In a piece first published in PSMG’s Centrum magazine, Totum consultant Lara Mitchard explores the vital importance of culture to the professional services sector and explains the role of business development (BD) and marketing teams in shaping its evolution.

Three quarters (75%) of firms think they have maintained their firm’s culture ‘somewhat well’ or ‘extremely well’ post-Covid. At the same time, nearly all firms (96%) have now implemented a hybrid work policy, which for most (71%) is now permanent.

Such findings suggest firms have not only been successful at embedding the hybrid office into workplace practices, but they have done so without damaging their sense of shared culture.

This is according to our recent research, ‘The hybrid office: A Totum workplace report’, the fifth of its kind since we started six-monthly surveys in March 2021, measuring sentiment towards the changing workplace.

Many of our research findings have delivered interesting insights into approaches to new working models and processes, but the data around culture particularly stood out to us. That is because throughout our surveys, firms have consistently expressed serious concerns hybrid working would breakdown culture.

Even in this fifth survey, 82% of respondent firms still cited ‘lack of team cohesion’ and 41% ‘cultural issues’ as disadvantages of hybrid – far outweighing any other concerns including, for example, performance levels, recruitment and retention capabilities, or technology use. And yet, here we are with compelling figures suggesting firms have successfully remodelled their workplaces without falling foul of their fears.

And yet how do you nurture something as amorphous, so difficult to define, as culture? Especially as people continue to spend considerable time working remotely.

Beyond the office

In our survey, firms attributed their success in maintaining or enhancing culture to social activities and events (73%); team days (66%); clear and visible leadership (66%); internal lunches/breakfasts/coffees; and internal comms (51%). A good proportion (41%) felt that ‘increasing time in the office’ had helped on the cultural side, and there’s no doubt firms have worked hard to encourage people back into the office for at least two days a week. But office time still fell quite far down the list of initiatives firms felt had made a difference.

This has made us think more deeply about culture in firms across the professional services sector, including our own here at Totum. Embedding a strong sense of culture must go further than putting people together in the same physical space. It’s about shared purpose and values reinforced by open and honest communication, individual and team recognition, a welcoming and inclusive approach, and, yes, a variety of social activities – all of which make people feel they belong.

It might be easier logistically to deliver some of these things in one office location. But that would not reflect the global world we live in today in which, regardless of any agreed hybrid model, teams would still work across different offices in multiple locations, as well as remotely and at home. Something as amorphous as culture must transcend office walls. It’s about identity.

Changing mindsets

This fact was brought home to us by two things that have happened in our business in the past few weeks.

The first was the celebration of our 20th anniversary in business. As part of that we published a report, ‘Changing world: Totum reports on its 20 years of working in professional services’. It included a ‘timeline of change’, some mind-bending tables of rankings dating back to 2003, and a few reflections on the professional services sector over two decades of profound economic and societal shifts.

In our journey through time, we saw two paths emerging into the future. The first of course is all about accelerating technology and particularly the rise of artificial intelligence, which could reinvent the world as we know it. But the other is populated by people, particularly among younger generations, who believe in social justice and environmental protection. And as millennials make up an ever-larger part of today’s workforces, we already see them choosing employers that have a clear moral compass and leaving those that don’t translate this into action.

These considerations led us to our second big development of 2023 – Totum’s B Corp Certification. We have always been committed to making a positive difference in all that we do. It’s been part of our ethos from the start: that profit and caring can, and should, go hand in hand.

But B Corp presented an irresistible opportunity to join other companies that share the same outlook. We began the application in 2022 and, 12 months later, following a process that touched on every part of our business, we received confirmation that we had been successful in July 2023.

Along the way, we learned it’s not good enough to list certain values or do lots of charitable activities. You must show evidence that making a positive difference is the driving force of everything you do, not just across working processes, but also in the way you treat your employees, clients, candidates and suppliers.

And this brought us back to the question of culture in a hybrid workplace. Because we think firms that have been successful in maintaining and enhancing their culture through changes in the workplace have done so because they have engaged in positive, distinctly human behaviours that nurture a sense of belonging. Quite simply, through all the stresses of the wider world in recent years, they have shown that they care.

What does this mean for those who work in BD and marketing teams?

We think this is a hugely exciting time for professionals working in this vital function. Such professionals are uniquely placed at the heart of their firms. They are at the meeting point of technology, data, business processes, procurement, business and client intelligence, communication, and client experience, leveraging myriad different business lines to help define a firm’s identity, both internally and externally, long into the future.

These teams know how to translate values into messaging and behaviours, who can help empower people across the business, and position firms to unlock new business streams through differentiating their firm from others. They are culture in action.

And even more importantly, they can do this through any change coming. When we produced our 20-year report, we spoke to Laura Nicholls, Chief Client Officer at Clifford Chance.

She described hybrid and remote working as one of the most significant developments of recent times, creating opportunities for a level of collaboration within businesses and markets never seen before, enhanced by technology that will ‘connect people from all around the world while granting us greater control over our personal and professional lives’. We have no doubt that Laura and others like her will be at the helm of shaping this positive future.

Culture has never been more important to the development of the professional services sector in these shifting times. It has never gone deeper or meant more for the continued success of individual firms and the entire sector. The marketing and BD function will continue to play a pivotal role in defining what this really means for their firms in a world that goes beyond walls.

Read the article as it first appeared in Centrum magazine.

Read our most recent research report on changes in the workplace:  ‘The hybrid office: A Totum workplace report’,

Read our full report on two decades of evolution in professional services: ‘Changing world: Totum reports on its 20 years of working in professional services’

For further insights into the latest market trends, or to find out more about developments and current opportunities in the Marketing and BD function, contact [email protected]