AEC from Home: Tips from Leading Professionals Adjusting to Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In May 2020, Informed Infrastructure Editorial Director Todd Danielson interviewed three leaders of AEC firms to learn how they’re adjusting to the “new normal” and help pass along some of the tips and lessons learned from their experiences in early 2020.
Kevin Cornish, P.E.
Senior Vice President
Surface Transportation Market Sector Leader
Vice President, Project Delivery
The full interview video can be viewed at bit.ly/2zFkQR1, but we wanted to include some excerpts in this issue.
Danielson: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how your company works and how your office works?
Cornish: Engineering and construction are considered an essential work effort through federal legislation and state legislation, so we are open for business at our office, but we have encouraged our staff to work remotely from home.
Kaiyala: We’re remote working as much as possible. Our IT department did a great job of making sure everybody was prepared to be in a remote telecommuting type of environment. So as far as normal day-to-day operations and how we go about doing our business, things have largely been surprisingly seamless.
One challenge is the unknown element of it. It’s a little bit more difficult to keep people engaged over the long-term. When you’re talking about two or three weeks, that’s OK. You start to get into two months, as managers, it’s difficult to make sure people are staying engaged, feeling part of the team and being as productive as possible.
Parkman: With Bentley being a technology company, we really weren’t heavily affected by the impacts of the pandemic. We were already very equipped to work from home. In fact, a large majority of our workforce does work from home or travels frequently. Being a technology company, you have to “eat your own dog food,” so to speak, and be really ready to embrace going digital.
Danielson: So how are you using technology to overcome these obstacles, and how much of it were you using before this all happened?
Cornish: AECOM is pretty agile and able to adapt fairly quickly. Being the size and scale that we are, there were pockets that had more issues than others overall. All of our staff in all of our offices, whether they’re administrative staff or management staff, engineering staff, all work off of laptops and hook up to a dock station. So we were readily able to adapt by allowing our staff to take a laptop home, but we also allowed our staff to take their monitors home and their dock stations if they would like to.
Within our IT infrastructure, there are some limitations working through a VPN type of connection, so we moved a lot of our design information into the cloud, where you don’t need that VPN connection to access the files.
Danielson: Could you share some advice and some tips for how to do this for those of our audience who are new to this?
Parkman: You need to have a good strategy that comes from your CIO’s office. Do [employees] have the right hardware? Do they have the right broadband connection? Do they have the VPN connections and all the security? Does their local country and city have the actual policies that’ll enable them to work from home?
In the U.S., we don’t think about some of those things, but in a lot of countries, they didn’t have great work-from-home labor laws and policies that enable them to mobilize very quickly. We saw some of that geographically, where you would see workforces really go down—their productivity just essentially comes to a halt. That’s the bad news.
The good news is a lot of those governments that had somewhat been dragging their feet with regard to these types of policies; this pandemic allowed them to basically compress what amounted to years worth of policy and work, and really got it done in a matter of weeks. So it’s helped catapult them into this “going digital” era with everything, making sure people have mobile computing resources, making sure they have the broadband they need, making sure they have the office resources at home to be productive as normal.
Cornish: [Practice] patience. When people are not accustomed to working in this type of environment, you have to be supportive of those people, and have some patience until they get acclimated to working from home. Some people are really challenged with schools being closed and they’re playing teacher to one, two, five kids, whatever the case might be. So there’s some patience involved there and understanding that people’s first priority is their health and family—and work is very important, too.
Kaiyala: On the personnel side, I think daily check-in meetings [are very important]. It sounds simple, but we’re not machines, and people need to continue to be engaged, feel part of the team, regardless of the technology you’re going to use. Don’t forget that picking up the phone and talking to people is really important, and that personal interaction actually helps facilitate some of the technology conversations. I think it’s important not to forget that.
Make sure you’re focused on actionable steps. Don’t fall in love with the technology to the point where you think the technology becomes the answer. The technology is a tool to be deployed to find the answers. If you get that reversed, I think people start to think that just the right software platform is going to solve my problems. That’s not true. It’s just another tool.
Danielson: What would you describe as perhaps some of the biggest drawbacks from working remotely?
Kaiyala: It’s just keeping people engaged. When it’s a short-term thing, I think there’s actually a novelty to it that people think, “hey, we get to do this a little different,” and there’s a learning curve and everybody’s trying to figure it out, and they’re focused on that, and it goes pretty well. I think when you start to drag out into months, now you’ve got some challenges. And I think a lot of companies are working through it and trying to solve it a little differently, rotational things and through the office and making sure people have what they need.
Parkman: I think one of the things that many, including myself, have really struggled with is the “off switch.” Working from home and not having a busy social life, either, you don’t really have anywhere to be. So it’s hard to turn the work off. I think in the first six weeks of this, people were working crazy hours, because they really didn’t have anything else to do. What you’ve seen in the past few weeks is people are starting to transition back to a normal kind of work/home life balance. When you’re always in your home, you still have to strike that right balance of getting work done and being productive, but also making time for your loved ones and things like that.
Danielson: How much of all of this do you think is going to be permanent changes that will be incorporated once all this is over? And how many of the things we’re doing now are temporary and will be forgotten about or not used once things get relatively back to normal?
Cornish: We’ll be able to evaluate some metrics around the efficiency of [working from home], but it’s going to take a few months. In an office environment, we’re printing things out. Using the quality process as the example—which is incredibly important—we’ll definitely have to make some adjustments in that regard, checking electronic work products, how do you do that effectively, making sure the deliverables are checked and ready to go out the door.
We will get much more proficient at things like the quality assurance of our designs, working remotely, and that will stick for good.
