What Will AEC Offices Look Like Post-COVID-19?26 Jul, 2021 By: Lara Sheridan
Is your company ready to get back to the office or are you ready for something different?
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The past 20 months with COVID-19 has been full of ups and downs — emotionally, financially, family-, and work-wise. As we focus on trying to return to “normalcy,” Environmental Financial Consulting Group (EFCG) and Claire Rutkowski, Bentley Systems’ CIO, hosted an important discussion with a panel of AEC-oriented CIOs and CTOs to take the pulse on what companies are considering as we look toward getting back to business. In addition, they discussed how AEC companies are having to quickly evolve as expectations of employees and employers change. According to Bentley, around 80 other CIOs, CTOs, and CEOs from AEC companies attended this panel discussion. We heard directly from Linda Lannen, Partner and CIO of Fortium Partners; Ron Sattan, VP and Digital Solutions Commercial Manager, Mott MacDonald; Jason Bourg, VP of Information Technology, APTIM; and, of course, CIO Claire Rutkowski of Bentley Systems.
Claire Rutkowski, CIO of Bentley Systems
The AEC industry has a wide variety of work configurations, including single offices, combinations of varying sizes of offices in the United States, multi-country facilities, and more. One solution won’t fit every situation. While we know that no one answer fits all companies, we also know from a variety of experts that work life as we know it will not go back to the way it was. There were some very clear themes that came out of the panel discussion, all centered around changes that were thrust upon us during the pandemic. However, in reality the technologies have been waiting in the wings — in particular those that facilitate employee independence and mobile technology. The other main take away from the panel is that companies should take advantage of this sea-change and in turn AEC businesses will continue to grow.
A New Company Culture
As most will attest, the pandemic has been a time for our individual and corporate true colors to show. Employees across the board stepped up to the challenge and worked diligently from home, and in some cases, did more than was expected by management.
“According to recent studies,” Claire stated, “in general, colleagues give half of their normal commuting time back to work. That's why productivity is gone up during the pandemic. They don't have an hour-long commute, so they're more than happy to get online half an hour early or stay on a little bit late. I sometimes wish they wouldn't, but you know, people do.”
With this reality, companies must fight their tendencies to micromanage what workers are doing. It is a shift from being able to see what everyone is doing physically, to allowing people to do their jobs and get on with it. Again, Claire stated, “I think a lot of it comes from just an old-school mentality of, ‘I have to see you working or you're not actually working, and, (. . .) the office is the place that we do work.’ I also think that managing a remote workforce is difficult. Managing a hybrid workforce where some are remote and some are in the office can be even harder because then you really have to work on making sure it's a level playing field for everybody. You have to make sure that remote workers are not overlooked for promotions, just because the person you physically see is the one you think about. I think there has to be a skilling up of middle managers that has to happen. For some people, it's just easier to say, ‘Nope, everybody has to come into the office for work.’ I think that's a very short-sighted decision, personally.”
Jason Bourg, VP of Information Technology, APTIM, agreed and continued, stating that, “A huge thing for us is the skillset of the mid-level manager because this only works if they're effective in building the trust that people are doing what they're supposed to be doing.” He continued, “Everybody's turning into a results-based organization, because you can't see them [workers]. Results-based organizations only work if mid-level management is raising the accountability of the individual workers.” In turn, he explains that, “If your managers really are starting to shine, the ones that do it well are starting to shine because they haven't felt this [management change] nearly as much as the ones who were serendipitously managing by walk-bys and face-to-face conversations that just kind of happen.”
Claire quoted a recent Gartner survey stating that 77% of all employees report that working from home makes them happier; and 75% report that they are as productive or more so from working at home. Add to this that the same survey states that 80% of workers expect flexibility from their employers.
How to Return?
When Cadalyst spoke with Claire individually, she brought this information home with an anecdote. She explained, “A friend of mine is a CIO in an engineering firm. Back in September of last year the firm went ahead and told their employees they will be mandating a return to the office full time as of the first of the year. They were largely a US-based firm, so they stated, ‘As of the first of the year, unless it's not allowed by local regulation [everyone must be back in the office].’ By October they had lost 10% of their workforce!
“Can you imagine how rapidly they had to undo that one? You can't absorb a 10% loss like that within 30 days. It was crazy and not thought through. Education of the people at the top has to happen. Once they're bought in and understand that their people have worked very effectively from home for the last year and four months, they realize that their teams will continue to work effectively from home.
“With the upper management bought in and engaged, you can move on to making sure your managers have the right training, but I think first it's a conversation with the people at the top to say, ‘Look, I understand what your natural inclination is based on your number of years in the industry and how things have always worked for the last 20 to 30 years. But you must think a different way because this really is a leadership moment.’”
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Job Loss among Women
One of the hardest demographics hit by the pandemic are women in the workforce. Linda Lannen, Partner and CIO of Fortium Partners, stated that, “In the September or October issue of Time, it was reported that well over 4 million women dropped out of the labor force just in February to April 2020 alone, and [as of now, in July 2021] 2 million haven’t returned, setting women’s progress in the U.S. workforce back at least three decades. Oxfam estimates a loss of $800 billion in income in 2020.”
