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Pandemic vs. ambition: how one company is adjusting plans for growth

Consulting firm West Monroe Partners still intends to add 800 people, but will they be at home or in the office?

The office building at 311 W. Monroe St., owned by Sterling Bay.
The office building at 311 W. Monroe St., owned by Sterling Bay.
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About a year ago, a news item landed that now seems straight out of a world of pre-pandemic innocence.

It was from the consulting firm West Monroe Partners, which was doubling the size of its downtown Chicago office, adding more than 100,000 square feet, as part of an overall push to double its worker headcount here to 1,600 people by 2024. It was undertaking this expansion as it moved its headquarters to a building at 311 W. Monroe St.

West Monroe was moving to West Monroe. It made for an easy headline.

But really now — offices with people congregating in them? And a company betting on higher demand for consulting on projects that are easily put off when times get dicey?

How are you doing with that, West Monroe? Pretty well, although the employee-owned firm is adapting to conquer the challenges, said Tom Hulsebosch, senior managing director in the utilities practice for West Monroe. The firm specializes in several industries, including health care, life sciences and finance.

He said the company has somewhat lengthened the timetable for its hiring and is holding off on designing and equipping about half its office space as it assesses needs. Hulsebosch said when the pandemic recedes, clients will quickly play catch up on projects and demand more from consultants.

“Next year is going to be a boom year,” he said.

West Monroe sees a scenario in which its office usage increases rather than decreases. Many of its experts used to work on the road at clients’ sites. “Monday through Thursday used to be pretty light days at the office. Fridays were busiest as people were back home and checked in with one another,” Hulsebosch said.

“We have to do things a little differently. Clients are realizing we can still deliver value and be remote. They’re also realizing that it’s nice not to have to pay our peoples’ expenses.”

The new office opens officially Monday and has adopted some of the design elements now common. Workstations have been thinned out, corridors marked as one-way routes to keep people from bumping into each other, and hand sanitizer is everywhere. Beyond that, Hulsebosch said, is a greater use of technology to keep teams coordinated and to manage who comes back to the office and when.

“We’re seeing that the technology we used pre-COVID, telecommunications, video conferencing, was poor. What we’ve discovered is that with Zoom and other tools for remote collaboration, the experience has been great. It’s meeting the organization’s needs better compared to work that’s partially office, partially remote,” he said.

Tom Hulsebosch
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Other companies in professional services reluctant to embrace remote work probably aren’t using the best technology, Hulsebosch said. Banks are struggling with the concept, he said, because sensitive documents can only be accessed from limited locations.

West Monroe is starting with the assumption that about 10% of its staff will be in the office. Hulsebosch said that could grow to 20%. Employees will be assigned workstations on a rotating basis, depending on who really needs to get away from home to get work done. It’s an acknowledgment that people’s needs differ; one person can do well in a solitary apartment, while someone else’s place brims with distractions.

“We’re an employee-owned company. Our people are our shareholders. It’s great that we can think of them that way,” Hulsebosch said.

One tool West Monroe is using heavily is Work.com, a Salesforce product, that manages the workstation assignments and requires people to answer a few simple health questions to determine if they can come into the office. Hulsebosch said he doesn’t think staff will find the constant screenings annoying. They’re also so used to remote work they won’t feel pressure to use the office, he said.

Does the firm see its needs for physical space increasing, or will it have to shed some of its lease at 311 W. Monroe? “No one has been in a post-COVID environment,” Hulsebosch said, adding, “Can you talk to me in a year? We will not be the same as what we were.”

Developer Sterling Bay owns 311 W. Monroe and has adopted all of the protocols one would expect — enhanced cleaning, limited elevator access and the like. The 15-story building, for its size, has a forward-thinking amenity package for tenants, courtesy of money Sterling Bay put into improvements after it bought the building in 2017. It includes a fitness center and a private bar. A bowling alley in the basement has been closed because of COVID-19, but a spokeswoman for Sterling Bay said it is reopening Monday.

Thank goodness for simple pleasures.