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Connecting a Virtual Workforce

To create a sense of belonging for its 178,000 employees, most of whom don’t work in company offices, Accenture employs webconferencing tools, an extensive orientation program, personal career counselors and community events at its offices.

September 26, 2008
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Corporate Culture, Retention, HR & Business Administration
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D uring his most recent assignment, Accenture consultant Keyur Patel had three clocks on his desk. One was set for Manila, another for Bangalore and the third for San Francisco, the city in which Patel had spent four days a week as he helped a major retailer implement IT systems to track and improve sales. He used his cell phone to keep track of the time at home in Atlanta. He returned there on Thursday nights.

    On Mondays, the 29-year-old usually caught a 7:30 a.m. flight to San Francisco. His mornings were spent catching up with team members on the East Coast and afternoons in meetings with his client.

    Around 6 p.m., he checked in with his software programmers in the Philippines, where it was 9 in the morning of the following day. And at 8 p.m., after hitting the gym, Patel got on the phone with the team in India, where it was 8:30 a.m. He usually worked from Atlanta on Fridays.

    Patel’s routine is a typical one for an Accenture consultant. The consulting firm has offices in 150 cities worldwide, in countries such as Argentina, Botswana, South Korea, Poland and the U.S., but discourages employees from spending time in those offices, except to visit. In fact, if employees like Patel go to an office, they have to make a reservation for a desk ahead of time.

    Accenture uses this virtual management workforce model so that the majority of its 178,000 employees can work anytime from anywhere, says Jill Smart, chief human resources officer.

    With high gas prices and good talent harder to find, more employers are embracing flexible work schedules and telework arrangements. But as Accenture has learned over the years, maintaining an esprit de corps when employees are scattered around the globe is no easy task.

    "It’s a challenge," Smart says. And while on one level Smart believes Accenture employees are engaged by the work they do and their ability to do it from anywhere, she knows it’s up to her to ensure they still feel a connection to the company.

    "We need to make it about Accenture," she says, "and we need to do that across the globe."

    Keeping track of where everyone is on a given day is hard enough for Accenture, which hires 60,000 employees a year. Making these employees feel as if they are part of a corporate culture seems nearly impossible.

    But Accenture believes it can be done and has a number of programs and processes in place to create a sense of belonging for its consultant workforce, including adopting webconferencing tools, assigning each employee to a career counselor, running an extensive orientation program and holding quarterly community events at its offices. Accenture, like many professional service consultants, has an added challenge in that it is also competing with its clients for talent.

Losing employees to clients
    The job of an Accenture consultant is to analyze a client’s business needs and design and implement solutions for these issues. Consultants work in teams, which can range from one to 1,000 consultants globally, depending on the size of the client and the project. The challenge for Accenture is that the consultants can get cozy with clients when they’re working with them on-site, particularly if they are there for several months.

    As a number of current and former consultants interviewed for this article noted, after a few years of living the road-warrior lifestyle, many consultants prefer to take a job with a client so they can have more stability.

    "The coolest thing about being a consultant is that I know exactly where I would go work if I left, because I already have assessed the workplace of the company," says a consultant at a competing firm, who asked not to be named.

    Smart concedes that consultants more often leave Accenture to work for clients than for competitors.

    "It’s always a risk, but not always a bad thing," she says.

    To some extent, a consultant going to work for a client can put Accenture in a good light with existing and prospective customers. But the company recognizes that it loses money every time good talent leaves for an outside opportunity, so Accenture has increased its efforts over the past couple of years to keep people in the firm.

    "We saw that we had people leaving to go do work that they could do here, and when we asked them about it, they said, ‘We didn’t know that we could do that,’ " Smart says. "My intent is to nip that in the bud."

    And so the company has introduced manager training and online tools to make sure that all employees know they can opt for different career paths within Accenture. For example, since Accenture has become a major player in HR outsourcing, consultants can work with an outsourcing client. These assignments, which tend to last five to 10 years, can provide the stability for consultants tired of the road-warrior lifestyle, Patel says. He knows a couple of consultants who took this route.

    Accenture isn’t alone in its struggles. All of the major management consulting firms have programs to retain talent and make their consultants feel part of a team. But
Accenture, which doesn’t even have a headquarters, has been doing it for much of its history. The company was formed in 1989 as Andersen Consulting.

