The Virtual Bench: a revolution in consulting workforce planning
At the start of the year, Source Global Research published data, stating that a fifth of consulting firms had turned down work in 2021 as a result of staff shortages. SGR went on to say that 2022 would be the year in which the consulting industry would have to create a better, more coherent, more sustainable response to the talent drought.
Enter: The Virtual Bench. Not a jazzy place to perch in the metaverse. Rather, it's a workforce planning approach that takes strategic advantage of the global boom in freelancing, enabling consultancies to develop, and run, lean, future-proof operating models.
A team of on-demand freelance consultants, ready to be plugged into projects at a moment’s notice
A virtual bench lets you run a lean business, with a strong core, which can flex rapidly in response to market demand. With a virtual bench set up, you can kiss goodbye to capacity vs utilisation challenges, increase billable hours and save costs. You can raise sales volumes with confidence, take on larger projects, and re-incorporate parts of a project you might otherwise outsource.
And if you’re looking to expand into a new vertical or service offering, having a virtual bench in place means there’s no need to wait for the market to deliver on permanent hires.
Is setting up a virtual bench different from hiring freelance consultants on an ad hoc basis?
The difference begins with buy-in. Instead of engaging independent consultants as a last-minute, last-resort response to capacity constraints, consultancies with a virtual bench are taking a proactive approach to freelance hiring, placing it centre-stage in their workforce strategies.
These firms have built close relationships with talent platforms, designed virtual benches that will deliver for their specific operating context, and developed accompanying support processes. Processes vary, but are likely to include interviewing, on-boarding, training and cultural inclusion.
Strong process around a virtual bench allows you to reap all the benefits that external consultants bring, at the same time as ensuring that they are operationally aligned and actively included in your culture.
The virtues of a Virtual Bench
1. Address hiring challenges in the 3-8 year experience bracket
While partner layers are generally stable, and consultancies don’t typically have a problem hiring associates, it’s a different story at mid-level. Instead of staying with a firm for a long time or moving to a competitor for career development, consultants in the 3-8 year bracket are now far more likely to leave and either start their own business, head into industry, or freelance.
2020 data from The Accountancy Partnership indicated that, of the close-to 17000 new consultancies registered, over a third were by people under 30.
Essentially, fewer people want to be in permanent consulting roles in the 3-8 year space. But while they might have disappeared from your traditional bench, they’re available and ready to dive right in from your virtual one.
2. Create a lean, flexible business with more billable hours
A virtual bench lets you flex headcount at short notice. If a win comes in that you weren’t expecting, staffing won’t be an issue. If a project gets cancelled, it’s also less of a problem. Freelance consultants are typically on short notice periods, command higher day rates, and understand that cancellation is always a risk.
3. Sales on a new scale
A virtual bench changes the scope of what you can sell. Being able to scale teams at short notice allows you to bid for larger projects and broaden project scope. A virtual bench allows you to play in the space of a firm 5X your size, without the associated overheads and risks.
4. Improved morale, work-life balance and retention
If a virtual bench is part of your strategy, it’s less likely that you’ll have the lengthy down-times that can demotivate permanent employees. Equally, in busy periods, because a virtual bench allows you to flex up quickly, your permanent team won’t end up over-capacity, burnt out and about to resign.
Because a well-designed virtual bench allows you to ride the demand waves with more control and less stress, you’ll have the bandwidth to improve your firm's culture and broader working conditions. Finally, of course, there’s the tremendous power that can come with bringing fresh energy into your business on a regular basis.
5. Improved diversity
A virtual bench means you can access a much broader range of talent, allowing you to deploy teams with a greater range of skills and perspectives.
Strong on-boarding and integration processes will enable freelancers to participate in your culture and align with your ways of working, while simultaneously developing your offer to clients, your culture and your capabilities. And over time, you’re building a firm-specific network that’s broader and deeper than any traditional alumni network, and far more diverse.
6. Access global talent & niche specialists
Remote working is now BAU, and the last two years have witnessed an explosion in support services for distributed workforces. A virtual bench, unlike a traditional bench, is essentially infinite in reach, offering access to skills and talent on a global scale.
7. Up-skill your core team
Exposure to consultants with different backgrounds, experience and training from other firms gives your permanent team more opportunities to learn: either by osmosis, or via more structured up-skilling such as training sessions or lunch & learns.
8. Better long-term planning
With a virtual bench, you’re building a network that can facilitate better long-term planning and business growth. You can bring people back for multiple projects over many years, fostering relationships that may ultimately be longer than a permanent tenure (and when a consultant is not working with you, you know they will be off adding useful experience to their CV!)
You can also work with freelancers to set up new service offerings or expand into new geographies, tackling the growth work that often ends up de-prioritised in favour of urgent client demands.
9. Tried and tested permanent hires
Freelancers aren’t always freelance forever. It’s increasingly common for consultants to move between contract and permanent roles, with many favouring companies where they’ve already worked and there’s a strong relationship. It’s a great way to ‘try before you buy’ - for both parties. And with the more systematic, higher volume approach of the virtual bench, conversion is also likely to increase!
At Choix we are passionate about helping clients to build virtual benches across our impressive network of verifie independent consultants. If you’d like to talk to a member of the team about building a virtual bench or any other needs, please email firstname.lastname@example.org