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Remote or face-to-face: Why the future of consulting work will be a hybrid

One of the profound privileges of the work we do is being able to speak to senior executives about their views and use of consulting and professional services. Always interesting, often blisteringly forthright, these conversations are among the most important sources of information we have to predict future trends. So, we’ve naturally been listening hard to all the comments being made about remote working.

Overall, this has been a broadly positive experience. Clients have appreciated the fact that consultants are investing more time in ensuring meeting are well-organised and to-the-point, with clear agendas and nominated individuals preparing material in advance and talking to it in the meeting. All of which are the hallmarks of effective meetings—and so nothing new—but now far more consistently adopted. Gone is the fluff: The hand-waving partners who only show up at the very start and end of the project; the glad-handers (there are no hands to glad…); and the time-wasting chatterers. Gone, too, is the opportunity to grandstand: Patience is short on Zoom, and with no body language or small-talk to distract them, clients say they can focus on the content. Indeed, so successful has the change been that many clients we speak to want consultants to stay away from their offices in the future.

Of course, none of this is black and white. The lack of body language and small-talk isn’t always a good thing; difficult conversations, especially between multiple people who are at odds, are almost impossible done remotely. Moreover, the lack of easy interaction means that teamwork is harder on Teams; the downside of better planning is that spontaneity and serendipity are non-existent. Consulting firms therefore rightly recognise that a hybrid model will eventually emerge. More work will be done remotely, but more thought will also go into the times when people should get together. Whatever form it takes, engagement will be more purposeful, less accidental.

But one client we talked to last week gave us pause for thought. Describing the nightmare of the last year (he’s responsible for the global supply chain of a multinational), he said that they’d survived by constant planning and replanning. Yearly, monthly, even weekly plans had gone out of the window: The board instead agreed a small number of high level objectives to guide their day-to-day decision making. Plans drawn up in the morning were being modified by lunchtime, as data changed assumptions and lessons were rapidly learned. What saved the situation from descending into chaos were remote calls. Meetings that had lasted a day, padded out with travel, could now happen in 15 minutes. Multiple people listened in, so knowledge was shared directly, rather than cascaded down through layers of management.

Apply this to consulting projects, and the first and most obvious conclusion is that agile working (in the broad, rather than technical, sense) will be crucial. Clients will expect consulting firms to respond faster to changing situations and to be flexible, not to make a fuss if small things change. The client we spoke was totally in favour of that—but he had an additional point. Just as he didn’t think it would have been possible to manage his business in this new way without Teams et al, he thinks that the speed and flexibility that comes with remote working is one of the main reasons why consulting firms shouldn’t be too fast to return to his factories and offices.

In other words, the future of remote working is partly a question about speed. If clients are looking to consulting firms to deliver work and value more quickly than in the past, then remote working isn’t simply the legacy of a crisis we’d all like to move on from, but a critical tool for accelerating the pace of change.