How consultants are surviving the pandemic

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
As a result of the loss of travel, many consultants are trying to improve their remote working skills or hiring local staff to carry out fieldwork. Photo by: Anastasia Shuraeva from Pexels

BRUSSELS — Stuck at home, with revenue, travel, and networking opportunities drying up, independent consultants have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Devex’s COVID-19 Trends Tracker survey.

Our latest poll of around 700 professionals in 111 countries takes the pulse of a sector whose modus operandi has been upended this year. Those surveyed between Oct. 5 and Nov. 3 include consultants, as well as employees of donor governments, foundations, universities, and NGOs.

For independent consultants, half said they have reduced their activities, while 70% said travel had been reduced or eliminated. As one consultant from Europe described their experience during the pandemic: “Market absolutely crashed, expenses cut, business development activity on overdrive, expectations adjusted.” Another said that “work disappeared overnight” but that they are now getting some remote work, at about 15% of their normal levels.

We asked consultants around the world how they are trying to keep working during the pandemic.

As a result of the loss of travel, many said they are trying to improve their remote working skills or hiring local staff to carry out fieldwork. One consultant said “I am trying to learn more about how to conduct effective online meetings and check in more often with clients,” while another said, “I have upskilled myself to deliver workshops online.”

A third said they had “changed methodologies to allow more home-based work [and do] more research without field visits.”

In Africa, one consultant said they were “reducing fieldwork to a minimum, rethinking strategies for research-based assignments, especially with low connectivity in target Geographical areas, [and] increasing safety and security budgets.”

Poor connectivity was a challenge raised by another consultant, who said it meant work was progressing much more slowly than it otherwise would. “Because the work was stretched over a longer period and no other contracts [are] now available, [it has] meant reduced billable time in the last 8 months,” they wrote.

While some are managing to adapt their work, consultants also pointed to the tolls of working remotely.

A consultant in the Middle East said reduced travel had meant lower costs, “but put a huge burden [on] my mental health for lack of socializing” and that in the long-run it would affect “my job performance, my creativity, my motivation … [and] overall my health.”

In North America, a 71-year-old consultant said they didn’t think they could get health insurance for international travel due to their age and preexisting health conditions. It is “likely the end of my career, even though I would like to work,” they wrote.

Others are also having to move out of their usual line of work entirely. “I have had to explore alternative means of income such as giving tuition in English and creative writing work,” wrote one Asia-based consultant, while another said they had “diversified” their portfolio and revenue-generating streams. In North America, one consultant reported signing up for unemployment benefits.

Nonetheless, more than one respondent said work was starting to pick up again. Donors have tried to reorient their work to address the crisis, some said, though a consultant in Asia reported “mixed” results. “Some funds were redirected to support vulnerable groups/farmers affected by the pandemic,” they wrote, “but a lack of effective mechanisms to manage these funds has meant that the response has been very slow and often inefficiently administered.” 

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.