Should My Consultants Work From Home Between Client Projects?
One of the issues I’ve seen many consultancies half-arse is whether to let their consultants work from home between projects or not. Consulting is a famously on-the-road game. It’s usually one of the key job requirements that your consultant be ready to travel for work. It was always one of our qualification questions prior to interviewing candidates.
The problem with a half-baked answer is that consultants don’t know what to expect. This unfair. It also opens you up to petty accusations of favouritism when some people are perceived to have more leeway to work from home than others.
So it’s best to have a set of guidelines. And to be clear when you may deviate from them!
Note – if you’ve figured out how NOT to have your consultants travel, then don’t read this article! Perhaps instead read the one about how to make best use of consulting time between projects 🙂
What’s the big deal?
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The most often-cited reason I hear from owners / directors / managers about refusing or avoiding home-working is that they don’t believe that people will be effective when left working from home. Like f’rinstance:
- “How will I know that they’ll be out of bed before noon?”
- “They’ll just be surfing BBC / Facebook / porn all day”
- “It’ll be an extra day’s holiday”
- “I need them to get something done, and they won’t”
Almost always, these are euphemisms for “I don’t trust that they’ll do what I want them to do if they’re at home”.
Silicon Valley and its cohort of influenced companies may well have moved on to remote working, but the lack of trust issue is remarkably resilient.
We had this precise issue at Conchango, and it divided the board. There was a strong feeling amongst some that if we left our consultants to work from home, nothing would get done between projects. Others believed work would get done, just not in as disciplined a manner.
I dare say none of us thought that exactly the work that was supposed to be done would be done in exactly the same way as we’d like when done at home. And I still think that’s true. But also irrelevant. The same could be said of office-based work.
Without resolving the bigger question of “What do our consultants do between projects”, then whether they’re at home or in the office, by definition work will or won’t be done in a variety of directions.
The Bigger Question – “What should my consultants do between client projects”
The key question you should be looking at is what your consultants do in their non-client time. Where they do it then becomes a secondary question that is answered by “wherever it is most effective for them to do it”.
The question of how to best use non-client time is the topic for another post, which you should have clearly addressed. But that’s a question for another day – whether or not you’ve answered it, let’s look at what makes sense from a homeworking perspective for your consultancy or agency.
The role of trust and culture in your organisation
There are some valid reasons why on of home or office working might be more effective depending on what needs to be done. I go further into these in the next sections. However, all of that is irrelevant if you’ve not developed a culture of trust, empowerment and teamwork.
After all, the “home” part of homeworking is relatively easily done. But there’s little point in homeworking if the “work” part doesn’t get done.
The subject of much scientific and pop writing, but if you don’t (or honestly can’t) trust the majority of your employees, then you need to look at the following, and in priority order:
- The culture of your organisation – are you demonstrating and leading with trust yourself? What do you do when you’re not in the office? Your board? Other key leaders?
- Your recruitment methods – are you neglecting to identify whether a prospective employee is trustworthy and demonstrably capable of independent, unsupervised, and remote work.
- Your employees – are the majority of your employees genuinely not to be trusted to work at home? Or are you going to stop everyone from doing it when there are only a minority with whom you should address this issue?
My personal belief is that if you’ve created an environment of trust and demonstrate it yourself, most people can be trusted to work at home if they’re clear about what to do. This is clearly not universal – there will always be persistent abusers. And sure, someone may go to the gym in the middle of the day when it’s empty, or get onto Facebook for an hour mid-morning. But on the whole, in an environment of trust, most won’t abuse it.
So to approach the whole topic on a basis that your employees can’t be trusted to work from home on occasion is to help reinforce a culture of mistrust.
The second element that facilitates successful homeworking is for your consultants to feel empowered and able to do their work without being micro-managed. In a culture where they have genuine responsibility, and the ability to get things done without constantly needing to seek approval and guidance, independent work at home can be very efficient.
Finally, an environment where your consultants depend on each other acts as a great enabler to get stuff done whether at home or in the office. There’s little stronger motivation than knowing your peers are depending on you to get something done. So a reinforcement for effective homeworking develops if you’ve fostered a culture where there’s a sense of shared responsibility.
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What kind of work is best suited for home or office?
I hope having gone through the last section you’ve at best decided that you should let your consultants work from home between projects, or at worst, have identified that there are a few things you need to do in order to make this most effective.
That all said, I’d recommend heavily that you set guidelines for when to work from home, and when to work from the office. Because there is definitely work that it would make a lot more sense to do in the office, as well as some scenarios where you might simply want your consultants to be around.
At its most obvious, activities that would benefit from face to face interaction should be done in the office – otherwise, home should be an option. Likewise, work that most benefits from having mental peace would be best suited for being done remotely. So much so “duh!”.
So breaking it down from that banal general guideline…
Can be done at home
Best done in office
Innovation / Creation / Strategy
Solitary Deep Work
The kind of work that benefits from deep thought, stepping back from the day to day, and creating / innovating or strategising.
