Can services stay virtual?


How hybrid work can work for professional services


As COVID-19 restrictions lift, professional services firms are considering how to use hybrid work environments moving forward.

Many organizations have seen remote work lead to increased productivity, reduced operating expenses and a better work-life balance for employees. But, how can professional services firms ensure that a hybrid work environment successfully supports employee and client relationships?

To help foster internal relationships, firms must refine their strategies for employee recruitment, training, engagement, collaboration, evaluation and more. Firms also need to determine how they will keep fostering valuable client relationships. “The challenge is to identify how you create connection and relationships in a different way,” said Angela Nalwa, Grant Thornton Managing Director and Solution Leader for HR Transformation.




A shift to hybrid



To support a long-term shift to hybrid work environments, professional services firms need to move beyond pandemic models that were often fueled by existing relationships. They need to develop strategies to manage and enhance long-term employee and client experiences while also meeting business objectives. This requires greater communication, collaboration and engagement.

Pew Research Center study indicated that 66% of professional services employees who work remotely feel disconnected from their colleagues. “You have to assess how you engage with your employees. And that’s using technology, collaboration and in-person moments more effectively than in the past,” Nalwa said. Firms can often make better use of technology to help workers communicate and collaborate, aside from the requisite Zoom or Teams calls. “Professional services firms have the technology, but the next step is to increase awareness and adoption of that technology,” Nalwa said.

Specifically, professional services firms need to:

  • assess their current digital strategy
  • implement tools and processes that raise collaboration levels
  • be aware of heightened vulnerabilities and cybersecurity concerns for remote employees

One advantage of a hybrid work environment is that employees can enjoy the benefits of remote work while also maintaining connections to colleagues when they’re in the office. “All of this is about the employee experience. If you have engaged employees, you have more productive employees, contributing to stronger business results,” Nalwa said.



Meaningful interactions



When workers do come to the office, firms need to use that time to encourage employee engagement, relationship building and collaboration. This requires an intentional focus on creating meaningful interactions.


Headshot of Angela Nalwa

“Consider how you make those moments when they’re back in the office more meaningful and impactful.”

—  Angela Nalwa
Managing Director
and Solution Leader for HR Transformation
Grant Thornton LLP

“Consider how you make those moments when they’re back in the office more meaningful and impactful,” Nalwa said. “If employees are in the office two days a week, plan for collaboration and teamwork opportunities, so they’re not just sitting in their offices with the doors closed.”

For instance, if a team is putting together a client proposal, using office time to meet can spark creativity that might be harder to harness online. Similarly, if a manager is coaching and developing employees, periodically meeting in person can help with trust, development and team building.

“There’s a way to continue the culture of the company and build strong relationships in a hybrid model, if you make it intentional and personal when you do meet in person,” Nalwa said.

Specifically, professional services firms need to:

  • develop strategies for continued employee engagement and in-person opportunities
  • define processes that allow for employee self-service and technology-based learning
  • establish clear timing and defined populations included in remote work policies
  • establish policies for safety and health (such as vaccinations, contact tracing, temperature checks, masks), adhering to federal, state and local regulations and guidelines that clearly define employment terms and expectations
  • complete and execute a communication and change management plan



Recruitment and training



As firms plan for the future, a hybrid workplace offers them the chance to cast a wider net for talent. “Organizations should embrace the hybrid strategy as a way of opening up the talent pool across the country – and opening up their ability to hire more diverse candidates,” Nalwa said.

Technology plays an important role in recruitment, helping firms comb online resumes, social media and career websites to find candidates with the ideal skills and experience for an open position. Technology can also help deliver an onboarding experience and subsequent training that demonstrate the culture of the organization.

New professional services employees traditionally received their training by working with others in the office. “In professional services, junior associates often learn on the job, while sitting with senior leaders. They learn by doing and watching,” Nalwa said. Managers and veteran employees can still build relationships with new workers, but firms must be reimagine relationships when the hybrid model doesn’t have team members sitting side by side.


Firms might also have to reimagine their retention. “I think that will be a struggle,” said Grant Thornton Global Services Industry Leader Sean Denham. “A lot of professional services work is not glamorous, but people stay with firms because of their co-workers – without that connection, they might leave for a minimal raise where they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

“Growth, reputation and chemistry are so important in professional services,” Nalwa said. “If a partner wants to choose a team, it’s going to be based on people they’ve seen in action. How do we re-examine that dynamic? How do we assess the growth of junior associates when you’re not working right next to each other? How do we assess performance in this new world?”


Specifically, professional services firms need to:


  • support the ongoing monitoring and achievement of organizational goals, team goals, productivity goals and individual performance objectives
  • design formal mentoring and coaching programs
  • establish policies for work hours and time tracking
  • adjust recruiting, as a hybrid workforce opens up the talent pool and fosters diversity; job descriptions might require updating for work from home positions
  • adjust onboarding, leveraging technology to provide for an onboarding experience that demonstrates the culture of the firm
  • adjust learning, reskilling and upskilling the workforce with technology



Building client relationships



A firm’s internal relationships form its culture, but its client relationships form its financial foundation. While firms were able to save money on travel and meals during the pandemic, they risked losing meaningful client connections.

Fortunately, conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Teams enabled firms to have meaningful meetings. In some cases, one-on-one conference calls allowed for uninterrupted and personal conversations that helped build relationships with clients. Now, as society reopens and there is an opportunity for in-person meetings, firms need to examine the right balance between remote and in-person client meetings.

“Clients buy services based on relationships, and that is typically built on the frequent interaction of relationship leaders and consultants with their clients,” Nalwa said. “If you move to a hybrid model, how does that change the relationships and buying decisions for clients?”



Strategy of the future



As restrictions lift and businesses plan how their future workplaces will look, the leading professional services firms are developing strategies where employees work both remotely and in the office. A sound hybrid strategy can maintain and grow relationships with employees and clients, whether online or in person.


“A hybrid strategy is the strategy of the future,” Nalwa said. “Companies need to learn how to embrace it and work within it.”





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