I’m less than a minute into my first conversation with Danny Hong when I realise I’m in the presence of a man who unapologetically loves his job.
Hong and I are sitting in a pristine conference room on the 43rd floor of the Grace Building, a towering midtown Manhattan skyscraper that overlooks both ends of the island. Hong has a warm, easy smile and fine black hair that falls over his ears. His enthusiasm for his work catches me off guard, but it shouldn’t. Hong’s workplace was just voted the best in the US.
Hong is a partner at Bain & Company, a titan in the world of management consulting and, according to this year’s Glassdoor Employees’ Choice awards, the best place to work in the US. The Boston-based company is no stranger to the distinction. In the nine years Glassdoor has issued its rankings, Bain has never fallen outside the top four. This year’s first-place finish marks its third time at No. 1, the first being in 2012 and the second in 2014.
In the popular conception of great workplaces, that is surprising. Tech companies such as Facebook and Google — whose offices look more like rec centres than stuffy corporate headquarters — are often the ones that get the most press. But Glassdoor’s survey of employee satisfaction, which gives special preference to things like how often and consistently people give positive reviews, shows mainstream appeal matters little in the grand scheme of things.
For a workplace to be ranked so highly for nearly a decade straight, there has to be a lot going on behind the scenes. Endeavouring to figure out what exactly that might be, I took a trip to the New York office to see what makes Bain so special.
‘A Bainie never lets another Bainie fail’
“I think about what I’ve been doing over the last year, and it’s a lot of existential questions for these companies,” Hong says of the clients he works with. He helps them answer questions like, Why are we even in business? What are we trying to do?
“You can’t talk to a Bain person for more than 30 seconds and them not mention it’s also the culture and the people,” he says. “It’s a real thing. They’re just kind, good people.”
As Hong and other Bainies say, Bain is a great place to work because everyone understands that teamwork matters. And it doesn’t matter in a nebulous r
ah rah, we’re all in this together way. It’s real.
When consultants make mistakes, their coworkers share in the responsibility to correct them. They have been there before, and they know they will soon find themselves in similar binds again.
When Hong forgot his passport on his way to London a couple of weeks ago, so many people in the New York office offered to get it to him in Boston that he had to pick the least senior person from a long list of possible lifelines to be his courier. He made his flight without delay.
Bainies come to respect this safety net from the beginning. On day one, when young associate consultants walk into the office, their orientation teaches them about Bain’s culture of support. They learn the company motto, “a Bainie never lets another Bainie fail,” which was repeated to me unironically whenever I asked why Bain is so great.
‘Build your own Bain’
In addition to making people feel safe and welcome, great workplaces need to give workers a sense of control. Chris Congdon, Steelcase’s global director of research communications, says the most obvious way a sense of control comes through is in physical workspaces.
People need to feel like they aren’t chained to a desk. If they want a quieter environment so they can focus, they should be able to duck into a one-person lounge. They should be able to shut a door. According to Steelcase’s review of its productivity research, half of employees have trouble focusing at work because of distractions, which leads to an average loss of 86 minutes of work each day. Flexible spaces help recover that lost time.
Bain’s offices aren’t buzzing with electric scooters or robots in beta testing, but they do embrace the recent insights into the importance of nooks and crannies. People hunch over laptops in the kitchen’s diner-style booths and block out noise in high-backed couches. There’s a one-person Rainbow Room, so called because it overlooks Rockefeller Center, which houses the actual Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of the Comcast Building.
Control looks like choosing the trajectory of your own career. When I talk to Som Sowani, a manager who until recently spent nine years working in the London office when she wasn’t taking business trips to Africa and around Europe, she says the mantra of support isn’t the only one Bainies like to repeat. People are told to “build your own Bain,” Sowani says.
Often that means playing the role of globetrotter. “People move around the world a lot,” Sowani says. For some, that’s a have-to scenario, an obligation. But she says for most people it’s a “get-to,” a luxury.
The company’s business is so global that by the time Bainies become managers, 50% of them have called a foreign office home. For Sowani, the travel-intense approach made transitioning to the New York office seamless. “I’ve got peers who used to work with me in London who are also here,” she says, “so there was that little bit of a comfort zone.”
But Bain also goes to great lengths to ensure people leave that comfort zone in small but important ways. Instead of dividing the office by departments or rank, each bay of cubicles contains a mix of consultants, managers, and partners. The shakeup is meant to reflect the company’s “one team” attitude, which values all opinions regardless of rank or role.
These kinds of considerations stand in stark contrast to what is really a rather plain workspace. Save for the bay puns (“Bayoncé,” “Obay-Wan Kenobay”) that accompany life-sized cutouts, Bain’s office looks like, well, an office.
Instead of focusing on flashy art or frivolous perks, the company directs its energy where it counts most: people.
Bain’s plaza is a combination kitchen, pingpong area, and coffee bar just on the other side of the 43rd-floor lobby. On one side are floor-to-ceiling windows, where Bainies can peer over downtown Manhattan from 450 feet in the sky. On the other are dozens of framed, black-and-white photographs of Bainies’ children assembled into two giant mosaics.
Joseph White, the director of workplace strategy, design, and management at Herman Miller, believes those kinds of adornments are what turn a polished office into a shared, homey space. “You can use the physical environment to tell a story, so that as you move through it you learn more and more about the organisation,” he says.
A few months ago, Danny Hong returned from a second stint on paternity leave after his son Pablo was born. While he was away, he didn’t answer a single work email, nor did he feel compelled to, he says. “I left the city for two straight months. I was a ghost.”
As it turns out, Bain’s generous parental-leave policy is probably its least generous perk. Every parent, regardless of gender or caregiver role, receives eight weeks of fully paid leave, which they can use however they want until the child turns 1 year old.
Earlier this year, the company expanded the leave for birth mothers, from 12 to 16 weeks.
Putting such an emphasis on families is rare but important. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of 12 weeks of leave for all new mothers. The top four employers in Glassdoor’s rankings all hit the mark.
If there is a great downside to employment at Bain, it’s the hours. Hong and Sowani both say that 10- or 12-hour days aren’t unheard of, but they also say Bainies tend to have an easier time managing their schedules as they move through their careers.
Healthy paychecks no doubt make that grind easier to tolerate. Russ Hagey, Bain’s chief talent officer, says Bain’s salaries are competitive to the industry, as a typical consultant makes just shy of $140,000, excluding about $30,000 extra in bonuses, stock options, and profit sharing. Fresh out of college, associate consultants already make over $75,000, a threshold that behavioural-economics research suggests improves a person’s happiness.
Hagey says these perks contribute to Bain’s having “the lowest turnover in our industry” with rates in the single digits. Normally, consulting is notorious for being a job-hopping profession. Bain’s ability to keep people around longer — not just in general but relative to its own peer group — speaks volumes about what it’s doing right.
Hong likes to remind himself of that every few years when outside job offers come around. Each new offer is a chance to review what has made the past 14 years so worthwhile, and perhaps even leave for greener pastures. But so far, curiosity has yet to get the best of him. Even small interactions with his friends, many of whom are CEOs at startups and public companies, put the bigger picture in relief.
“Maybe I’m just hearing things,” he says, “but it really does sound like I enjoy my job better than they do. When we break it down, that envy’s not there. I don’t see what else they have that I don’t.”