Remote working and the future of consulting projects - Crowe Ireland

Remote working and the future of consulting projects

Lessons learned from the pandemic

25/05/2021
Remote working and the future of consulting projects - Crowe Ireland

The global response to COVID-19 fundamentally and dramatically changed the delivery of professional service projects. Our experience in Crowe was typical of responses throughout the accounting, finance, consulting and legal services sectors: We adapted to delivering complex evaluative assignments, organisational development projects and other client services in new ways, often without ever being in the same building with our clients or our colleagues. The experiment has been a success, but like with any pilot study, there are lessons to learn.

A lot has been written and spoken about the likely future impact on working practices for individuals, and as the corporate world transitions to some form of blended working model, we have begun to consider what our projects will look like in the future. It will be important to learn lessons from our experiences since March 2020, reflecting on what worked well and what we lost by moving to fully online client relationships.

The impact of COVID

Adapting to working with our clients remotely has had both positive and negative effects on our work. In some ways we work smarter, but in other ways we simply work harder and for longer.

What did we gain?
There is little argument that moving to fully online service delivery brought some efficiencies and benefits to how projects are delivered:
  • We spend more time per day working directly with our clients. For the most part this engagement takes place in virtual meetings – which means that we can provide more advice and input as well as gathering more regular feedback from clients.
  • Formal meetings, needed at key milestones within projects, are easier to organise and have tended to be more “mission-focussed” overall. Setting up a Zoom or MS Teams call at short notice is now de rigueur when it comes to signing off a deliverable or consulting with an important stakeholder.
  • There have been a range of smaller innovations and developments in how we work with clients:
    • Presentation, workshopping and communication tools and skills have improved – long gone is the basic SWOT analysis session and unstructured feedback workshop.
    • Technical capabilities to use online solutions have improved on both client and service provider sides. We have shared online workspaces and fewer barriers to information dissemination.
    • Opportunities to introduce junior staff to client-facing work have become more common and easier to organise, facilitating greater training and development opportunities.
  • Practically, we spend less time travelling and less dead time in general (waiting in lobbies and standing on train platforms for instance) which has led to some commercial advantages.

What have we lost?
While there have been efficiencies gained, there is also no question that not all of the transition to online working has been positive:

  • Face-to-face meetings and soft engagements with clients have all but disappeared, which has made establishing a trusted working relationship more difficult. Often a coffee and check-in with a current or prospective client is a crucial part of forming a positive working relationship, and that has been lost.
  • Some forms of engagement with clients are very challenging in an online environment, for example some workshop exercises, reviewing material, doing a walkthrough of a system or process, etc.
  • Some forms of normal internal working practices have also become very challenging, such as working alongside trainees to supervise their work and development and roundtable discussions to evaluate progress within a project team.
  • While the reduction in travel and waiting time is positive, it has led to a lack of informal opportunities to discuss projects with colleagues. For example, for the consulting arm of Crowe, the 7am train from Heuston to Cork was often a caffeine-fuelled brainstorming opportunity.
  • The “always on” nature of working remotely is challenging. Most people will have experienced the sensation of a busy day lurching underprepared from one online meeting to another with no pause to collect one’s thoughts or prepare.
  • The proliferation of online meetings can often impinge on the time available to work on client deliverables. We have found that if you are not using video conferences to actually do project work then they are effectively wasted time. Nothing is as frustrating as taking time away from working on a report for a client to spend time in a video call, only to emerge with a longer to-do list than before the meeting and less time available to complete the work.
  • It can be surprisingly easy to over-resource online meetings. It is far easier to send a colleague an invite link to a video call than it is to plan a physical meeting, and as a result more team members are spending more time in virtual meetings as opposed to completing deliverables and carrying out analysis for those clients.

The future delivery model for client work needs to maintain the high-value benefits of our recent experiences and reduce the negative experiences of fully remote online working with clients. 

What is important for successfully managing projects?

In most professional service sectors, the approach to project management shares several common features and objectives essential to ensuring that clients are happy with the service they receive:

  • Establishing and maintaining the client relationship
  • Setting out the milestones, timeline, and tasks for the project lifecycle
  • Communicating and reporting on progress against the agreed plans throughout the project lifecycle
  • Identifying, mitigating, and controlling risks and issues as they emerge
  • Creating opportunities to gather feedback and work alongside the client to change course as the project moves ahead
  • Managing commercial considerations and properly allocating resources

In the future, there will be a crucial addition to this list:

  • Managing the mode of interaction with clients – determining which tasks and meetings need to be done face-to-face and what can be done remotely

There will also need to be a renewed emphasis on the allocation and management of project resources.

What will a future hybrid professional service project look like?

Moving into a world of work with more time spent remote from colleagues and clients, where we look to use technology to add value to our work and to reduce dead time, means that we will need to consciously focus on tailoring the mode of work to clients’ needs. A hybrid project approach will allow us to reintroduce the high-value activities which have been lost in the past 15 months and sustain the high-value activities that we have learned throughout the pandemic.

Face-to-face engagement 

Firstly, we are keen to restore face-to-face interactions with our clients for the important milestones within our relationships:

  • Project kick-off
  • Reviewing important deliverables
  • Having important discussions and consultation meetings

The formality and sense of ceremony attached to these engagements is important to establish and maintain client relationships. 

Virtual engagement

We now know that regular information- and decision-rich virtual engagements with our clients add a great deal of value to advisory projects. We will continue to use video conferencing to manage day-to-day work with clients and to keep in regular contact.

We will also continue with other strategies to improve the usefulness of remote engagement, including:

  • Using the full clock for online engagement with clients (scheduling breakfast workshops for instance)
  • Doing work on-screen during video calls – ensuring that these engagements are used to tick actions off, not just to create further actions within a project
Blended workspace

While the concept of a blended learning environment is common in universities and schools nowadays, the idea of a blended workspace is less familiar. We will continue to develop our technological capacity to use shared online workspaces and tools to collaborate and communicate online. This will include:

  • Shared work environments such as Microsoft Teams channels
  • Online project-tracking tools and shared project documents
  • Secure and reliable filesharing systems
Balancing desk and client-facing time It is important that we re-establish the balance between client-facing and desk-based time to ensure that we allocate adequate time and resources to working with our clients, but also to preparing reports, conducting analyses and considering the risks and issues associated with a project.

A key part of the project manager’s role in setting up client engagements will be to ask “Who needs to be at this meeting?” and factor in desk-time and preparation.
 

Crowe’s consulting department has extensive experience managing complex stakeholder projects and advising clients in Ireland across diverse sectors, from multinational organisations and major public bodies to local businesses and not-for-profit entities.

Contact us:

Shane McQuillan, Partner, Consulting - Crowe Ireland
Shane McQuillan
Partner, Consulting
Clodagh O'Brien, Partner, Consulting - Crowe Ireland
Clodagh O'Brien
Partner, Consulting
Alan Davidson - Crowe Ireland
Alan Davidson
Associate Director, Internal Audit & Consulting