Kaiyala: When things are new, there’s fear involved, and fear ends up driving poor decision-making. Once we get through that: OK, I understand the facts, I can navigate this new world. Once you get to that point, now I think things tend to go back toward normal productivity.
Parkman: I think a lot of the workforce activities will be here to stay. I think most organizations that were already very digital and mobile were able to realize a lot of the investments they had been making by staying current with technology.
But then you had another tier of users that were caught flat-footed. They didn’t have the necessary IT infrastructure; they didn’t have the right systems; they didn’t have good collaboration platforms, whether that be the generic type of collaboration platforms, like the Zooms and Skypes and Teams, or more-sophisticated collaboration environments, particularly for engineering and construction and capital program management. I think a lot of the mobility, the appetite for collaboration, solutions and technology, I think that’s here to stay, because most people will want to be better prepared for when a pandemic or a natural disaster happens to continue to be productive and keep business going.
Danielson: How do you foresee the economic impact of all this shaking out, both short-term and long-term, but particularly in the infrastructure, AEC and construction industries?
Cornish: Your question really needs to be drilled down into the different market segments, because the impacts are different. In our private business, there are some more immediate impacts because those private businesses have to react quickly to what’s occurred. They often slow down their capital expenditures.
Whereas on the public side, which I’m more focused on, it’s different. It’s less impactful perhaps, but even in public infrastructure, the impacts were immediate in aviation, and they were immediate in transit. In the highway and bridge world, those impacts are going to take a little bit longer to manifest themselves in programs slowing down. A big factor of that will be federal assistance and stimulus, which a couple of stimulus packages have already happened. There are significant impacts, but we’ll have to see how those impacts will be mitigated to some extent through federal stimulus in the case of public infrastructure.
Kaiyala: Some areas that are going to be affected are obviously mass transit, public transportation, airline industry, those kinds of things. It’s going to take longer for this to work through the system. For road-building projects, there’s probably going to be more people in their cars and on the road. So that will probably bounce back relatively quickly, but I think there’s going to be some rethinking of mass public transportation.
Parkman: There’s a bunch of different trends that are actually taking place. You have transportation providers that are actually able to do construction now in areas and at peak usage times that they would’ve never been able to do before. So a lot of them had a backlog of projects that could’ve been held up due to maintenance of traffic or safety concerns, or just disruption of the natural throughput of the economy. This has given them a window to expedite some of those, particularly construction in dense urban areas.
We’re also seeing capital move from construction to design, as most government areas are anticipating some level of stimulus that’s going to come for construction. They’re leveraging their existing capital budget to accelerate their designs, make sure they’ve got a strong bench, so to speak, for construction when and if that stimulus funding comes.
In the private sector, we’ve seen a mixed set of trends: vertical construction has slowed down a little bit. It’s hard to say whether that’s to stay or just a blip, particularly areas where you have construction in tight areas where people are not able to live with the social distancing aspects of construction as much as they would, say, on large-scale or linear infrastructure. You’ve seen them try to change their workforce patterns. They’re doing things in different bits and bites, so they can do construction without a mass of people in tight quarantine areas, working on different disciplines, different trades.
Danielson: Could you tell me something—either good or bad—that surprised you, besides the situation itself?
Kaiyala: I was surprised how fearful people can be when things are just unknown. I know we’re prone to that, but it is also a surprise to see people make decisions out of fear, and I think that’s across the spectrum. I think it starts with our political leadership. It moves into some of the administrative people in various government entities, right down through HR departments and companies, people who are making decisions not always dealing with facts, but dealing with fear. It was a little bit of a surprise to me to see how quickly it happened that we went from “everybody’s going to the ball game and a concert” to “everything shut down” overnight. And I think some of that had to do with fear more than facts.
Parkman: We were very surprised to see how resilient and prepared the majority of our user base was for disaster and the fact they were able to continue doing business. We also weren’t prepared for the appetite for collaboration software to be such an influence and increase all of a sudden.
Danielson: What are some of the things your customers are still concerned about, and how is your company working toward helping them fix and alleviate their concerns?
Parkman: Everyone’s taking a look at their own cloud strategies, and new cloud strategies also bring into account security. So people who had on-premise systems for doing business as usual, now they’re making that decision to go to the cloud, go to SaaS-native solutions, and there are a lot of questions they don’t necessarily have answered. And from country to country, there are deviations. There are certifications, there are security protocols, there are data sovereignty issues.
But one of the things that’s helped us through that is we don’t do all of it ourselves. We partner with Microsoft, so we’re using Microsoft’s Azure cloud stack as our baseline to solve a lot of those hard, difficult cloud IT infrastructure issues that aren’t really our core competency. We want to be focused on the users and the productivity applications for construction, for engineering and for infrastructure owners, and leave that IT infrastructure piece to Microsoft to solve for us.
Cornish: At the end of the day, we’re an engineering firm, but this is a people business. We get stuff done with good staff and good people, so it would be very short-sighted to overreact. Our company’s making some very calculated and smart choices right now, very focused on staff retention and keeping our people employed and delivering work to our clients.
Danielson: What are the major differences in terms of how this has affected construction vs. engineers and designers?
Kaiyala: [Construction] tends to be much more interactive onsite, but the engineers are largely in an office environment, where it had to happen quickly, where they were distributed to their various locations and had to continue working. As far as our construction sites, I’ve been surprised that we’ve largely continued to build the work and put the work in place. I think it’s a positive we’ve been able to do that, and I think probably a difference against some of the other players in the industry, because we’ve been able to continue to do work as we were doing it before, obviously with the caveat that there are increased safety requirements and things we need to follow, but we’ve largely been able to keep our sites moving.