Large parts of the working world have been digitized almost overnight. Business travel, personal meetings, and onsite client appointments were canceled. While normality slowly returns, the consulting industry is asking itself two important questions: How can consulting work in times of global crises? And, will the way consultants work change fundamentally in the long run? In the course of our series and at the hight of the global pandemic (end of April 2020), I spoke with Sabrina Bouchenak, project manager at KEARNEY. A conversation about the consulting profession, digital working methods, and possible opportunities of virtualizing consulting.
Starting in Consulting and Essential Competencies
Sabrina started to work as a consultant during her studies in business administration and industrial engineering. Obtaining experience early during their studies is also her advice to the next generation of consultants. “I have advanced the most, working a lot during my studies, both in large corporations as well as in a consulting firm. I would recommend everyone to try out both areas.”
Afterward, she was even more certain that consulting was the right way for her to go. “I like the variety and the feeling of learning something new every day. As a consultant, if the performance is right, you progress quickly.” Sabrina also stresses that one should attend many recruiting events. “You get so many insights, you can make a good impression and you are prepared for the case interviews. The cases are often the biggest hurdle.”
The young project manager names two decisive recruiting criteria: Personal fit and analytical skills. When she is personally involved in the recruitment process, she always asks herself the question: “Would I go for a beer with this applicant as a colleague?”
Taking a second look at the recruiting process, does she think that the Corona Crisis is changing career paths? For Sabrina, it is clear that teamwork and communication with clients are harder to evaluate in the virtual space. “Especially when someone is on the verge of moving up, presentation skills and personality are often decisive. The new situation could make it harder to stand out as a person.”
How Working Remotely Changes Consulting
On-site client visits and the communal lunch break are just some of the things that are canceled. The big question is, how difficult it is to remotely manage a team and to carry out virtual projects? Sabrina mentions a greater coordination effort. “I can hardly work myself during the day because I move from one meeting to the next. Now I have to arrange phone calls to discuss what we usually would have briefly discussed in between meetings.”
It is very important to her that the team cohesion is maintained, which is why she schedules team calls in the mornings and evenings. Planning the day together and making sure everyone knows what to do. The performance of the team has not suffered so far. In the end, Sabrina works more than before and breaks are hard to keep. Besides these challenges, there are also certain things that are easier to handle.
“We take more time for team building. We meet virtually once a week on Thursdays for a happy hour. Otherwise, we might have done it every six weeks. Usually, Thursday evening is the time when everyone leaves. Even virtually, the team spirit is great.”
The work, i.e. coaching, client relations, and managing the team, basically remains the same, Sabrina says. “On the client-side, you sometimes manage to get to a personal level. You wear relaxed clothes, and the background in the home office occasionally invites small talk.”
Does virtual working give consultants easier access to experts? Sabrina explains that they had already worked with international experts before the crisis. The marketing expert on her current project, for example, is not based in Germany. “We had several client meetings and we would have had to fly in our marketing expert every time, which would not have been efficient. Now, it was not a problem and he could simply dial in for half an hour.”
Is this a significant improvement? “If you had offered it otherwise, everyone would have sat in one room and only he would have dialed in, that would not have been optimal either. Now, this question does not even arise. It really makes things easier.”
Mutual Understanding and a Changing Focus in Consulting
Not only the organization of the daily structure and the teams are changing, but also the situation of the clients. “When companies are announcing short-time work and this slows down project processes, it’s hard to get the planned work done in the scheduled time.” Sabrina hopes for mutual consideration because some things are a little slower than usual.
Do consultants approach projects or has the analog format simply been transferred to the digital world? “The focus has changed in some areas. Generating short-term cash flow and savings is becoming more important. Our approach is becoming even more agile as the client needs short-term support, helping hands. Acute problems are solved very pragmatically. I have observed this in many projects and I think that’s a positive change.”
And when the crisis is over and the old goals would apply again, would consultants do what they did before? Would the way consultants work be different? “The general approach would probably be the same. Remote working has little impact on that. Instead, the meeting culture might be changing. A workshop with 10 people is more likely to turn into multiple workshops with fewer people.”
From Exigency to New Work – The Future of Consulting
“The situation has shown that consultants do not always have to be on-site. Of course, traveling can be nice. And it would be nicer to sit in a room with real people. In-person, you have a completely different sense of how someone reacts to a presentation, but it also works without it. The crisis has brought us an essential insight: You can stay in the consultant business even if you cannot be on-site permanently, e.g because of your family. Or you can be on-site for fewer days. If everyone works virtually more often, it will be accepted. When the whole industry changes, the question of feasibility no longer arises.”
New, agile consulting approaches, other means of team building, more flexible integration of experts from abroad, and even longer working days plus a higher coordination effort. How will all of this look like after we go back to “normal”? What degree of virtual consulting will persist? Will this lead to greater acceptance of remote working for consultants? This could give consultants more freedom to align travel and family and help Consulting Firms to attract and retain more diverse talent.
Sabrina holds a Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering and Management. Afterward her studies she joined 4flow, a consulting firm specialized in supply chain management and logistics. After joining KEARNEY a year ago, she is now a Manager since January 2020 in the firm’s operations practice.