Being on the Bench

    1 FREE Audiobook RISK-FREE from AudibleConsidering the project-based nature of consulting, it’s nearly inevitable for a consultant to find him orConsultants aren't billable while they are on the bench herself between projects.  This time is traditionally referred to by the industry as being ‘on the bench’.  This week we will discuss what it means to a consultant to be on the bench and the various strategies for making the best of it and limiting one’s time in that status.

    1. Is it good or bad to be on the bench?
      1. That usually depends on the firm you work for, but in most cases it’s not a good thing for your consulting career.  In consulting, billable work is what you’re striving for.
      2. If you’re on the bench – and I’ve also heard some in the consulting industry call it on the beach – either way, it means you’re not billable.
      3. Now the general consensus that I’ve heard is that after a long hard project where you may have put in a lot of extra hours towards the end, being on the bench for a week or two is a welcome change in one’s environment.
      4. You catch up on emails, go to lunch with a few peers and get a little rest.  But after about two weeks, you tend to get bored.  Most consultants are pretty driven people and sitting around all day without much to do is not a consultant’s idea of fun.
      5. So it’s usually good for a short time, but will tend to get old after a short time.
      6. Also, from a career aspect, most consulting firms evaluate you, at least in part, on your utilization, which is the number of hours you were billable over a year’s time.  If you spend a lot of time on the bench, that can count against you.
    2. What happens when a consultant is on the bench?
      1. Once again, it largely depends on the firm you work for.  But generally, you finish your project at your client and do all of your client-exit activities – you can refer to our Leaving the Client podcast we did a few weeks ago for what to do there.
      2. But let’s say you roll off the client project on Friday.  Monday you’ll show up at your firm’s office and hopefully they’ll have a desk for you.
      3. Many firms have downsized so much that folks on the bench are relegated to a work from home status.
      4. Wherever they have you working, there’s usually someone to check in with.  There are a number of things they may have you doing.
      5. Many firms have internal projects that they have their bench team work on.  In my experience with IT consulting, we’ve developed internal billing systems or systems for HR performance reviews.
      6. This is an opportunity for the firm to get applications developed internally and to train their staff on new technologies at the same time.
      7. If a firm has a project in mind for you but the client just isn’t ready to start, or hasn’t gotten financing approval, the firm may send you to training that is applicable to the project you’re earmarked for.
      8. The bench is also used for new employees sometimes.  When a firm hires someone new, especially some that are right out of college, they have an orientation for them for a week or so.
      9. Then they may have them on the bench to work on an internal project to teach them the firm’s methodologies.  This also acts as sort of a probationary test to see if they can do the job.  If it turns out the new employee can’t handle the job, it’s better to find out internally rather than in front of the client.
      10. It’s generally been my experience that the bench is no fun.  As I mentioned, the first week or so is a nice change of pace, but then when there’s nothing to do, you begin chomping at the bit to do something interesting.
      11. Even when you get assigned to an internal project, it’s rarely as challenging as a client project.
      12. Consultants are competitive people too, and everyone knows that if you’re not billable, you’re not adding value to the firm.  It becomes sort of a stigma.  You picture people talking behind your back saying “Did you know that Lew’s been on the bench for a month now?”
      13. Being unassigned to a project is sort of like being unemployed.  When you’re unassigned, you can begin to feel that you’re unassignable.  So hopefully the firm keeps in touch with you and makes sure to let you know that they’re working on getting you a project.
      14. As it stands, I’m currently unassigned at my firm.  I’ve been working on several small internal projects, which is keeping me busy.
      15. There is also a large project that my firm has me earmarked for.  There have been a couple of delays in getting the project kicked off, but my firm has kept in communication with me to let me know it’s still on and to sit tight.
      16. There are also firms that don’t maintain a bench.  When that happens, as soon as you return to the office, you could be let go.  This is primarily for staff augmentation firms that just supply individuals for placement.
      17. For large project-based companies, I consider this to be a bad business practice.  It’s very short sighted.  Project-based companies need people that know the firm’s methodologies and processes.
      18. What does this company do if they have no one on the bench and they win a project?  They have to scramble to recruit new employees that don’t know anything about their firm.
      19. There are rare occurrences where the employees that were laid off can be hired back, but they may have found another job and there are just too often hard of feelings between the consultant and the firm at that time.
      20. Most firms manage to a bench.  They know they need a certain number of people ready depending on their sales pipeline.  They gauge how many projects are likely to hit and the skills they’ll need for them and make sure they have some people in reserve for when a client signs on the dotted line and they need to start ramping a project team up.
      21. I’m fortunate to have a firm that believes that a strong bench makes for a solid foundation for our client projects.  We maintain a bench and always have a backlog of internal projects to work on.
      22. Like I mentioned before, this allows our firm to get some internal applications written, but also allows us to train on new technologies.
      23. We have people working on mobile apps and various technologies that will allow us to be ready for these types of projects when clients ask for them.
      24. So every bench experience can be different, it really depends on the firm and their current situation.
    3. What strategies should a consultant follow when on the bench.
      1. I’ve mentioned a few, but if you have any training needs, that’s a good time to do that.  You’ll want to plan that before going on the bench if you can.
