Coronavirus as Catalyst: Changing Professional Services Forever?

The trade press is filled with commentary about how the coronavirus epidemic is affecting professional services firms such as Big Law, consulting, and financial services: reduced salaries, layoffs, hiring delays, and of course considerable uncertainty around engagement calendars. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the demand for these services won’t disappear; very likely clients will see an increase in disputes, revaluations, and pervasive renegotiations as people and organizations grapple with a landscape that changed almost overnight.

But, there’s other news too that isn’t necessarily making the headlines. The nationwide stay-at-home orders are not just affecting the ways in which these professionals approach and perform their work, some of them are experiencing a reduced workload right now that…actually feels good? And yet that benefit is mixed with anxiety about how sustainable this slower pace ultimately is going to be, not to mention a sense of uncertainty and even grieving over the familiar habits and expectations that have been lost. With the shift of as much work as possible to the virtual, the half-day meeting half way across the country has been replaced by the video conference, and suddenly travel and trips to the office aren’t the givens that they used to be. Plenty of professionals note that they could get used to working from home one or two days a week “when things return to normal”. In other words, the changes we’re seeing now aren’t just something to get through. Some of them, people are going to want to keep.

At the same time, long-standing concerns about professional services industries have not exactly evaporated. Challenges and obstacles such as a lack of diversity, gender inequality with respect to compensation and promotion, inflexible hours, and the competitive viability of long-established fee structures are still there, pandemic or no. Associate-level consultants and junior partners worry tremendously about how maternity and paternity leave will affect their career trajectories; senior managers worry where the next business generators will come from, as well as how they can sustain margins in the face of ever-intensifying, rapidly evolving competition.

Nonetheless, the change wrought by the pandemic on professional services firms could be the long-awaited catalyst necessary to solve seemingly intractable problems that preceded it. Firms are getting used to a little more telecommuting, which helps ease demands for flexibility. More virtual meetings abate some pricing pressure through increased efficiency and potentially reduced real estate expenditures. Working from home means that professionals with young children or parents who require care – and in practice this impacts predominantly women – now have greater ability to juggle their complex schedules without worrying that they’re giving the impression of being less committed to their jobs. Could such acceptance at last reduce unwanted mid-level turnover? It is hard to know if these changes will persist once the coronavirus is more limited in its reach. But it’s also hard to think that we will all go back to the office in quite the same way.

There’s a lot to think about. A fragile silver lining is that the pandemic has created not just the time to do this thinking, but also the very mechanism that can connect change on a personal level with change needed at the corporate level. One may not know where to invest in the stock market right now, but the senior partners of professional services firms (along with their HR executives) should not fail to invest in sustained, productive action that can come from this moment.

Guest Co-Author: Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an expert in economic consulting who has spent nearly 30 years working with professional services firms. Read more about Jeff on his Linkedin profile.