Remote possibilities: consultants are used to working in scattered teams but are adjusting to distance from clients
Remote possibilities: consultants are used to working in scattered teams © Getty Images

Consultants think of themselves as ideas people and like to encourage a tight-knit corporate culture. When the pandemic closed offices and pushed staff into fully remote work, consultancies were among the most enthusiastic experimenters with new ways of meeting, collaborating and sustaining bonds between staff.

Arca Blanca, a data and consulting company, staged a virtual murder mystery game and an online wine-tasting. PA Consulting instituted “coffee-roulette” to encourage random online meetings between colleagues. Some members of McKinsey project teams cooked together via video. Mason Advisory, a Salford-based digital and technology consultant, even managed to stage an in-person “away day” last autumn. Respecting the UK’s “rule of six”, it divided its staff into eight Covid-compliant teams and sent them to five historic locations, from Chester to Stratford-upon-Avon, linking them virtually.

Firms in the UK’s Leading Management Consultants ratings say the relative ease with which they have adapted reflects their mobile working habits. Many are used to working on site alongside clients. As Tamzen Isaacson, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), says: “If all consultants went back to the office, it wouldn’t be able to house everybody.” Enforced remote working has made firms think about the future of work, for them and for their clients.

Consulting can be “by its nature, quite an intimate, face-to-face profession” when working with clients, says Charles Newhouse, global consulting director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence. Last April, as the pandemic hit, he was sceptical about how effective his team could be working completely remotely. Now, he is “three months into an engagement with a client who I haven’t yet met”, and his team have developed new ways of relating to customers. He says everyone has to be “more approachable and more interruptible”, mimicking the chance meetings and “micro-moments” that ease co-operation between consultant and client.

A recent survey by the MCA reflects this tension. While more time spent servicing clients was one of the top three benefits of working remotely, 73 per cent of the consultants surveyed said spending less time with clients was the biggest challenge. The advantages of more remote work, according to Isaacson, include the ability of clients to tap a larger pool of advice. Consultancies themselves can draw on a bigger pool of potential consultants.

Steve Watmough, Mason Advisory’s chief executive, says hiring has become faster thanks to the ability to interview and assess candidates remotely rather than in person. He has hired a fifth of his 58 staff in the pandemic. The first question he used to ask was: “Are you prepared to be away from home three days a week?” Now, he jokes, it is more likely to be “Are you happy to be sat at home three or four days a week?” He concedes that lacks “glitz and glamour”, even if staff value the chance to do concentrated work alone. Once coronavirus is under control, he expects the industry to revert to “somewhere between on-site and off-site” work.

Inevitably, firms that can flex or leave their office leases are reducing, or at least adapting office space. That will also require some permanent human and managerial adaptation. Virginia Simmons, McKinsey’s managing partner for UK and Ireland, says the firm found quickly that “development leaders”, responsible for career counselling and pastoral care, had to increase virtual meetings with team members, to compensate for lost chance encounters in the office.

Some of these stresses have been common to all white-collar jobs during the pandemic. A few of the consultants’ solutions are transferable, but not all. Laura Empson of City University’s business school, who studies professional services firms, warns consultants against assuming that techniques that worked for them during lockdown can also be applied wholesale to clients. Non-consultants are likely to have a different, less closely knit culture, she points out.

Gitte Ganderup, co-founder of Arca Blanca, agrees. “You have to work with the current culture of the [client’s] business,” she says. Claire Logan, who heads PA Consulting’s human capital team, says the firm shared its list of resilience and wellbeing tips with clients. But she says clients now have to ask themselves what their own future of work should look like and how much of what worked during lockdown they need to keep.

BAE’s Newhouse is sceptical about any company that celebrates a “rapid digital transformation”. “I would politely suggest that they haven’t transformed at all,” he says. “They have modernised their IT, but they haven’t fundamentally changed the way they work.” Advising clients on a deeper shift is likely to keep consultancies busy for some time to come.

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