      2. If you know a few weeks in advance, you may want to talk to your office about identifying what kind of class you want to take, finding the class and getting it approved by your firm’s management.  That all has a lead-time and you won’t want to wait until you get into the office to start making those arrangements.
      3. Also as I mentioned, it’s a chance to catch up on things.  All the low-priority emails that you kind of filed away for a day when you had more time.  It’s also a chance to meet up for lunches with people in your network, whether they’re fellow employees or people you just haven’t connected with in a while.
      4. One of the things you want to do is recharge your batteries.  Take it easy for a little while if you can.
      5. If there are some conferences in the area that your firm will send you to, that’s a good option as well.  Sometimes that’s hard, because you’re already costing the firm your salary while not billing, but forward thinking firms know that conferences are great for education and networking purposes.
      6. One other aspect of conferences is, if you have some deep expertise, you may be able to present at the conferences.  This gets you in to the conference free most of the time and allows you to get your firm’s name out.  It’s a productive use of bench time.
      7. At some firms I’ve worked at, we were always encouraged to plan our vacations between projects.  That sounds great theoretically, but it’s not always possible.
      8. For one thing, it’s pretty rare for a project not to get delayed.  You purchase plane tickets or make reservations at some resort, only to find that you can’t go when you scheduled because the project’s been delayed by a month.
      9. Also, if you have kids in school, you’re at the mercy of their school schedule.  They get the summer off, but if you have a project that runs through the summer, you only get certain periods of time where the kids are off.  It makes it very hard to schedule a vacation around that.
    4. Is there anything a consultant can do to get off the bench.
      1. You don’t always have a lot of control over it.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of the luck of the draw.  Either a project comes up or it doesn’t.
      2. But there are strategies to increase your chances of getting off the bench.
      3. If you’re in a larger firm, it’s a good idea to use that time to get your name out.  Stop by the offices of the decision makers at your firm, especially those who make placement decisions and introduce yourself.  If they already know you, check in with them and re-introduce yourself.
      4. They may already see your name on the staffing planning lists that show that you’re available, but it never hurts to explicitly show them you’re there.
      5. Let them know you’re in the office and looking for a project.  Maybe mention your skill set to remind them what you do.
      6. You also want to ask if there are any proposals in the works.  You may need to ask a different group of people than the staffing managers, but if you offer to help on a sales proposal, if that project ends up being signed by the client, you have a better chance of being staffed on that project.
      7. One thing to keep in mind on this, when you stop by someone’s office to let them know you’re available or to offer to work on a proposal, don’t make a pest of yourself.
      8. Ask them if this is a good time, and don’t hang around their office chatting or an extended amount of time.  Just because you’re not busy doesn’t mean they aren’t.
      9. Some people say the squeaky wheel gets the grease and they may place you on a project if you bug them enough.  I think it’s more important to be respectful of other people’s time.
      10. If you kind of market your skills to the staffing team and offer to help on proposals, you can increase your chances of getting assigned to a billable project and off the bench.
    5. What should an independent consultant do when on the bench?
      1. Independent consultants should follow similar strategies.  When they’re between projects, that’s a good time for any training they want to do or to take a vacation and recharge batteries.
      2. But for independents, that’s really the time to work on sales.  We’ve talk about this before, but if you’re an independent consultant, if you’re not working, you’re not making money.
      3. So you should be working on that next sale so that your between project time is limited.  It all depends on how long you can afford to be unbillable.
    6. You mentioned that people are evaluated on their billable hours.  What control do they have over that?
      1. Sometimes you have very little control.  As I said, it’s just luck of the draw that they sell a project that needs your skills when you’re available.
      2. But the strategies I mentioned a few minutes ago – marketing yourself internally and helping out with sales proposals will help.
      3. The theory behind holding people responsible for their utilization is to incent them to sell.  Let’s say you’re at a client working on a project that will end soon.  While you’re in a meeting, they mention something to you about how another business unit is struggling to keep up with their orders.
      4. So you ask them a few questions and suggest that your firm might be able to help them.  You call one of your superiors and they set up a meeting and after some time, they sign a contract for another project.
      5. Since you know that client’s business, you may get staffed on that project.  So you directly influenced your utilization. Another example is on most projects, they’re multi-phased.  Once one phase of a project ends, there’s a period of stabilization and ramp-down.
      6. Then they start up into another phase.  This is the client’s chance to tell the firm which members of the team they want to return and which ones they don’t want to return.
      7. Clients have that option.  Some consultants rub the manager the wrong way or maybe the client didn’t think certain consultants were strong enough and want consultants with a higher skill level.
      8. Whatever the reason, if you are requested by the client to return for the next phase, you’ve influenced your ability to get assigned.
      9. I’ve also seen project managers and partners fight over individuals.  If you develop a reputation in your firm for a good work ethic and for being highly skilled, people will snatch you up for projects faster than others that may have a lesser reputation.
    7. Any final thoughts on being on the bench?
      1. Consultants become consultants because they want to do interesting work.  Being on the bench is not all that interesting.  It’s OK to enjoy a stress-free period for a short while.  But it’s in a consultant’s best interests to get off the bench as soon as possible.
      2. Hopefully, I’ve shared some strategies here that will help people get off the bench and get billable sooner than they otherwise would have.

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