The architype of a consultant is one of a road warrior. Wake up early on a Monday morning to catch a flight only to return late Thursday or Friday after spending countless hours on a client-site. It has been a badge of honor that I liken to a militaristic mindset of “only being happy only when you’re miserable”. However, that is not the SLKone model, and that differentiator is what attracted me to this organization in the first place.
I remember sitting at the information session while our COO, Phil Lynch, explained that we that we travel as needed and what drives value is collaboration of effective teams, not how many hours you spend on-site. It is also the basis for why we favor fixed-fee projects. I took that to heart and believe in this model but had always wondered how we could test the validity of that approach. Then, the 2019 pandemic hit, and we found ourselves in a new, albeit extreme, normal. This article examines the impact of COVID-19 on the traditional consulting model and makes the case for why the “hybrid” model is the future of the industry. It also discusses the impact to service delivery and product offerings.
Let us begin by defining the models. The “traditional” consulting model is defined as spending 80-100% of the time at the client site. The “remote model” is defined as spending 0% of time at the client site. The “hybrid” model, as its name suggests, is somewhere in between. SLKone has always employed the hybrid model and believes it is here to stay based on the results of productivity studies of the pandemic, changing workplace behavior, and importance of sustainability for millennials and younger generations.
Productivity has been a hot button topic during the pandemic and organizations have taken steps to engage their employees to discern changes in their productivity. Studies show mixed results, and the key may be the organization and type of work being done, not remote work itself. According to the New York Times1, organizations like Cisco have seen increased productivity during the pandemic. A Deutsche Bank survey showed employees in the US felt more productive while Europeans felt less productive. An Eventbrite survey showed engineering teams thriving while sales and customer services teams were challenged. The results of an HBR article titled “The Pandemic Is Widening a Corporate Productivity Gap” attributes productivity gains to the organization itself. If the organization was productive prior to the pandemic, then they will continue to be productive. Finally, a BCG study2 highlights the productivity perceptions between individual and collaborative work. Intuitively, 75% of respondents felt they were able to maintain or improve productivity on individual tasks while 51% of respondents felt they were that way on collaborate activities. The fact that employees can be more productive, especially on individual tasks, means that remote work is likely here to stay but does not support a fully remote model.
Moreover, the pandemic is driving changes in workplace behavior and requirements. The same BCG study found that 60% of employees said they want some flexibility on where and/or when they work. Employees desire the social camaraderie that comes with being at the office while enjoying the flexibility to work from home if their child is sick, they need to go to the doctor’s or just work on individual tasks without the distraction of other co-workers. Additionally, companies like Zoom, Microsoft, and Slack are continuing to innovate their suite of tools to make remote work even easier. However, this does not come without risks. Social isolation and burnout are serious long-term considerations as the line between home and work becomes blurred. Let us also not forget how important maintaining relationships is to the consulting industry. New business development becomes extremely difficult without the ability to attend conferences and networking events and meet new leaders. Without a hybrid model, long-term productivity, our social fabric, and ability to engage in business development activities will likely suffer.
Finally, consulting is a carbon intensive job. Flying is one of the most carbon intensive activities for individuals. A 2019 study by consultancy.eu3 shows the number of consultants concerned with their CO2 footprint rose from 67% to 84% in the past 5 years. Governments and world leaders are continuing to make strides towards carbon neutrality which may also yield higher flying costs through initiatives like carbon-taxes. Whether it be intrinsic motivation or cost, it is very likely we see consultants flying less in a post-pandemic world furthering supporting a hybrid model.
As we believe the hybrid model is the future, two key questions we ask ourselves are: 1. How do consulting organizations best position themselves to guarantee quality service delivery? 2. What new offerings will come available?
SLKone believes its’ ethos of bespoke solutions will be a guiding principle to quality service delivery. Organizations will have varying levels of productivity, needs, and availability throughout a project. Communication will be key to ensure alignment of schedules and objectives; no one wants to visit the client site only to find out their sponsor is working from their beach house in Maui this week. Deliberately evaluating each trip is also important, and SLKone has developed a framework to help guide trip value.
There is no substituting an in-person meeting, so business development opportunities fall in the travel zone. We have defined four quadrants for this exercise consisting of the “type of work” and “learning style” required to derive sufficient value from interaction. Non-visual tasks are defined as those that do not require real-world/in-person presence. For example, reviewing marketing reports, executing analysis, and checking in on progress probably does not require being on-site. Visual tasks are the opposite with sufficient value only derived in person. Examples include evaluating roofline utilization at a facility or understanding the daily activities of a field technician. Work that requires spatial or physical understanding justifies travel. Otherwise, it merits a closer look.
Activities like strategy and brain-storming sessions, especially early on in projects, are invaluable in-person experiences. Team building, ideation, and getting a “feel” for the room cannot be replicated by remote work. This is when it is most important to “get it right” as alignment on objectives, issues, and strategy define go-forward options. As projects progress, however, scopes and relationships become more solidified and collaboration is simplified through remote tools. Therefore, unless you are in the critical beginning of the project or working on an individual task, travel may not be necessary.
New in-demand offerings will exist for designing organizations around the hybrid model. If we know remote work is, at some level, here to stay, then it makes sense that organizations should design for that future to maintain their attractiveness and remain competitive. Consultants that can help clients maximize productivity while minimizing overhead costs and sustain innovation will succeed. The hybrid model’s impact to innovation, the key driver in long-term economic success, is unknown. Only time will tell, but in the meantime, consultants can help clients assess the benefits, gaps, and risks of the hybrid model on an organization’s internal innovation capabilities. Activities quantifying productivity and innovation, leveraging digital tools, and accelerating digital transformation will be vital internal capabilities for consulting organizations.
SLKone has been employing a hybrid model since its inception and sees it as the future of consulting. We believed we could sustain productivity while driving down costs for our clients and the pandemic allowed us to test that model. The mixed results on productivity and social impact make a fully remote model unsustainable, thus the hybrid model presents the best of both worlds. If your business needs help adjusting to a post-pandemic world, please check out SLKone’s Business Restart Incubator.