driving between work and her home in San Francisco on the eternally jammed Highway 101. Now she works at home in the mornings and evenings and drives to the office for a few hours at midday, when traffic is lighter. Her daily commute takes 90 minutes. "That's made my life so much less stressful," she says.
Some staffers in those two offices had telecommuted before, but only on an as-needed basis. The pilot represented E&Y's first attempt at creating a program that would work on a large scale. The firm provided qualified employees — those who had, for one thing, a discrete home office — with an ISDN phone line and high-security access to E&Y's computer network. It also threw in a computer, a printer-scanner-fax machine, and office furniture. E&Y legitimized telecommuting by making sure that people could get their work done at home as well as they could at the office.
The biggest change, however, had more to do with how people managed their work than with where they got it done. Like staffers at most professional-services firms, E&Y staffers get assignments from a number of different partners, and little attempt is made to coordinate those assignments. Employees usually accept most projects because billable hours are equated to a person's value to the firm. The result: unlimited work and collective insanity.
As part of the prototype, two committees — one for partners and senior managers, the other for junior staffers — took responsibility for reviewing time sheets to make sure that no one was overburdened. "There are a lot of type-A personalities here who will work themselves to frustration and then quit. We wanted to get to them before that happened," says Jeffrey Calvello, 33, a senior audit manager on one of the utilization committees in San Jose.
The junior-staff committees handed out booklets that describe the number of regular (2,080) and overtime (300) hours that employees should bill annually. And both committees in both offices made it clear that managers and staffers can appeal to their respective committees when the workload seems excessive. In practice, the committees sometimes intervene even when no one complains.
In 1999 alone, according to Sweet, the utilization committees reduced the workloads of 48 people. At one point, for example, Tyler Purvis, 26, a San Jose audit senior, was working nights and weekends trying to keep up with his 12 work projects — and plan his wedding. Before he could protest, the junior-staff committee discovered the problem. After consulting with Purvis's adviser, the committee found replacements for 5 of his projects. "These days, nobody wants to be responsible for putting someone over the edge," says Katie Jaeb, 34, a partner on the committee.
That sort of thinking, though, hasn't resounded universally in the San Jose and Palo Alto offices. "I know some of the partners think I'm nuts," says Dunbar. "They want to know, 'How can you run a several-hundred-million-dollar practice that way?' " When Dunbar issued the memo absolving staffers from checking email and voice mail while on vacation, nervous partners immediately fired back questions: Were they forbidden to check in? Did the policy include weekends? "I can't stop you from checking in on vacations and weekends if you want to," Dunbar told them, "but you have permission not to check in."
For Dunbar, who already had begun to reassess his own relationship to work, the policy took on huge symbolic value. Divorced in 1989 after 20 years of marriage, he came to believe that his marriage failed at least in part because of his 24-7 devotion to work. "I sacrificed everything for work," he says. "I worked all the time — the day before and the day after Thanksgiving. On vacation, I would check in with the office three or four times a day. I couldn't let the phone ring at home without answering it."
Determined now to model the right behavior, Dunbar rarely leaves his staffers voice mail on weekends. "Even if it's more convenient for me to leave a voice mail at 10 PM on Friday, I will just record it and save it for Monday delivery," he says. And when he traveled to Greece on vacation with his second wife, he didn't call the office even once. He put another partner in charge, made a copy of his itinerary, and then left instructions on his voice-mail greeting for callers to contact the partner who was filling in for him or, in an emergency, his secretary.
More to the point, employee retention has improved dramatically. Dunbar estimates that turnover in the San Jose and Palo Alto offices has dropped about 15 percentage points since the life-balance initiatives were implemented.
But the offices are still losing valuable people. In this era of start-ups and stock options, the career path at a professional-services firm looks increasingly tortuous. Why work like a maniac for 12 years to become a partner, when you can make more money faster at a new high-tech joint down the road? Within 18 months, half of the members of the original life-balance steering committee had left the firm. Even some who benefited directly from the measures that were adopted in the two practices have quit to join Internet startups.
