Pros, Cons and Practical Considerations of Consulting in a 24/7 World

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR November 21, 2011

While technology has brought major benefits to organizations, employees and consultants, it also brings the expectation of being “on” virtually 24/7. Particularly for those consultants whose clients might span time zones, the expectation of accessibility can become burdensome, even extreme.

Consider Erin Farrell Talbot, for example, who admits that she responded to BlackBerry messages from clients during the time she was scheduled for a c-section. “I actually responded because I knew the pressure of keeping some of these clients and didn’t want to risk losing them because they were under the impression that I was having a baby and would be nonresponsive,” she said. It was, she acknowledged, pressure she puts on herself but that she feels comes with the territory, especially for someone who has two small children.

“I will often do calls at the dinner table, while giving a bath or even when the kids are sleeping because I just can’t say ‘no’ as the consultant gig is very important to me and my family.”

Of course, when clients are located around the globe, the challenges can be even greater.

“My day began with talking to a client in India,” said Marian Thier with Expanding Thought, Inc., in Boulder, Colo. “It was early morning for me and late at night for her. Next time we will switch.” Thier said that she has conducted webinars from Australia with clients in Budapest and Amsterdam.

Working in a 24/7 world provides opportunities and challenges, said Thier. Opportunities include:

  • Doing business in parts of the world that she had never worked in before.
  • The ease for clients to try out her work without a significant investment.
  • Cost-effectiveness.
  • Accomplishing more work in less time by not having to travel.
  • Shorter response time for customer requirements.
  • Being less tied to the clock.

But, there are also challenges. These include:

  • Some clients not respecting that there is such a thing as “office closed.”
  • Expectations of too-short turnaround times.
  • Technology problems.
  • Difficulty finding times to connect.

“I find the best way to deal with this phenomenon is to establish clear ground rules from the get-go,” said Thier. “When we discuss expectations, process, concerns and preferences, everything seems to flow. It’s when we jump into a situation without talking about the situation and relationship that problems can arise.”

Other consultants have found positive and negatives involved in working in a 24/7 world.

Pros and Cons

Rebecca Staton-Reinstein is a management consultant with Advantage Leadership, Inc., in North Miami Beach, Fla., where she focuses on leadership development. “In a couple of days I head to Asia to spend three weeks in three countries working with clients,” she said. “Technology makes so much of this possible. I was on Skype at 9 a.m. talking with my colleague in Singapore—9 p.m. his time—to set up some meetings. Today as long as I have my laptop and an Internet connection, I can, and do, work from anywhere in the world.”

The downside, she said, is “trying to keep up with everything and everyone in many time zones.”

“At a personal level, the major issue is the sleep-wake cycle,” said Larry Stybel, co-founder of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire in Boston and executive in residence at Suffolk University. “One day I had a Skype call to South Korea at 10:30 p.m. Boston time and then had to get up at 5 a.m. to speak with a client in Milan the next morning.” You learn to take naps, he said.

Technology, he said, “Changes the referral question from ‘who is best in town’ to ‘who is best on planet Earth.’ My zone of potential clients expands.” But, he added, his list of potential competitors also expands. “I have to be ‘world class’ all the time.”

Realizing the benefits and overcoming the pitfalls of 24/7 consulting, say the experts, involves first and most importantly the ability to establish and adhere to clear boundaries.

Taking Control

Leanne Hoagland-Smith is an executive organizational development consultant who has had a coaching practice for 15 years. Communicating your hours and availability is critical, she said. “With some of my clients located across the pond as well as Down Under, I have had to stay up late or get up early to accommodate their time schedules.” One tip she offered is: “Place your time zone next to your phone number, as well as geographical reference, so that new potential clients understand the time difference and where you are physically located.”

Set boundaries, advised Staton-Reinstein. “I don’t mind setting up a call with a client for 5 a.m. or 9 p.m. when that’s what works best for the client. But, I turn my phone off and let folks know I won’t be available at certain hours.

“Let’s face it: Taking a call in the middle of a social event may make us feel important, but few of us really are that important. Being attentive and available to the client doesn’t have to mean 24/7 access. We teach people how to treat us.”

Michael Van Osch, founder and CEO of thinktank:men, a coaching firm, takes it a step further. “I only give my very highest paying clients the access to call me any time,” he said. With others, he established specific guidelines for when he will be accessible. “When everyone knows the guidelines it works very well, and people like knowing the boundaries,” he said.

Leigh Steere agreed. Steere is co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC, in Boulder, Colo., and serves clients on six continents. “Reasonable organizations and managers do not have the expectations of 24/7 connectivity. They understand people need to sleep, spend time with their families and recharge. And they understand time zone differences.”

As Talbot acknowledged, often the problem isn’t the client but the consultant.

“When consultants have difficulty turning off their phones and computers, the issue is not the client,” said Steere. “Boundary setting starts before accepting a client engagement,” she said. Steere recommends setting forth in the initial contract with a client your availability and how you prefer to be contacted.

“I recently heard the term ‘psycho-dialer,’ ” said Steere. “That’s a person who repeatedly picks up the phone or tests and tries to reach you incessantly, instead of leaving one message and asking for you to call back. If I run into one of these on a client assignment, I have a very frank discussion, explaining how that communication approach comes across and asking for a change.” If the behavior continues, she said: “I take steps to remove myself from the situation.”

That might, she said, include wrapping up the engagement and not accepting another one from that organization. In the long run, though, that might be a small price to pay for peace of mind—and just a little bit of down time.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.


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