Firms are discovering new ways of operating that will allow them to be more effective and efficient throughout the rest of the pandemic and after.
Like many others in the AEC industry, the sudden and drastic changes in society as a result of COVID-19 significantly affected our firm’s operations. As an essential business serving utilities, municipalities, manufacturers, and others also considered essential, we had to quickly arrange for the majority of our staff to become remote workers. We faced a variety of challenges for which we had to find solutions, and as a result have many “lessons learned” to share. The journey of figuring out how to continue to work productively during this time has been arduous, but through it we have discovered new ways of operating that will allow our firm to be effective and efficient throughout the rest of the pandemic and after.
When this started, we were a firm that was not yet set up to accommodate a majority of staff working remotely. We had technology that allowed those out in the field or who needed to work from home in a one-off instance to do so, but the experience was more disjointed than we would have liked. Coincidentally, we had been working on improving this, and in early March we had started giving laptops to all technical staff to replace their desktops. With the arrival of COVID-19, that timeline was accelerated to warp speed. We went from having a handful of staff working remotely at any one time to approximately 60 percent working remotely full-time. Our IT manager had the herculean task of purchasing and setting up dozens of laptops in just a couple of weeks. Now that we’re through it, we expect that as we go forward, we will primarily utilize transportable technologies as the main work tools for all staff, and will need to keep abreast of which new ones make sense to invest in. Also, while this had already been in the works for technical staff, the pandemic has caused us to realize these tools are useful for administration, too.
Purchasing and setting up equipment was not the only hurdle to getting up and running with remote work; there was also the learning curve of everyone becoming comfortable with various software for digital collaboration and communication. As a multi-discipline firm, our staff are highly collaborative. We typically spend much of our days sitting together, looking at digital or paper drawings and talking through engineering/design solutions and approaches. Some of our staff members were already comfortable collaborating remotely due to working on projects outside of our local area, but others were not; so, there was some concern that remote work would be a communication barrier. However, the necessity of figuring out how to communicate and collaborate while not working in the same physical space meant that everyone quickly got up to speed and it became the norm.
In our office, we primarily used Microsoft Teams for video call/conference, chat, and document sharing, which proved to be effective. That said, with technology comes technical difficulties, and we have experienced challenges such as distracting background noise, screen sharing lags, etc. However, because the use of this technology became so commonplace, the technical difficulties arising from inexperience with the technology have been sorted out. In addition, while technical difficulties are a drawback, we have discovered many benefits. We are saving travel time for client meetings, allowing us to be more efficient. There is also more flexibility in scheduling meetings since participants can simply call in. This is especially helpful for our managerial staff who travel frequently. And the use of FaceTime and video messaging to share ideas and talk through solutions while looking at the same issue has helped to provide a visual component to something that may have just been described in an email in the past, which has improved communication. Plus, we have found screen sharing to be more seamless than sharing a mouse and looking at one person’s screen.
While in-person client meetings and internal collaboration will still have their place post-pandemic, we have discovered that many meetings can be effectively accomplished virtually, and for all the previous reasons we expect to meet and collaborate virtually more often going forward. Being forced to use remote work technology helped us learn when and how to use these tools to improve our productivity and communication as a complement to the way we regularly work. We’ve also come to recognize that, assuming most of our industry embraces remote work more fully, firms will need to invest in additional tools to perform our work entirely on electronic platforms to truly become integrated in a remote work society.
Another lesson we’ve learned through this is that we can give staff more flexibility, which is good for their work/life balance and good for business. The ability to work remotely has allowed our staff to handle childcare, help family, and otherwise attend to personal responsibilities throughout this ordeal while continuing to work. In addition, it has provided time efficiencies that have benefitted productivity – commuting time has been saved and staff have the ability to tackle work tasks while thinking about them instead of waiting to get into the office.
The latest challenge we are navigating is bringing our own staff back to the office as safely as possible as well as helping clients do so. The pandemic came along during an era where open office plans have been popular for collaboration/open communication benefits. These spaces do not easily accommodate the COVID-19 back-to-work guidelines. We are finding that we are redoing or at least reorganizing or modifying brand new offices and revamping standards that were just recently developed. Unfortunately, we have found that these changes are not as budget friendly as owners/clients, including ourselves, would like. The two things needed to prep a workplace for social distancing in order to bring staff back – space and furniture – are expensive; fortunately, however, there are funds available through the CARES Act to implement workspace changes. On another note, we are hearing that companies are finding that staff can work from home just as effectively as they did in the office, so we think businesses will be reassessing the type and amount of office space they need in the future, resulting in another round of renovations to meet the needs of offices with limited or “hoteling” staff. We are learning that COVID-19 is going to have a permanent effect on how our society works, and subsequently, the form and function of physical offices/real estate.
In closing, we believe that going to work in an office will still provide benefits, as will in-person client meetings. Staff have said they miss certain amenities and equipment found in an office – laser printer/scanners/copiers, large whiteboards, mailing/shipping supplies and pickup, and more. But moreso, they are saying that while they enjoy not having a commute and other flexibility remote work provides, they miss the change of scenery from their residence, having some separation between work and home, and most importantly the social interaction in the office. Chat and video calls cannot replace the sense of camaraderie that develops working alongside one another, and for business development, the rapport that is built through meeting in person. With regard to meetings, it is harder to read body language on a group video call, which can make it difficult to have open and honest discussions. In addition, because virtual communication must be actively scheduled or initiated, there is little to no opportunity for serendipitous interactions and relationship-building conversations. Further, there is some wariness that, were we all to work remotely permanently, the soft skills that develop in the office and allow successful teamwork, would fade. In short, we have learned that people are missing the social aspects of work, and for that reason, though it may change, the office will still have a place.
Sandi Matgouranis is a marketing communications specialist with R.E. Warner & Associates, Inc. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.