Scott Gawel, 29, assistant controller and director of finance in San Jose, was one of the pilot telecommuters. He left E&Y in November to become director of finance at Petopia.com, a San Francisco-based startup. "I had another seven years to go before I'd become a partner at E&Y. During that time, I could be at three different startups." Besides, he adds, as much as the pilot program improved his work life, it didn't change the fact that in a client-driven business, you have to "jump when a partner says jump. Looking down the road, I couldn't imagine both having a family and becoming a partner." Gawel is engaged to be married in September.
Stories like Gawel's only deepen Dunbar's enthusiasm for the life-balance measures. After all, he says, Gawel probably stayed at E&Y a year longer than he would have if the firm hadn't allowed him to work from his San Francisco home. And Dunbar believes that ultimately a more flexible workplace helps compensate employees for any financial sacrifice. Sanity has to be worth something, after all.
While he weighs expanding the telecommuting program — about 40 employees are on a waiting list — Dunbar is mulling over the possibility of creating satellite offices that would bring work closer to people's homes. He's also requiring partners to undergo annual 360-degree evaluations from staff, peers, and supervisors. Eventually, the results of those evaluations, including how well partners promote work-life balance, will be tied to their compensation. The message: Balance and retention matter.
The Consultants: Are We Home Yet?
And then there were the consultants. Holmes soon discovered that E&Y's huge consulting organization — about 37% of its business — posed very different life-balance challenges. Accountants typically work close to home, but consultants often spend months on the road, traveling to visit clients who are located in different states. At one time, E&Y consultants had reveled in the road-warrior role, brandishing their frequent-flier miles and hotel receipts like badges of honor. But now, those demands on their personal lives were breeding resentment.
Increasingly, consultants were complaining openly — and talking with their feet. Turnover remained high, averaging about 20% a year, according to one internal study. And 80% of those who left cited work-life tensions as a primary motivation.
In focus groups with consultants who were working on a Detroit project, stories of missed anniversaries and children's birthdays came pouring out. Even those who lived in the Detroit area were complaining that their schedules were so inflexible that they couldn't even take time to run a simple errand.
More than that, "there was a feeling that top-down communication was virtually nonexistent," says Bob Forbes, 38, the partner responsible for the Detroit project, who helped develop its life-balance prototype. "Nobody felt comfortable saying to a supervisor or a client, 'Hey, I need to go home.' "
In response to that concern, Holmes rolled out the Detroit prototype in the summer of 1997. What evolved from that program and others that were launched at the same time — including a 170-person pilot in Indianapolis — was a radical reinterpretation of how consultants work. Teams confronted the demands of heavy travel and long workweeks. They worked with clients to minimize job stress. And they found ways to bring personal issues into discussions of work assignments and schedules.
Most teams began the process with a 27-question life-balance survey that probed team members' feelings about everything from living arrangements to the expected duration of a project. Then, working together, consultants and their supervisors completed a "life-balance operating agreement" that anticipated personal and professional needs and spelled out ways to meet them.
Life balance was uncharted territory for E&Y consultants, and supervisors were often surprised by what they discovered in the agreement sessions. Take Christopher Mikucki, a manager on a consulting project in Indianapolis. Mikucki, 29, says he had no idea that one of his team members, Marcy Benson, had a commute of more than an hour each way, a drive made more stressful by her client's proclivity for 7 AM meetings. He also didn't know that Benson, 23, was in the midst of planning her wedding. "I consider myself a fairly open, personable guy," he says, "but I wouldn't have known about all of that if we hadn't discussed her agreement. That gave her a forum."
Discussions like that also gave Mikucki a chance to air his own concerns. Though driven to succeed at E&Y, Mikucki has interests outside of work that he's determined to pursue. He's married, for one thing. And he's a company commander in the National Guard, overseeing a unit of 140 infantry soldiers — a duty that requires him to leave work at 4 PM a few days a month.
His superiors understood how important the National Guard commitment was to Mikucki. But he also needed the support of his team members. So he and Benson struck a bargain: He would cover for her when she needed to take time off to make wedding arrangements, and she would take on some of his work when he had National Guard obligations.
