less work and more non-billable time makes me a dull consultant
October 6, 2010 9:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm an entry-level billable employee at a consulting firm. Things are slow for me right now. I'm looking for advice on how to best use my free time and to stay on track when I'm not that busy.

I work as a lower-level billable employee for a consulting firm. At my level, I typically am staffed on 6-8 clients, although only 3-4 will be active in a given week. This results in an ebb/flow of my workload.

I'm expected to bill 85%+ of my time. However, we're currently experiencing a slow period, and I'm currently light on workload, which means I'm now struggling to get to my minimum expected billable hours.

Former young consultants: What advice do you have? I have sought additional work from my boss, coworkers and our marketing department, but sometimes they simply say they don't need the help. (Marketing/admin work isn't billable either-- but I recognize that it is helpful for the company). It's accurate to say that business is slow right now, and I genuinely believe my coworkers and superiors would give me more work if it were available. My performance reviews have all been very positive and I receive good feedback from clients, but I hate feeling "not busy" at work. It makes me anxious for my job.

Furthermore, having less work to finish somehow makes me more likely to procrastinate on the smaller tasks I do need to complete. I find myself distracted, and will realize that I've spent too much time on what should be a small task. I worry that this carries over into the hours that I bill the client, and that I am more efficient when I am busier.

Things will pick up later on, and at this point I am as confident as anyone else in this economy that my job is stable (I work with more stable, long-term clients than many of my coworkers). In the meantime:

1) As the low-man on every project team, how can I scrounge up additional billable work?
2) How can I stay focused when I have less work to do?
posted by samthemander to Work & Money (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you've exhausted people to ask for work

1. Look for some systems that need improving. Don't step on any toes, but see if you can clean up a poorly organized project.

2. Ask your supervisor for some resources to help you become better at your job -- it may not be billable, but it's a good use of your time.
posted by freshwater at 10:09 PM on October 6, 2010

Best answer: First, concentrate on making sure that the work you are doing is absolutely top-notch. Aim for perfection, and stop procrastinating. This will help you get rid of that panicky feeling.

Then, if you're still not busy enough, go to your supervisor and say, "Today I have done X, Y, and Z. Here they are for your approval [or, I've sent them to the appropriate department or whatever you do with your deliverables]. What should I
work on next?"

Yes, it feels a little grade-school, but they know that you're new and won't necessarily know the work flow yet. Depending on the company culture and disposition of your supervisor, they may come up with something, bump up your client tally, pawn off their work on you, tell you to go home or dick around on the internet, or hand you corporate training materials and tell you to have at it.

Just watch the asking for more work yet procrastinating on tasks you already have: that's dangerous, grasshopper.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:56 PM on October 6, 2010

Knock out everything on your plate - completely everything, on Monday morning. Get to the office early, start sending the emails, etc. - get it all done before lunch on Monday.

Then: chill. Do you have to be in the office? Find some good online reading and dig in. If you don't have to be in the office, find somewhere you can be online / contactable, but can also relax and read / surf net / whatever.

I did this for 6 months when I first got into consulting as an experienced-hire consultant. I was expensive to staff given my experience level and I didn't have a good enough internal network given that I was new. At times I worried I would be let go - but that was only because I didn't understand the cyclical nature of the business.

By the time I was billable for a year or two straight - I felt no guilt for all those endless days on the bench. Believe me, enjoy it while you got it - cause once its gone you're going to more than make up for it, and its not likely ever coming back.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:08 PM on October 6, 2010

Oh man, this is very close to my situation, especially the difficulty with getting things done when it's not busy. Daily to-do lists (be it post-it, notebook, or .txt file) keep me accountable to myself. Lately, I've added automatic calendar notifications as an extra kick in the butt.

Is there any kind of prep work you can be doing to get ready for the rush when it resumes? Putting/improving on new systems like freshwater suggests, putting together quick-reference guides for future use?
posted by smirkette at 11:51 PM on October 6, 2010

Most of the big consulting firms have extensive e-Learning and training opportunities, which are precisely for the times when you're 'on the bench' like this. Go and teach yourself something.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:26 AM on October 7, 2010

Depending on the nature of your role and business, you could ask coworkers who seem to be busier than usual if you could help them out in anyway for the next X hours. Even if it isn't billable, you will definitely have their gratitude and perhaps even some help the next time you're in a similar situation.
posted by armage at 3:21 AM on October 7, 2010

You didn't tell us much about the structure of your firm, but I'm going to make a couple of generalizations here. As a consultant, you'll find that everything you do is going to fall into three categories: you are billing, you are developing skills that will be billable later, or you are doing business development. If you are the most junior person on each of your project teams, I would be surprised if anyone is expecting you to do the business development part for a couple of reasons. You'll likely end up finding busy work for yourself that, while billable, is from the clients point of view just running up the meter. You probably don't have "trusted advisor" status with the client to discover some real value add that they need. And you don't have visibility into team utilization and team skill sets to make sure an opportunity lines up with your firms ability to deliver.

There is likely someone on your team who is playing the role of the engagement manager -- they have overall responsibility for all of the consultants with that client and probably have some of their compensation tied to revenue or profit from that client. Once you've cleared your plate of billable work, my first stop would be that person and ask if there is anything you can do to assist them (specifically, I'm thinking working on proposals, pitch decks, that sort of thing). If that doesn't pan out, your firm may or may not have dedicated sales people who work warm leads. The point being there may be another team forming up that also needs help with proposals, pitches, etc. and the engagement manager will have some visibility into that pipeline. Finally, I'm also assuming you have someone in your firm who is responsible for your career development and can hook you up for some training as Happy Dave suggested. They'll hopefully also have some visibility into what the upcoming needs are and steer you towards the most helpful training.

The main thing here is to be proactive and ask someone for guidance on how you can best be helping the firm right now. Most consultants I knew when I was doing this had a love/hate affair with "the bench." When you first roll off some death march of a project, it is really nice. After a few days, you are freaking out about when the next opportunity is going to come through. Getting out there and assisting with the sales cycle will teach you a lot about the business, mark you as someone who isn't just coasting, and will hopefully get your utilization up, either sooner (if your firm lets you count bus dev hours towards your utilization targets) or later (when you then get assigned to a new opportunity that comes through). Good luck!
posted by kovacs at 3:36 AM on October 7, 2010

Find something new to learn in your field. Find something to write about online. Write a blog. Write an article and submit it to a journal in your field.
posted by yclipse at 5:00 AM on October 7, 2010

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