With children suddenly home from school, the majority of the responsibility in the home fell to women. While that is one issue, the other real question that needs to be asked is: Why did they drop out of the workforce? In turn, what does that say about what is wrong with current corporate culture? When Cadalyst spoke with Claire, she explained, “Why did they leave? They left because companies were not flexible in their work hours. They left because they did not feel supported by their employer. They felt like they had to make a choice between looking after their kids or doing their work, and so we have to go back and fix that. I think people need to feel supported by their employer in terms of mental health and in terms of flexible working hours.”
She continued, “It's a damn shame because we were finally starting to see progress for women in the AEC industry. Things were getting [better], not where they should be, but certainly moving in the right direction 100% and now it kind of feels like we have to start all over again.”
After this pandemic, it’s even more important to inspire our young people to be engineers and designers. Bentley recently launched, the Bentley Education Program, which is a global educational program that encourages students to investigate engineering and infrastructure as a career, plus grants students no-cost access to Bentley applications with specialized tutorials for each program. For more information about the program, read “Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers.”
Tech Ready, But Not Corp Ready
When the pandemic started, there were some companies that had already investigated mobile working strategies and were quickly able to pivot to mobile work. Other companies were caught completely unaware, but after a time they were able to hook into the technology. For all though, they were pushed into it practically overnight. Luckily, we live in a wired world so the transition, while perhaps messy, was doable. Users either took hardware home, used their own, or companies sent products to them. Software companies were quick to offer solutions for licensing so that users could work from home via their active work licenses. Employees answered the call and actually have enjoyed working from home, to a point that there is a large percentage that hope to stay mobile.
What will employers say to that? The conversation at the EFCG panel revealed that companies want to make changes, and know that they need to do so, to keep their workforce engaged. The catch will be how to make these changes within the construct of business. We must change with the times and take advantage of this moment.
Ron Sattan, VP and Digital Solutions Commercial Manager, at Mott MacDonald, reiterated this by saying, “The majority of people across industries have no chance to work remotely, but many office workers do. We believe about 25% will go to the office a few days a week and work from home the rest. We think this trend may stick. Some people report that it can help with work-life balance; some companies are finding that employees can be more productive, and it can save both of those parties money in things like commuting costs for workers and office space for companies.”
That may be one of the clinchers for Corporate America: the money savings on real estate. Ron continued, “For those who can conduct business remotely, a recent World Economic Forum survey in the U.S. found that 75% of all U.S. businesses want to keep some workers working from home so they can shed real estate costs over time.”
To reiterate this point, Claire quoted the EFCG surveyed its first session in November 2020, polling from 250 different firms. “The survey showed that 46% of the firms are planning to decrease their office space, 57% of the firms are planning to increase remote employees, and 49% are adjusting office layouts by including and incorporating hot-desking and collaboration spaces and things like that. And, that's very much in line with the Gartner survey, which said that only 13% of workers surveyed by Gartner plan on going into the office full time.”
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Company Culture Question
One of the biggest concern discussed, and one that is somewhat intangible, is how to keep company culture alive and well. How do companies build and keep that “team” connection and spirit? Trying to continue to have team meetings, hold events where everyone shows up, and offering perks to all, not just those in the office, will be of utmost importance. Claire also brought up the point that onboarding new employees will continue to be complicated with remote workers. How do we help new employees understand our company culture and feel part of the team? This will be a longer-term problem to solve.
During the next 12 months, we will see how and if the AEC industry decides to answer this call for change in our work world. We will continue to see upheaval as employees, after realizing their independent work styles, decide that for a variety of reasons they prefer to work at home at least part of the time. Corporations will need to decide how to manage a hybrid work environment. In addition, as Linda points out, we may see “high growth in jobs that require socio-emotional skills, such as negotiation, influencing, and decision-making. And, we may see new positions emerging because of COVID-19, such as remote-work coordinators.”
More importantly, she points out that the COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that you must keep an open mindset and, “That divide [between education and work] no longer exists; your education never ends. Your career will be about life-long learning across different occupations and industries.”
The silver linings of the pandemic are apparent. First and foremost, is the rapid acceleration of digitalization and virtual collaboration in the AEC space, which has driven higher productivity.
Even while there are some companies that are maintaining that we must return to our old “normal,” there are many traditionalists that accept there is room for working from home. If they continue to question this idea, Claire points out that, “They only need to look at the World Economic Forum, which just published a report showing that productivity has gone up since the pandemic.” In addition, corporations will continue to feel a financial benefit to lowering their real estate footprint. This also will reduce carbon footprints of companies due to lowered commuting and decreased office space.
If your company is considering a hybrid work environment, another benefit to both employees and the company is the enhanced diverse talent recruitment for hiring. Workers get to live where they want to live; companies get to hire from talent pools across the state, country, or even world.
Employees realize that a post-COVID world will be a powerful time to explore, offer, cajole, and demand for more autonomy. Virtual working also gives people the option to move to smaller cities and the suburbs. We can try to find better “work – life balance” plus, we won’t have to travel as much.
A Leadership Moment
A strong message coming from this team of leaders is that this is a time for true leadership and a willingness to trust employees. Claire states that, “It’s important to show yourself to be leaning into the future and to be a leader who empathizes, trusts, and is willing to give your team freedom.”
Cadalyst sends extra thanks to Claire Rutkowski for sharing her time and expertise around discussing this pivotal time in work culture. We are inspired by her passionate dedication to employee satisfaction and business growth.
Dear Readers, What is happening in your work environment? What changes are being implemented? Or, are things just going “back?” Email Cadalyst at email@example.com with your experiences and we’ll continue this important discussion.