They also agreed that instead of coming in an hour earlier to prepare for their 7 AM client meeting, they would do as much prep work as possible the night before. Mikucki contacted their colleagues in Europe, who typically provided data for those meetings, and urged them to send as much material as possible the night before. A few weeks later, Mikucki and Benson persuaded the client to move the meetings to 10 AM. That provided the client with more current information from Europe and relieved the client's team members, all of whom had children, of some stress.
Mikucki also took responsibility for checking in on the 40 team members who were working in Paris and Madrid. He discovered that several consultants were quietly working themselves to exhaustion. One young woman had been alone in Paris for five months. She had made just two quick trips home to Indianapolis during that time. Mikucki immediately sent her home for a break; gave her a new, less-stressful assignment abroad; and restructured her old job so that her replacement wouldn't have to work alone for months at a time.
E&Y also hired a full-time human-resources officer for the team in Indianapolis — the first time it had done so for any client site. "When you're in the heat of working long hours, you don't feel comfortable saying to your supervisor, who is working as hard as you are, 'Hey, I don't want to do this,' " says Robert Sydow, 43, a lead partner on the project. "It helps to have a dedicated resource." The firm has since deployed hr officers to 16 other consulting projects.
The most widely used and applauded innovation within the consulting organization, however, is the "3-4-5" travel schedule. Under that schedule, first tested in Detroit, consultants spend three nights away from home, four days at a client's site, and a fifth day "adding value" by working either at home or at their home office.
In practice, that often means flying out early Monday morning, working four long days at a client's site, and then returning home bleary-eyed late on Thursday night. Most teams stagger schedules — some members work Monday through Thursday, and others work Tuesday through Friday — so that consultants are on-site every day.
Still, by mortal standards, that's an enormous amount of travel. But that schedule is a vast improvement on the norm. "The new schedule absolutely made my time away tolerable," says Martin Schyns, 42, a manager at E&Y and a father of two who lives in Lake Forest, Illinois. He worked a 3-4-5 schedule on the Indianapolis project for about a year. Instead of spending Fridays commuting and Saturdays recovering, he got to spend his entire weekends with his wife and young children. "My kids get to see me more often," he says, "and they recognize me when I come home now. If I had to be away five days a week, I don't know whether I'd stay in consulting."
The 3-4-5 schedule is so popular that consulting partners now promote the schedule to clients as part of the up-front negotiations. And clients, typically struggling with the life-balance conundrum themselves, are increasingly receptive. Rich Johnson, 40, CIO of Norton HealthCare, a hospital chain based in Louisville, Kentucky, immediately agreed to try the 3-4-5 schedule when an E&Y partner proposed it. Johnson himself had been a consultant but had changed careers a few years ago because he hated being separated from his wife and children. Now he feels that clients have to change their mind-set. "E&Y's turnover is our problem too," he says. "A shift has to occur on the consumer side of this relationship."
Other clients, impressed by E&Y's pitch for balance, have drawn similar conclusions. Worried about the long hours that their employees were working, senior E&Y partners and the Indianapolis client decided jointly last year to give most of those involved with the project the week of Thanksgiving off. They also offered consultants living in Madrid and their client's staffers health-club memberships and concert tickets. Some clients have even asked E&Y to consult on life-balance issues — an idea that Holmes's office is considering.
Leaders of the Detroit and Indianapolis projects say that their life- balance initiatives have improved employee retention by 10 or more percentage points without hurting client service. But a number of consultants report that their 3-4-5 schedule caused some resentment among counterparts at their clients' firms. "You'd hear a few jokes before you were leaving to go home," one consultant says.
Ironically, some E&Y consultants who live near a client's site also have objected. Working five days a week and commuting from the suburbs, they have less time to spend with their family than do out-of-state commuters who are working on the 3-4-5 schedule. Schyns now works five days a week in E&Y's Chicago office, about an hour's drive from his home. He's looking forward, though, to hitting the road again. "I don't see my kids enough," he says. "I really miss my Fridays."
E&Y may not have worked through all of its life-balance problems, but it is committed to keep trying. Last summer, less than three years after joining the firm, Holmes was made partner, a sure vote of confidence from the firm's leaders. This year, she vows to expand the initiatives by promoting OFR's Life Balance Matrix, an online database that describes the best life-balance practices across the firm.
