The smart working disruption: partner vs associate vision

24 January 2023

By Giambattista Alagia, Emanuele Massarelli, Daniela Tosca, MSc in Business Strategy & Consulting students at Audencia.

Smart working is a set of practices that combines remote working and people empowerment. Its objective is to offer more agile working conditions in a warmer environment to develop involvement and commitment among employees. The pandemic has clearly accelerated this trend. Compared to 2022, Savills has forecast a reduction of more than 10% in office space demand in Madrid, Paris, and London by 2026[1]. Given this scenario and considering that consulting firms normally anticipate the changes their customers will later face, we should ask ourselves how this trend is impacting consulting and if it is affecting all roles in the same way. The topic has been deepened thanks to interviews with former Partner Stefano Belletti and Associate Alberto Marcandelli, both from IBM.

An open door on the world

Associates and partners see smart working as a productivity and empowerment enabler. According to Belletti, working from home ensures longer effective working hours and flexibility. The same concept has been stressed by the associate consultant, who stated: “technology can save time and money from home without affecting the quality of output”. Technology increases efficiency and reduces the physical gap between people. During the pandemic, the partner experienced meetings with international colleagues he had never met before. Borders and barriers have been removed, not only in the relationship between national colleagues but also among consultants around the world. The real asset is the new amount of shared knowledge, ready to be used by different people within the company. On the other hand, the associate recognizes these new digital working relationships as an opportunity to leverage the trend of remote hiring: “Hiring people remotely is a social benefit”. This is where their vision of how to leverage the “breakdown of borders” differs. Whereas the partner emphasizes the facilitation of strategic collaboration around the world, the associate stresses that the main opportunities of smart working relate more to operational aspects and to the possibility to become empowered and autonomous.

Further benefits can be detected in work-life balance, recently a key topic in consulting. From the top to the bottom of the corporate hierarchy, smart working has proven to be a major pain reliever. However, from Belletti’s perspective, smart working requires three key ingredients to be effective: organization, communication skills and self-discipline. On the other hand, according to Marcandelli, time management and prioritization skills are most essential. The associate does not consider communication as a key challenge. In contrast, as a partner, fewer face-to-face relationships could be dangerous, and require the development of new trust in people to let them become more self-responsible.

Collateral effects of smart working

Smart working has enhanced the way we work, but not all that glitters is gold. Due to an increase in activities, remote work requires flexibility and autonomy. This situation can cause more personal stress: some people do not feel confident to work autonomously or remotely. People are afraid to lose their connection with the team, as stated by Belletti. For this reason, the latter believes that the number of company events will increase, as a key element to keeping people involved. Even if new entrants find it tough to feel engaged. “In my first week I did only smart working, I saw my manager only on calls”, states Marcandelli when talking about the early steps of his internship. In consulting, beyond the connections with colleagues and superiors, the client relationship is essential. The partner and the consultant do not really agree. Belletti says that video conferencing is not the best way to propose solutions: “[…] in my experience, customers and clients tell the truth only in coffee breaks”. The partner remembers hearing a customer joke in front of a coffee machine that made him realize a client had not fully understood part of the new business proposal presented in the conference room a few minutes before. Belletti believes an increase in the digital component is acceptable, but physical interaction will remain fundamental. On the other hand, the associate emphasizes new meeting opportunities as a result of working remotely with a client, as it overcomes the level gap, especially for a junior resource, by significantly reducing authority in a remote meeting compared to in-person meetings.

Future scenarios 

While smart working has changed some work dynamics, the real question currently is how this trend is still impacting the world of consultancy. Belletti states that smart working has not impacted the way consultants organize their work activities, that so far it has brought about an operational change. In fact, while operations have already changed on the one hand, the leadership style is struggling with new challenges on the other. The partners are worried about losing engagement with team members, whereas the consultants believe that the partners’ concerns are related more to the decreasing possibility to monitor and control. The misalignment expresses the necessity to develop a common vision. In this context, the “gentle leadership” model could gain in importance. This leadership style leverages “gentle power” focusing on a shared vision and on convincing rather than imposing to create a special connection with employees. One of the best-known examples of this kind of connection is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. After the terror attack in 2019, she gave a speech in front of her shocked population, and the first question she received was “How are you?”[2]. In the distant future, further questions will arise: To what extent can smart working be adopted in consultancy? Can a consulting firm run its operations without any offices? Belletti does not seem convinced by this possibility and points out the need for physical spaces for innovation processes. On the other hand, Marcandelli is more enthusiastic about the possibility of a totally remote consulting firm: interpersonal relationships are crucial, but with the right tools new approaches are possible.

As we have seen, remote working is not a black and white topic and the world has already gained confidence in it. In this context, Belletti points out that “[…] transformation of the industry is happening within the ecosystem, and virtual tools are not the key element but only the means to deliver a new working style”.

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