What Happens When All Employees Work When They Feel Like It

Freek Vermeulen | 17 December 2014

Do you work for a firm where managers think employees really have to work (what is called) “full time”? That forty hours per week (or whatever is considered “full time” in your profession) is really a necessity? Perhaps you are one of those people with that conviction yourself — that in your job it is really not possible to work “part time.”

Of course you are wrong: working five out of seven days is really just as arbitrary as six days, or three – or twenty-eight for that matter. Chopping up the total amount of work that needs to done in your firm into blocks that suit our human physiology has nothing to do with the actual work. If the total amount of work that needs to be done in a firm in one week equals 20,000 hours, it is just as arbitrary to chop that up into 500 40-hour work weeks as it is to chop it up into 800 blocks of 25 hours. A five-day work week consisting of eight-hour days happens to be the social norm in many of our societies at present, but I have long thought that a company that disrupts that kind of social norm in its industry could potentially build a momentous competitive advantage out of it.

Let me give you an example. The management consulting firm Eden McCallum, from London, does strategy work much like McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, and Bain – but with one important exception: none of its roughly 500 consultants are on the payroll. All of them work on a freelance basis. Around the time of the dot-com boom in 2000, founders Liann Eden and Dena McCallum saw that many of their ex-McKinsey colleagues would love to continue doing some consulting work, just not full time. Many of them wanted to do a few consulting assignments on the side while they started their own company, wrote a book, or took care of their children, or just worked less. Others, it appeared, did not mind working full time at all, but they disliked some of the other things that came with being a partner in a traditional consulting firm, such as working on internal committees and appraisals, or doing customer acquisition. Still others were happy to work full time but only eight months a year, or without having to fly someplace every week. But for the traditional consulting firms, it was always “all or nothing”, which meant that some highly capable and motivated senior consultants would drop out of the profession altogether, or would continue but only grudgingly.

Eden and McCallum’s idea was: Come work for us! If you’re good, we’ll find you a project that suits your desires. They now have 12 partners in the firm who manage customer relations and secure and define new client projects. The only thing the consultants (usually ex-McKinsey, Bain, or BCG) are responsible for is to execute these projects to the best of their abilities. Eden McCallum, thus, manages to keep its overhead and other fixed costs at a minimum. Consequently, they are able to offer their teams of consultants at comparatively low prices, while customers are happy that the senior people actually do the work. (A frequent complaint regarding traditional consultants is that the senior partner disappears after the work has been secured, letting more junior colleagues complete the task.) Does it work? Eden McCallum is growing swiftly, having opened an office in Amsterdam with further plans afoot to set up shop in New York City, while working with increasingly prestigious clients, including Pfizer, Shell, Philips, Danone, Barclays, and many others.

Eden McCallum built its competitive advantage on unbundling the work of consultants. Is Eden McCallum the ideal employer for everyone? Most certainly not. Traditionally, senior management consultants have a range of tasks: one of them is executing client projects, but they also have to acquire future projects, and secure work on them for more junior people, they have to do internal work, regarding knowledge development, appraisals, and managing the firm, and a variety of other tasks – all on a full-time basis. And that is exactly what many consultants like doing. However, there are also a significant number who do not want to do all of the above anymore, who are not good at all of them, or who don’t want to do it five days per week all year long. If these consultants are good at executing client projects, Eden McCallum will find them a project that suits their preferences.

Could an approach like theirs work in other industries? Eden McCallum has set itself up as a so-called “double-sided market,” tying together supply (consultants) and demand (clients) – similar to platforms like eBay, eHarmony, peer-to-peer betting company Betfair, or property search firm Zoopla. Leaders at the firm realize that for skilled people disillusioned with the employment model of traditional firms, there is a strong attraction to work tailored to their individual requirements. This allows the firm to hire good employees at a good price. Clearly, there are other industries where the skill level of a firm’s employees is crucial for competitive advantage.

In fact, many companies have begun to realize that real competitive advantage is usually based on people rather than patents or products. By customizing work for its employees, Eden McCallum has begun to upend the consulting industry. If unbundling work can give a firm access to superior skills at lower prices, it could very well change your industry, too.