The future of work Clients can help shape the debate

The future of work: Clients can help shape the debate

The post-pandemic working world continues to make headlines. But after a year of working at home and thinking about the future, Protiviti’s Peter Richardson believes an important viewpoint is missing. In this article, the firm’s new global lead for the future of work outlines why his clients are at the centre of his vision.

The team at Protiviti has now worked remotely for more than a year. Like many businesses, we’ve made big changes and moved fast to adapt and prosper. We’ve found new ways of working, to bring our clients and colleagues together, and our experiences have profoundly influenced our thinking. So, as we approach our 15th month at home, I want to share how my ideas have evolved about the future of work.

In recent months, businesses have rightly focussed on the welfare of their employees and providing Covid-safe environments when they return. Attitudes regarding remote working have ebbed and flowed, because people’s circumstances are different, and conversations about culture have been front of mind. There have been numerous headlines in the media about meeting the needs of businesses and employees.

While these debates remain important, I believe that our clients should also be included in the conversation, as the vaccination programme rolls out and our horizons expand once again. Consumer-facing businesses have been quick to understand what their customers want in a digital world. For them, the future of work is closely linked to customer behaviour, and it will be the same for us as we look forward.

Following our clients, doing a better job

Back in December 2019, before the pandemic arrived, our offices were already busy. As consultants we plan to have about 30 per cent of our colleagues in our office at any time; in theory, our remaining teams work on client sites. But back then, the majority of our clients didn’t have much room either, so we were pushed for space. Now, following a year of working remotely, many of them are reviewing the way they work too, and there might be less space for us than before.

According to an article in the Financial Times, large employers, including BT and HSBC, are looking to reduce the amount of office space they use. At a recent online conference with some of our clients, many companies talked about reducing their footprint by around 30 per cent. They believe that by developing a hybrid working model, with their staff employing a mixture of home and office working, customers will benefit. Leena Nair, chief human resources officer at Unilever, says that agility and collaboration in the company have increased significantly in the past year – and products have been taken to market quickly.

At Protiviti, we know that we need to follow our clients’ lead. We work with a number of banks and some of them don’t expect to be back in the office until 2022. And even when they do return, their ways of working will look very different. One bank has said that 70 per cent of its staff won’t return to using the office like they did before. That’s an important consideration because we need to support them in a way that works for them. Going into the office isn’t going to be particularly useful if we’ve got a client over in Canary Wharf, but they’re actually working at home. We are probably best dialing in and meeting them where they are.

Previously, we spent a lot of time traveling around to meet our clients in person. We convinced ourselves this was the best way to develop relationships. But I’m not sure that’s true anymore. We are finding different ways of responding to our clients’ needs using technology. Let’s say we have a pitch meeting in Edinburgh, for example. Rather than invest in travel time, hotel accommodation and other activities, would we be better off investing more hours to prepare for our meeting?

There are, of course, arguments against this way of working in the long term: the lack of nonverbal cues on video calls can make it harder to build relationships. There is a strong chance of missing out on unplanned, yet often highly valuable, discussions in hallways and other informal get-togethers. As a result, we might be at a competitive disadvantage to firms that choose to invest more time in person. I accept these views to an extent, which is why we need to work out which meetings provide the most value, for clients and our people. In those cases, meeting in person sometimes might be best, but we won’t need to be there all the time.

How will offices be used?

I believe we need to consider offices as assets to support this way of working rather than places to go every day. We’ll still need them to underpin and support our culture. We’ll have inductions, onboarding, entertainment, and social activity. They can help us to develop new ideas, work across teams, and reach out into communities. We can also host our clients, particularly in places like The Shard, to showcase our innovation centre.

But we don’t need to be in the office five days a week to enable any of these things to happen. We can plan for them and design our spaces with this way of working in mind. On average, people might spend 50 per cent of their time in the office and 50 per cent onsite or at home. But they might spend all their time in the office for three months and then no time for the following three months. For us, it would all depend on how our people are helping our clients.

The evidence from Unilever suggests that working remotely can actually help people serve customers better. And research from McKinsey shows that in the UK, the number of people able to do their jobs remotely one to five days a week is the highest in Europe. Businesses like O2 have been following a hybrid model for nearly a decade now and it’s clear there are a raft of companies about to follow suit.

On a recent webinar with workplace consultancy TSK, Chris Early, estates and development manager for O2 (Telefonica UK) summed up the opportunity ahead. He said that businesses have now reached an inflexion point. They’ve had 12 months of working at home, they face financial and economic pressure, employees have more choice, and their environmental impact is in the spotlight. If we don’t grasp the opportunity now, it will be unforgivable, he said.

This is how I’m starting to think, because I believe that’s how life is going to be. I want to continue connecting with our clients and finding ways to provide them with value. I want to make good use of our time and theirs. I’ll respect their ways of working, too, and remain flexible around their decisions. But I also want to support of our culture and people and, at the same time, reduce our impact on the world around us.

I believe we can achieve this using the technology and communication tools we have, the lessons we’ve learned, and our offices to help design the hybrid future of work around our clients. Now is not the time to go back to outdated ways of working; now is not the time to sleepwalk back to the past.

This article is our latest instalment in Protiviti’s #betterthanusual series, which explores how businesses can look to the future after the pandemic. To read more from last summer’s collection of writing, check out the #betterthanusual home page.


Peter Richardson
Peter leads Protiviti’s focus on The Future of Work globally. In helping clients face the future with confidence in an ever more dynamic world, he emphasises rebuilding the operating model and future of work engine by empowering teams, equipping them to contribute fully ...

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