Brainstorming / Feeding off each other
Some creative work is best done in brainstorming mode, whether in a workshop or simply banter.
Research & Development
E.g. online research, calls (provided there aren’t screaming kids or raving flat-mates in the background), writing up R&D.
E.g. collaborative projects where your consultants can be more productive interacting as they research, projects where there is near-real time interactive and iterative development.
Coding / Design
Solo Coding / Design
Emphasis on solo – there may well be scenarios where being co-located with fellow team-members would be better. Pair-programming clearly would benefit from an office, but any other coding engagement where frequent interacion helps.
Collaborative Coding / Design
Pair programming, collaborative design work, bleeding edge work where teams may benefit from validating and bouncing ideas off each other.
A proposal that just needs one person pulling it together with minimal external input can easily be done at home.
Often, though, this is a collaborative endeavour. But even in these scenarios, if distinct pieces can be parcelled out, then home-working for each of those sections may be a great option.
Planning it, and then bringing it all together, however, would definitely benefit from co-location.
Planning, compiling, rapid creation
On proposals that need multiple people, planning who does what and bringing all the parts together, including ensuring that all bases have been covered and that the proposal is consistent with itself.
In addition, if a completely unavoidable “must win, must submit by tomorrow” proposal has to be done, and it needs multiple inputs, pulling it all together in a war-room may be best.
Solo Report Writing
Where interview information has been gathered, or research can all be done online.
Collaborative Report Writing
Similar to proposals, where either rapid intimate work between team members is needed, or for the planning or compilation stages of reports.
Nuances, Alternatives and Exceptions
- You may align leeway for staff to be at home based on seniority. Not on the grounds of any “earned right to be trusted”, but rather because you’d hope most senior staff would need less real-time guidance than junior staff.
- You may also designate office days to try to maintain a sense of team between your consultants when not on disparate sites. This is good just for catching up, sharing experiences, having lunch together and so on – purely a way to maintain a close culture in a way nearly impossible to achieve electronically or remotely.
- You’ll clearly offer up software options for real-time collaboration, whether that’s on document creation, e-meetings or instant messenger. But in my view, although it would be folly not to use this capability, for most of the activities I’ve highlighted in the “Best Done in Office” column, this software would be poor replacement for being physically together and should not be the primary mode of interactive communication.
- Where individuals are to meet up in the office, do make sure that they schedule so everyone involved knows to be there. There’s nothing more annoying than being the one who turns up while the others just thought they could do it over Skype. Ensure you also lead in this way – if you’re constantly conference-calling in when a meeting has been scheduled, you WILL set an example.
- Be aware that you may want to at times just let someone work from home even if it flouts the guidelines. We had teams that spent months away, and gave them extra leeway simply because we wanted them to have space to get their home lives together again.
- Make sure you lead by example. Be visible in the office if you expect your consultants to be. And don’t slope off for golf every Friday at 2pm if you don’t afford the same perk to your staff.
Should Admin Staff Work from Home?
Consulting can take a toll on home lives. In some instances, we expect our consultants to travel at the drop of a hat. This is one reason, important but not the only one, why there is often a feeling of a consultant / admin divide.
You should do what you can to minimise this. It can be corrosive to culture when consultants feel that non-consulting staff have it easy, or develop an air of superiority. We don’t want to build an us-and-them culture where office has the “easy” job and works from home whenever.
So my take with admin and operational staff was that they should be in the office during working hours. Clearly, there was some human flexibility – if they need to be home for the laundry man, etc.
But this flexibility didn’t extend to being at home to keep an eye on the kids (not very PC, but unless it was exceptional, e.g. with a sick child, then flexibility didn’t mean you did childcare while working). There are other answers to that – find a different contract or way of working, reduced hours, etc. But the answer isn’t to double time with full time parenting during working hours.
Finally, and just as importantly, when consultants are in the office, you don’t want the place feeling like a soulless desert. Again, this will undermine a team culture and a feeling of belonging. So it actually helps a lot to have office staff there when consultants are in, not only so they can sort our that long-standing expenses query, but so they can be in a place where there is banter and life. All of which is a part of the company that employs them.
The Holoscopic Telepresence Future is Not Quite Here
Consulting is built not only on skills and services, but also relationships. That remains as true of relationships with your clients as it is between your consultants.
The promise of Skype, Slack, GoToMeeting and the rest is to make remote collaboration easier. But it is not (yet?) to do away entirely from human face to face contact and connection.
Until the holoscopic future is commercially viable and emotionally compelling, I’d suggest the following guidelines for your consultancy:
- Get clear about what work your consultants should actually be doing between client projects, including how to allocate that work;
- Ensure you are fostering a culture of trust and co-dependency within your organisation;
- Issue a set of guidelines based on the above for your consultants on what work makes sense to do at home, and what should be done in an office;
- Review all the above once the day arrives that you can have Madonna convincingly engage and perform with your staff in your office.