About two months ago I applied for a consultant role at a large technology consulting firm. A recruiter responded with:
I can see you in the system but you marked you’re not able to travel - is that still the case?
I had listed a preference for zero travel. There’s still a pandemic and I live with someone at higher risk for infections. But, as with any job application, there’s always room for negotiation.
Their next comment surprised me even more:
Each project has different client needs so right now we are connecting with candidates that are open to up to 50% travel just to cover any potential client asks. Face to face engagement is a major part of the ‘consulting’ world so to cover all bases 50% is the benchmark at this time.
50% Travel? In This Economy?
In 2015, I worked for a technology consulting firm that sent all of its consultants on-site to client locations. Teams rarely hired remote employees and when they did, those employees were viewed as “the black sheep”–important to keep in the loop but not part of ad-hoc conversations happening in the office.
It made sense for consultants to be on-site because employees were expected to be on-site.
Then COVID-19 became a major health risk in 2020, the US Federal government instituted a stay-at-home order, and remote work became A ThingTM. Tons of companies migrated to a temporary work-from-home model until “the coast was clear”. Many permanently instituted remote policies, allowing employees to work from anywhere in the country as long as they still joined team meetings and finished tasks on time.
Researchers proved remote work works and is desirable among employees, despite companies’ push to “get back to normal” with employees in the office.
So why do consultants need to be on-site for a project when teams are already holding stand-ups and meetings online? Or, put a different way, what’s the benefit of a consultant being on-site, in-person?
One major component of high-performing teams is trust, which is most easily built in-person. This means any consultant working a new engagement is automatically at a disadvantage because they have to project expertise while also building rapport and learning about the client’s key players, culture, and communication styles.
Trust requires building individual relationships, incrementally, over time. Historically, a consultant accomplished this goal in person: traveling on-site to client offices, sitting in the same space as client teams, and participating in all team meetings and conversations. But over the last two decades, researchers proved groups working remotely can build as much trust as groups working in person and many teams adopted digital solutions that allow employees to remotely build trust in the same ways they previously built trust in person. Trust is still built faster in person but can now be built just as strong remotely.
There are other benefits to working on-site with a team but arguably all of a consultant’s work could be done remotely.
Interviewing stakeholders and building trust? Video calls and asynchronous messaging tools.
Reviewing documentation and processes? Web-based wikis or project management software.
Collaborating with teams? Real-time productivity suites.
So, if consultants can do all this remotely, why would a firm still require them to travel on-site for a client engagement?
Potential Client Asks
Consultants don’t need to be on-site for most engagements but recruiting firms like this one require travel “just in case”. This firm would send consultants on-site up to 50% of the time simply because the client asked for it, even if the client didn’t actually need it.
In many cases, the client believes they need a consultant on-site because they haven’t updated their organizational models for the remote age. Even when flights and hotel prices are incredibly cost prohibitive or prices surge due to large events happening in the area, many companies still insist on bearing the financial burden simply to maintain in-person stand-up meetings for all employees.
The consulting firm isn’t to blame here but is adding to the problem. They’re broadly greenlighting travel without clear guidelines for acceptable, reasonable client requests. This behavior incentivizes the client to continue operating with an outdated organizational model which ultimately impacts the consultant more than either company involved.
Not All Roles are Like This
Not every consulting firm requires travel for client engagements. I’ve run successful engagements in a fully remote environment and clients didn’t complain once.
When I brought this topic up with some colleagues, one of them said “the nature of consultative work is bowing to the wishes of the clients.” I agree with the sentiment but when a recruiter tells me their firm requires up to 50% travel “just in case the client says so”, I have a lot of questions about how that firm operates and where their loyalties lie. To me, it sounds like that firm’s executives don’t have their employees’ best interests at heart–they’re willing to send them out in risk of COVID-19, monkeypox, and any other number of health and safety issues because that’s the working model they and their clients are used to and they just want this whole thing to go “back to normal”.
I hate to tell you but the new normal won’t look like the old normal. Office work has changed dramatically and companies need to reflect on how their organization will integrate that change. Remote work isn’t perfect but companies need to adopt it as a major component of technology-focused roles, consultative or not. Companies need to keep their employees’ health and happiness in mind when considering travel requirements. In-person work can still happen but should have an intentional reason for happening.