    Accenture’s recent efforts seem to be working, although only time will tell. The company’s attrition rates have dropped slightly, from 18 percent in the 2006 fiscal year to 17 percent in the first quarter of 2008 and 15 percent in the second quarter. If the trend continues, Accenture’s turnover would be below industry average, according to Top-Consultant.com, a management-consultant- recruiting Web site. Turnover rates at consulting firms in the U.K. and North America range from 15 to 20 percent and fall to around 15 percent in Europe, according to Top-Consultant.com.

    And it also seems that employees are getting word of the opportunity to move more within the organization. As of May 2008, Accenture had filled 28 percent of its open positions in the U.S. with internal candidates, compared with 17 percent in fiscal 2005. The company doesn’t share employee engagement scores, but says it has met its targets for the past several years.

Making it Accenture
    When Patel was a new consultant 7½ years ago, he got his first taste of Accenture’s culture almost immediately. After two weeks of orientation at the office in Atlanta, Patel spent another two weeks at Accenture’s St. Charles, Illinois, training facility for New Joiner Orientation.

    "I remember being really shocked by how global the company was," he says. "There were as many people there from Europe and Asia as there were from the U.S."

    Every new employee at Accenture goes through the company’s New Joiner Orientation, which is designed to not only welcome employees, but also to introduce them to "the Accenture way," Smart says.

    During orientation, employees are taught "Accenture Delivery" methodologies, which are essentially an array of templates, checklists and processes that Accenture employs, no matter what the project.

    For entry-level consultants like Patel, it’s a trial by fire. They are thrown into mock client engagements. They work in teams, do mock client presentations and help implement systems to solve client problems. After all-day meetings, participants go to dinner together, which is
often followed by a couple of beers at the nearby bar before returning to their dorms to get some sleep.

    "It’s a little bit like an extension of college," Patel says.

    After orientation, every new hire is assigned a career counselor, who is a senior Accenture employee assigned by HR. The counselors help the new employees throughout their careers.

    "This is someone a couple levels up, who is in the same line of business as the employee," Smart says. "Their job is to help you navigate your career throughout Accenture." Each career counselor is assigned four or five employees.

    A consultant like Patel may talk to his boss in Detroit over the phone every month or so. But he also has monthly discussions with his career counselor.

    "He will talk to me about how I am doing and what opportunities he sees for me," Patel says. While these conversations follow an agenda, Patel says they are usually pretty casual. "I think it depends on the style of the career counselor," he says.

    And it’s somewhat up to the career counselors to make sure that their mentees stay connected to Accenture’s culture, Smart says.


"It's always a risk, but not
always a bad thing."
—Jill Smart, on Accenture employees leaving to work for clients

    In fact, to this day Patel says that the best advice his career counselor, Steven Hermann, has given him is to stay connected to his roots in Atlanta. Hermann is a senior executive in the retail systems group.

    "He advised me to use my Fridays to really connect with the local office and make sure I always feel that sense of belonging," Patel says.

    It might seem surprising that Accenture’s senior employees have time to be career counselors given their schedules, but Smart says it’s expected of them.

    "If you are not a good career counselor, there are consequences," she says. In fact, every employee, regardless of rank, is evaluated on people-development skills as part of their annual performance review and their pay is partially tied to this component, she says. How much of their pay is based on their people-development skills depends on the position.

    Training employees and their managers is also a big emphasis for Accenture. Each time employees are promoted, they are asked to participate in further training. There are also various e-learning programs that consultants take throughout the year.

    "A consultant could spend one week per year at the [training] facility," Smart says. "And they are expected to come back as faculty at some point," she says.

    On average, Accenture employees spend about 75 hours in training annually—70 percent of which is conducted virtually. The company spent $776,000 on training in fiscal 2007, up from $546,000 in 2005.

    Because of Accenture’s unique way of working, managers get specific training on how to manage a virtual team. This includes topics such as how to be sensitive to time zones when scheduling conference calls and ensuring that managers take time out of staff calls to allow for chitchat, Smart says.

    "It’s just about things like spending the first 10 minutes of [a] call finding out what everyone’s up to," she says.

Replacing the Water Cooler
    It might seem like a good thing that it’s harder for Accenture employees to engage in chitchat. After all, time that was once wasted on office gossip or sharing stories about the weekend is now spent on work.

    But usually it’s those casual conversations in the hallway that lead to collaboration or just a basic transfer of knowledge. Those things are core to an organization, says Valery Yakubovich, associate professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

    And while teams at a client site can still have that personal interaction, consultants who are dispersed around the globe might pass on only essential information when they are on the phone or sending e-mail, he says.

