Post-pandemic, the professional services world is grappling with the conundrum of bringing employees back to the office permanently, partially or never. There are a number of different models and approaches that are being tested, and the jury seems to be out on what is best for the employees, and what is best for the business. These are my observations on this subject and how we created an environment that supported remote work for our team.
The fundamentals of leading a team in a management consulting firm remain the same irrespective of the operating environment. The team is constantly looking to test their critical thinking capabilities to solve significant, meaningful growth challenges for their clients. In our team, this translates into a need for transformational, exciting, and diversified projects across various industries to sustain our team of highly ambitious and driven individuals with a thirst for learning and a deep desire to make a substantial and lasting impact. Therefore, the team’s primary needs have not changed, but how we address these needs in a virtual or hybrid working environment needs to be reconsidered.
I am lucky to lead a team of inspired thinkers and creative leaders with challenging minds. We are intentionally building a dynamic team that is passionate about growing businesses. We are patient and purposeful as we grow the Step Advisory team, always ensuring an alignment of a strong set of lived values. Values drive behaviours, which directly influence a company’s culture, and this has proven even more important as the working environment has shifted from a predominately office-based environment to a remote-first environment over the last two years. Here are some of the key observations and lessons learnt during this transition.
1. A PLACE TO THRIVE
Wonderfully we had a strong, lived company culture before the pandemic and this truly served us well as we were forced to shift to remote working. Our organisation’s values have remained the same, but how the team lives these values in a post-pandemic environment is slightly different. For an organsiation where trust was not present in the DNA of the culture in an office-based operating environment; it would be near impossible to engender trust in a remote working environment.
Empowering our team leaders to make decisions and operate autonomously but still feel adequately supported, as and when required, has been critical in our success in managing a hybrid and largely decentralised working environment.
We have faith in the people we have hired because we intentionally test for culture fit during the talent identification and hiring process. Sure, we are interested in identifying rockstars from a technical and diversity of thought perspective, but we are even more obsessed with ensuring a correct culture fit. Choosing people based on culture fit has served us well during the shift to a remote-first working environment as we have continued to identify and attract top talent to the business.
2. NEW TOOLS TO STAY RELEVANT
It is not a one-size-fits-all, and not all professional services organisations are equipped and able to seamlessly move to a permanent “remote first” operating environment. As management consultants, in-person workshop facilitations are crucial in our armoury. The sudden move to remote first necessitated some fancy footwork and adaption to how we traditionally operated and elicited input and feedback. We quickly traded a quiet boardroom with a whiteboard for a stable internet connection and a high-definition webcam. This move forced us to investigate different technologies and tools to achieve the team collaboration and quality outputs we were accustomed to producing. We adapted to Microsoft Teams and ultimately discovered a treasure trove of slick tools such as Miro and Mentimeter, which enabled us to still deliver a rich experience for our clients. As we exit the pandemic and move into a new hybrid way of working, we now have the benefit of in-person workshops as well as leveraging the virtual tools discovered. This means that not only can we make use of a distributed workforce but can still provide the services when our clients have a distributed workforce. Taking learnings from the last two years, we are now constantly on the lookout for new tools or approaches that aid us driving excllenet outcomes in a hybrid operating model.
3. INTENTIONAL MENTORING
On-the-job training and learning via osmosis are not sufficient in a hybrid environment. Before the pandemic, it would not be uncommon for first-time consultants to learn by being thrown into the deep end and fulfilling the research components of a project while being exposed to the discussions and debates around business models and the growth drivers of a particular type of business. Now, in a hybrid working environment, the natural exposure to other elements of projects is reduced; hence the need for more formalised training modules and mentoring.
Feedback loops on projects and personal development need to remain front of mind and need to be intentional because, in a virtual operating environment, the debrief is not always immediate.
This is probably one of the biggest challenges we are finding with the shift to a hybrid working model. To overcome this, we have created small teams or Pods as we refer to them. The Pods consist of team members at different levels in the business, and these Pods each have a leader. The Pods do not necessarily work on projects together from a delivery perspective, but are primarily there to ensure the team members’ learning, development, and well-being are constantly on the agenda and are front of mind.
One of the risks that all businesses face in a remote-first working environment is the risk of team member burnout, mental well-being challenges and generally feeling disconnected as a team. As an early warning system, we rely on the Pod leaders to identify challenges their team members might be experiencing. Our Pod leaders provide essential input into project resourcing and team health discussions. They are able to influence learning journeys and ensure that their team members are getting the exposure needed to grow and develop accordingly.
4. ROOM TO GROW
Within professional services, a remote-first and hybrid working environment could encourage and promote the opportunity for a “side hustle”. I have heard peers in other knowledge worker-based organisations ask, ‘how do you know that the employees are working productively on the things they need to for work? How do you know they are not working on their side hustle?’
For us at Step, it is relatively simple. We are an output-based business; we measure the team’s quality of thinking and the output produced. There are timelines associated with when deliverables are due, and as long as they are achieving them within the strict quality parameters we set for ourselves, we are happy. We are not too concerned about the side hustle because we are in a business where we embrace entrepreneurship; if the team learns lessons about practically starting businesses, this will enrich their paradigms when problem-solving for our clients. As long as there is no dip in their output and the side hustle does not contribute to a potential burnout situation, why not learn valuable lessons? We encourage transparency and disclosure on the topic to ensure no conflict of interests, but embrace it and don’t fear it.
These are just a few key observations I have made over the last couple of years while leading the Step Advisory team. While these observations about my team’s needs are not extensive and certainly not the needs of all teams across the globe, the forced shift in the operating environment has reminded us to continuously innovate our ways of work.