Remote work experienced a significant boost during the pandemic. While some thought the business world was ending, the swift adoption of remote work ensured continuity.
This forced experiment highlighted the advantages of remote work for both employers and employees, such as flexibility, no commute time, increased productivity, improved health and wellbeing, better work-life balance, and access to a broader talent pool. Post pandemic, many companies shifted to hybrid working, mixing office and work from home days.
But what about consulting projects? Which types of projects are most suited for remote work? And what are the benefits and barriers of remote consulting, and how to successfully execute a remote project?
What projects suit remote consulting?
All consulting projects can be done remotely as we saw during COVID-19. A key reason for this was that everyone was working remotely. Now that hybrid work is the norm, it’s a bit different. Some projects are more suitable for remote execution, while others benefit from face-to-face interaction.
When does remote consulting usually (not) work?
Change management, transformation work, and other ‘process based work’ often benefit from in-person collaboration. As teams sit together in a room, having the consultant be the only one dialing-in is not always ideal. However, if the team is scattered as well, with some sitting together and others dialing-in, this set-up can work fine.
Outcome based work, a perfect marriage with remote working
Outcome based work like commercial due diligence (CDD), strategy, and research projects (e.g. market research or voice-of-customer analysis) are well suited for remote execution. That’s because the client is interested in the final deliverable: a well-structured and thought through recommendation report. The activities to get there – gather data, analyze & synthesize, and deliver the final recommendation – often need little face-to-face interactions. In the past year, I have done 7 consulting projects, and all of them remotely, with the occasional on-site meetings where it benefited the project.
Many of these were CDDs with private equity firms. PE firms require two outcomes: answers to key questions about the target and a well written report they can take to the bank for credit. These firms are busy, so they do not need anything more than a good insight discussion once or twice a week - which can easily be done remotely.
For strategy and value creation work the same holds true. The location where the consultant performs the activities to get to a recommendation becomes less relevant, as long as the resulting work has value and is actionable.
Benefits & barriers of remote consulting.
There are many benefits - and barriers - to hiring remote consultants, so I will focus on the main ones.
Maximizing quality and productivity
The first key benefit is that the client gets access to a wider talent pool. Being open to remote consultants allows clients to find the right consultant with the most relevant expertise. Plus, it becomes easier to align timelines.
Second, remote work can result in higher quality outcomes. Remote work can boost productivity due to fewer distractions and laser focus on the job to do. Also, the traditional 9-5 model is tailored to early birds (productive in the morning and early day). But 30-40% of people identify as night owls. Remote work enables this group - to which I count myself - to schedule their day according to their personal peak times. For me, this has been a game changer.
The old school supervision barrier
Of course, remote working has barriers. The first one lives mostly amongst the ‘old boys club’ minds and that is the lack of supervision. Since you do not see the consultant sitting behind the desk working diligently, how do you know you are getting your money's worth? The answer is obvious: the result of their work.
Next to this, communication barriers may arise. It ‘feels’ easier to walk up to the consultant sitting at eyesight, and might seem more burdensome to contact a remote consultant. Also, remote consultants might not fully grasp the nuances of the company culture, as they miss out on the water cooler conversations that matter.
Thankfully, there are ways to reap the benefits of remote consultants while tackling these barriers.
How to turn a remote consulting project into a success?
As the expert, the consultant should assess if the project can be done remotely. However, it takes two to tango so the client also needs to make an effort for the consultant to be effective remotely.
5 tips that make a difference
First, be extremely specific on the desired outcome. The plan and final deliverables should be clear; don’t worry about over-explaining. This starts with a clear proposal and plan: determine the scope (key questions to answer), deliverables (e.g., PowerPoint doc, new pricing model), and activities (what to do, when, and with whom).
Second, as a remote consultant make sure you are hyper approachable. Let the company know you can be reached, even if your reply is 'I'll get back to you soon'. Think of it as if you would be sitting in the office - just do that. I try to answer my email and messages within 30 minutes max, and it makes all the difference in building trust.
Third, even if the majority of the project can be done remotely, there are moments you need to sit together. The consultant and client should agree on these occasions, but in my experience this typically involves a large group of people sitting together in a room to make decisions like workshops and board meetings. Here, your personal judgment skills come in handy.
Fourth, make time for small talk and relationship building. While not everyone is a fan of this - and a good consultant knows when to ditch small talk - it helps to spend some time at the start and end of meetings for light-hearted talks, and to get to know one another. It also makes the work more fun.
Last one might sound obvious, but make your remote set-up look presentable including good audio and video quality. Nobody wants to stare up your nostrils or look at a messy backroom.
To wrap up
Remote work continues to reshape the professional services landscape and consultancy projects are no exception. Embracing professional flexibility offers a lot of benefits. Especially for outcome based work, expanded talent pools allow businesses to tap into a global workforce and independent professionals enjoy increased flexibility, contributing to the success of the project.