    "Casual interactions play a big role in transferring knowledge and establishing trust in the workplace," he says. "It’s hard to replace that when employees are working remotely."

    To some extent, Accenture relies on technology platforms, like Cisco’s TelePresence webconferencing, which costs up to $300,000 per unit, to facilitate communications. The company also has a PeoplePages site, which is basically an Accenture-employee version of Facebook where employees can read personal profiles and send messages to one another.

    Despite all the tools and attempts to create a personal bond among people who don’t work in the same place, one Accenture consultant, who asked not to be named, worries that his lack of face time with his boss, who is in a different city, will hurt him professionally in the long run.

    "I have had good performance evaluations, but sometimes it’s those long-lasting relationships in a corporate environment that are most important to your advancement," he says.

    This consultant is probably not alone in his concern, Smart says. "I would be lying if I didn’t say that most people want more face time with their managers," she says.

    To some extent, it’s up to managers to see employees face to face periodically, but it’s also up to the employees to proactively reach out to their bosses, she says.

    And many managers make it a point to see their teams when they can, they say.


Every new employee at Accenture goes through the company's New Joiner Orientation program.
"I remember being really shocked by how global the company was.
There were as many people there
from Europe and Asia as there
were from the U.S."
—Keyur Patel, Accenture consultant,
on his new-employee
orientation 7 1/2 years ago

    Janet Hoffman, managing director of Accenture’s global retail practice, goes to see clients three to four times a week and tries to have some time with the Accenture team during those trips. "I try to have some kind of team event when I’m at a client site—whether it’s an all-hands meeting or a happy hour," she says.

    She also holds hourlong calls every month with her group to go over the state of the business.

    Accenture also has a number of processes in place to keep abreast of employee concerns and issues. The company has an HR manager at each client site, and runs ongoing engagement surveys of its teams.

    In fact, Richard Westphal, director of Accenture’s U.S. Retain Talent group, spends nearly his entire day researching and coming up with ways to stay on top of employee concerns. He also has a team of 100 people whose job is to go to a project site when an issue needs attention.

    His team isn’t made up of just HR people, but also executives within the firm. They essentially serve as a SWAT team to address employee concerns.

    For example, one team recently visited a client site in Washington, D.C., to talk to an Accenture team that had complained that it wasn’t getting enough information on some of the benefits the company offered, Westphal says.

Career Paths
    Over the past several months, Smart and her team have focused on communicating more effectively with employees about the variety of career paths they can take at Accenture.

    The old "up or out" mentality, in which a consultant has to get promoted or leave, is not a reality at Accenture anymore, Smart says. And the company is doing everything it can to get that message across, she says.

    The reason for this is twofold. First, the company wants to prevent good talent from leaving. Second, Accenture has broadened its business so much over the past few years—from just pure consulting to an array of services such as outsourcing—that it’s important to be able to move talent around the organization, Smart says.

    Last October, Smart went around the globe holding mandatory one-day training for the firm’s career counselors that emphasized the need for them to inform employees about career paths at the company.

    "We want people to know that there are a variety of opportunities within the organization," she says. "And we want that conversation to be part of the career development discussion."

    Accenture also has launched a Web site called Careers Marketplace, which provides employees with information about changing careers within Accenture and links to the company’s open positions.

    Visitors to the site can click on videos of employees telling their stories about how they have switched careers at Accenture. For example, in one video, Sha-Ron Low, HR lead for the Asia Pacific resources operating unit in Singapore, tells how she has made several career moves within the company—starting out in consulting in Malay­sia, then moving to Singapore to do more business operations work within the enterprise division and now in HR. In telling her story, Low discusses how each move helped her gain skills and experience.

    Tools such as the videos are designed not only to publicize career information, but also to change the employee mind-set and emphasize that opportunities in the company take time, Smart says. While Smart and her team are convinced the up-or-out model is a thing of the past, it isn’t clear whether the consultants understand the change.

    And that might be the most difficult aspect of having a virtual workforce, experts say. When it’s time to change something about the culture, it takes time and more effort to get that change communicated to, and internalized by, the employees.

    "It’s hard to create a culture when you have a distributed organization, and changing it can be even more challenging," says Elise Walton, working group leader for corporate center design of the Conference Board. "Companies need to ask themselves if they have the time and the resources to address these challenges before they adopt this model."

Workforce Management, September 22, 2008, p. 1, 23-25 -- Subscribe Now!

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