Two months have passed since agencies have moved to full telework schedules, forcing most federal employees to work from home. Consultants supporting federal clients must embrace this reality as well.

Being virtual poses various challenges for consultants. For example, effective consulting requires networking, harboring strong client relationships, and general face-to-face interactions. Some of the best ideas come from highly planned strategic visioning sessions — or even quick hallway chats that snowball into successful initiatives. The post-COVID-19 reality provides consultants with an opportunity to revamp how they do business with their clients. At the same time, they still must execute day-to-day activities as flawlessly as possible (while balancing many other challenges in the home).

Here are some ideas for consultants looking to maximize the value they bring to their clients while remote.

1. Encourage innovative ways to interact in virtual meetings.

A consultant’s goal is to provide clients with solutions. In a remote setting, this involves interactive tools for meetings.

One of the greatest advantages of fully remote work is that otherwise technology-averse clients will cling to video conferencing. While each office or agency uses different software, many options have similar functionality such as video, screen share, polls and Q&A. All of this can create a more engaging environment. Programs, like Stormboard, allow meeting hosts and attendees to use sticky notes, assign tasks and capture meeting minutes. Consultants should identify the outcome they wish to achieve from virtual meetings and use a platform that best achieves it.

In a virtual setting, long-winded presentations can lose the audience’s attention. Consultants can plan for this by breaking up the agenda so that there are multiple presenters, significant options for interaction and space for feedback throughout and after the meeting. Virtual meetings cannot always replace a conference room, but they may provide an opportunity to introduce innovative solutions that stick once full telework schedules conclude. Overall, consultants should be creative in how they approach these opportunities.

2. Don’t apologize for your personal life.

A negative effect from working at home constantly is that personal lives blend into work lives seamlessly. A commute no longer provides an opportunity to prepare for the workspace or to get ready for home when the work day ends. Clients, supervisors and families are all packed into the day together. Nonetheless, clients face the same reality. So when a cat walks across the keyboard or a housemate starts speaking loudly on a call, remember that clients are likely facing similar scenarios.

It is good to address these flukes and bond over the blunders. Loud noises like construction could require fleeing one room for the silence of another. Luckily, most clients understand and may even share that they too have loud noises outside their homes, interrupting their calls.

Merging work and personal lives has forced consultants to place messy realities literally in front of the camera. Don’t shy away from using them to bond with clients.

3. Take time each week to learn something new and share it.

Without a daily commute, consider putting the time gained toward learning a new skill. Or take time for a lunch-and-learn each week to freshen skills and gain some new ones. Many professional groups have been hosting more webinars or “ask me anything” sessions, which are a great way to expand consulting knowledge and acumen.

Consultants can share what they have learned with clients and bring them along on their learning journey. In fact, this new knowledge could lead to future work on a new project. Clients expect consultants to ask questions that elicit the right response. This curiosity should not lie dormant in the office. At the very least, turning the newest intrigue into collective knowledge will prove useful in establishing a sense of trust and a shared interest.

4. React, but don’t forget to plan.

Many federal clients faced a shift in momentum at the start of the public health emergency. Agencies that typically work on one thing veered to address new areas that required immediate outcomes.

Consultants must support clients in fulfilling their duties based on the present climate — which is not always the ideal climate

With time, the new urgency will fade, and things will begin to settle — or new priorities will emerge. As they do, consultants have a responsibility to readdress the strategic vision or goals that made sense months ago and remind their clients of the long-term strategy at the right moment. This will help a project return to normalcy, even if others are focusing only on outcomes related to COVID-19.

5. Reach out to your peers.

Consulting is a group activity. Feedback, brainstorming and visioning sessions may seem cumbersome right now, but they provide significant value in identifying the best way to move forward on a project. Valuable, one-off conversations with colleagues on different projects are sometimes difficult to have when the immediate needs of the client are so present.

In the office, it can be difficult to phone a friend when everyone but that person is in a room brainstorming.

Telework in some ways alleviates this issue. For example, chats with clients on Jabber can occur at the same time as conversations with a colleague. Consultants who are used to receiving feedback from team members or project managers do not need to hit pause to present information to clients.

This certainly happens onsite, but in-person conversations do not allow for nuanced side-bar conversations. Because everyone is working remotely, now could be a good time to talk with someone who may offer a varying perspective. Remote work allows for time to receive feedback from a trusted colleague and assess new ideas.

This doesn’t mean including everyone who could provide a relevant opinion in every discussion. There is nothing worse than a crowded phone line of people talking over each other. However, consultants can act strategically, do their homework, and bounce ideas off people with whom they may not typically interact.

Next Steps

Being a virtual consultant may not be a choice at this point, but how consultants react to the situation will impact their work later. Embracing this virtual profession can grant space for more tools and better client relationships. The most important aspect of being a consultant is building trust. Clients will trust consultants even more as they demonstrate professionalism and adaptability in new situations.