Meanwhile, Laskawy, who is planning to retire next year, says that he wants to be sure that the firm chooses a successor who will keep pushing the life-balance initiatives. "It's the right thing to do, and it makes business sense," he explains. "Few choices in life are that clear."
Pamela Kruger (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company contributing editor, lives in Millburn, New Jersey. Contact Deborah Holmes by email (email@example.com).
Sidebar: Principles for Change
How do you make changes in an organization that's mired in tradition? Ernst & Young put these five principles to work.
Start at the top.
Chairman and CEO Phil Laskawy has made it clear that Deborah Holmes's Office for Retention is not just window dressing. In a company where office size and location still mean a lot, Holmes's office space is just down the hall from Laskawy's. He also personally introduced her to the firm's top people and promoted her programs in companywide voice mails.
Lead by example.
When executives work like maniacs, their staffers are likely to do the same. At E&Y, partners try to become models of balance. When the 3-4-5 travel schedule for consultants was implemented, many partners adopted it as well. They also began talking openly about how they meet their own needs, so that others would feel comfortable doing the same.
One size doesn't fit all.
That's especially true in massive organizations like E&Y. So the firm encourages each office and consulting project to set up its own solution teams. An added benefit: Because large numbers of leaders and staffers are involved in the process, the measures had widespread support when they were put in place. "Most people are much more enthusiastic about new ideas that are homegrown," says Holmes, "and the ideas tend to be a lot better."
Keep it simple.
In 1997, consultants on E&Y's Detroit project had an idea: Why not offer extra compensation to staffers who log extra hours on the road? But they dropped the idea when it began raising too many questions. "If you want change to be sustainable, you have to keep it simple," says Bob Forbes, the partner in charge of that project.
Don't forget the big picture.
No matter what initiatives E&Y's solution teams consider, team members must always consider the corporate mission: to provide top-quality service to the firm's clients. Some teams resist measures that they feel might impede client service, even as other teams embrace those innovations. "Every change that's made has to be in the context of serving the client," says Forbes, "because that's what we're all about."
Sidebar: Sanity Toolbox
When Ernst & Young launched its life-balance initiatives, the firm didn't just roll out one or two measures. It offered a wide variety of items — some quick fixes, some long-term solutions. Here is a sampling.
The 3-4-5 travel schedule.
Consultants can spend months at a time on the road. To ease the grind, the 3-4-5 schedule requires that consultants spend just three nights away from home, four days at a client's site, and day five working either at home or in their home office. Many consultants spend that fifth day at home, catching up on errands.
Life-balance survey and agreement.
Because consultants work on different assignments with different colleagues, each project begins with a comprehensive survey of individual needs and concerns. Consultants and their supervisors then complete a life-balance operating agreement — a contract that spells out staffing requirements, an individual's specific needs, and the way that a supervisor plans to meet those needs.
E&Y's tax-and-audit offices in San Jose and Palo Alto came up with a simple innovation: Employees aren't obliged to check email or voice mail either on weekends or while they're on vacation. No one is prevented from doing so, but the message is clear: Checking in when you're off work is unnecessary.
This is far from a novel solution, but it has gained broad acceptance at E&Y. The company's Silicon Valley offices screen suitable candidates for telecommuting, based on logistics and temperament. Commuting distance, workload, and seniority are also criteria. Then E&Y provides qualified employees with an ISDN phone line, secure access to its network, a computer and other equipment, and office furniture. As a result, employees' commutes are shortened, and their morale is heightened.
Several factors contribute to unmanageable workloads: First, E&Y accountants get their assignments from a number of partners. Second, little effort is made to coordinate those assignments. And third, employees are loath to turn down billable hours. To address those problems, E&Y's San Jose and Palo Alto practices have each appointed two committees to review employees' time sheets and to make sure that no one is overwhelmed with work. Those committees can remove staffers from assignments, even when no replacements are available. The result? Less burnout.
Called the Life Balance Matrix, this online database contains descriptions of the best life-balance measures that are used across the firm as well as a list of contacts. The database lets offices share information and resources, so that they can build on one another's success.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.