On December 7th 2021, I sat in a meeting room in our offices. Notionally taking part in a Zoom call, I was mostly just enjoying the happy background hubbub among our smart and delightful colleagues in the main office. Emerging half-an-hour later, there was stony silence and grim faces: Rumours were rife that the UK would be going back into lockdown. That didn’t happen, but the City of London emptied almost overnight. It was a stark reminder of how we need to make the most of what we can do when we can.
Research we carried out in November 2021 suggested that clients expected more consulting work to take place in their offices. Asked about the extent to which consultants would come to their offices, 27% of clients said it would be on a frequent basis and 52% said when it was important to do so, although 27% thought it would be hardly at all. With many client organisations well-versed in effective remote working, the Omicron wave is unlikely to have a significant impact on how white-collar work is done (the impact on staff absence is a different matter). With every increase and decrease in restrictions, office workers get better and faster at adapting. However, more face-to-face interaction over the summer also demonstrated that some conversations are always better done in person.
In this unpredictable, rapidly changing environment, the opportunity—and challenge—for consulting firms is to ensure that every face-to-face meeting counts. Not only will this create value in the moment, but it will also create a bulwark, helping prevent businesses slipping into automatically assuming that the majority of consultants will work off-site in the future. But this will require demonstrating that in-person meetings can have a very specific value. Clients recognise that such meetings are better vehicles for sharing ideas, working faster, and coming up with more creative solutions.
Interestingly, these are all qualities typically associated with experience/innovation centres—the physical suites built by many consulting firms before the crisis, which were aimed at helping clients focus on, and gain stakeholder alignment around, difficult decisions. Although most closed over the pandemic, feedback from clients we’ve spoken to about their experience in such environments was extraordinarily positive. Experience centres didn’t just help senior people in client organisations collaborate more effectively, but they also worked to change how these people saw the consulting firms who hosted the sessions. Clients recognise that the most important issues they face can only be solved by people from different parts of their organisation working together; and its one of the main reasons (alongside capacity and expertise) that clients turn to consulting firms for help. Experience centres give clients an opportunity to realise this ambition, and allow consultants to work in multidisciplinary ways, too.
The problem with experience centres though, is scalability. Even though some firms have invested in networks of centres, latent demand far outstrips supply, and it would take years for all of a firm’s clients to go through this impression-changing experience—and even longer at the moment because understandable caution means many facilities remain underused.
Going forwards perhaps the experience of the last two years has taught us that we shouldn’t take face-to-face meetings for granted. Consulting firms need to make the best possible use of each of its precious face-to-face meetings with clients. Perhaps we need to stop thinking of meetings as simple conversations and start planning them as though each is a mini experience centre that includes the deliberate bringing together of different information and people with a range of perspectives.