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Some had possibly already begun preparing for this world before the COVID-19 pandemic. For most, though, we are now finding this reality thrust on us by the local and global lockdowns mandated by governments as a means of controlling the spread of the virus.
Is this, though, not an opportunity to more fully embrace and solve the challenges of the new world of work? We need to catch up to the technological advances introduced through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, before they overtake us. Failure to do so may see the consulting engineering industry unable to meet the time and cost efficiencies that our clients require of us in this digitised and competitive world of business.
The modern world of work has shown us that it is possible to be productive despite not being in the office and “reporting for duty” as the traditional norm. However, many still grapple with the need to have people visible in the same room, a throwback to the antiquated factory floor production line, to believe that they are productive. Traditional managers may fear that their lack of immediate sight of their employees may lead to decreased productivity.
I would argue, though, that we change our perspective, shifting focus more towards goal-setting driven towards producing tangible outputs in predetermined timeframes, rather than spending energy focusing on inputs where one may appear to be busy but show little evidence of true productivity. While it’s true that distractions in the office often detract from one’s ability to optimally use the time available, different challenges exist when working remotely.
It requires a large amount of self-discipline, a healthy work ethic and a reasonable workspace to ensure that time is effectively and efficiently used. At one level, this is going to require more maturity on the part of both employers and employees to mitigate the risk of creating a trust deficit in the working relationship leading to disciplinary measures. On another level, employers may find a growing need to develop management systems that monitor remote working productivity levels by setting short-term progress reporting targets and tracking online usage of key software packages. This is preferable to discovering, too late, that a project design completion may be delayed when a client is expecting progress.
It also is evident that even before we start addressing the technology and costs of gearing up for remote working, there will be a need for a cultural shift and a mindset shift regarding what we define as a workplace. An investment in behaviour may be required long before one embarks on an investment in technology. This is not simple, as behavioural change is arguably more difficult to implement than technological change.
In our current experience, the lines between work and non-work are blurring in new and unusual ways, and many employees who are working remotely for the first time are likely to struggle to preserve healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. To signal their loyalty, devotion, and productivity, they may feel they have to work all the time. Afternoons will blend with evenings; weekdays will blend with weekends; and little sense of time off will remain. It is possible that some employees may be asked to continue working remotely for several months even after lockdown, so it is important that some advice be made available to help employees avoid burnout.
Harvard Business Review (HBR) research has shown that workers often unintentionally make it hard for their supervisors, colleagues and employees to maintain boundaries. One way they do so is by sending work emails outside office hours. In five studies involving more than 2 000 working adults, HBR found that senders of after-hours work emails underestimate how compelled receivers feel to respond right away, even when such emails are not urgent.
COVID-19 has indeed amplified these pressures. Even for employees who have a natural preference to separate their work and personal lives, the current circumstances may not allow them to do so. Many schools are closed and day-care may no longer be an option, placing additional burdens on working parents. Even companies that already encourage employees to work from home are likely to have some trouble supporting staff who face the many challenges of working at home in the presence of their families.
New to working remotely fulltime over the past month, I can certainly attest to the challenge of not being able to separate my work space from my home space and my work time from my home time. The spaces are the same and the time delineations become blurred. With nowhere to go, managing time should be easy, but maybe choosing when to be productive is the challenge. One could choose to start working late and eventually stop late as opposed to the regimental “eight to five”, and still achieve the required output, if these are the times when you are able to function optimally. Although, perhaps you have also found that you do not “switch off” as though it is the end of the working day, as you might when leaving the physical office, and so you could easily find yourself immersed in work-related activities late into the night.
There are already companies who, instead of measuring the time at the office, measure productivity and reward the output of employees. This is mostly in recognition of the fact that dedicated employees tend to work long hours anyway and should be rewarded for output with more flexible working hours. Some companies have even dispensed of the formal limit on the number of leave days, as they realise that employees are working well in excess of the normal eight hours anyway and are producing satisfactory results so time off at any time may be granted.
It remains important, though, that we are mindful of maintaining physical and social boundaries. Under traditional circumstances, we dress up and commute to the office and then at the end of the day go back home. When working from home, there is no need for a commute to the office, however a walk outdoors is advised to prepare your mindset for work. Likewise, if on the odd occasion you remain in the clothes you slept in, there is no problem, but it is recommended that you more often dress up as though you were at the office. Even observing the odd casual Friday is good.
Working from home requires that we more consciously balance and prioritise work and home lives to focus on the important issues. While we should always strive for good time management, working from home makes this all the more important as we lose our routines, our visual reminders to do certain things, and our physically separate spaces.
It is critical to achieve a healthy work-life balance, so that you are able to perform consistently at optimal levels of mental and physical wellness while at the same time meeting your professional commitments to your manager, your team, and yourself. We will have to consciously consider how best we embrace this paradigm shift, both as employer and employee, so that we adequately prepare for this new world of work. The tools, the equipment and the training required for this to work must now become a serious part of the company business plan if it is indeed your strategic intent to use the advantages offered by the new world of work.
The built environment in lockdown: Engineering firms embracing technology and the “new normal” into the future
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Africa has progressed from a state of disaster entailing a hard lockdown at Level 5, to a risk-adjusted strategy entailing Level 4 restrictions. After just over a month, consulting engineering companies have found themselves in varying states of readiness for what has long been termed “the new world of work”. Before “pandemic” became the buzzword, you may remember that “Industry 4.0” and the “internet of things” were the trends making headlines, and for good reason. The question was: Is South Africa ready to embrace technology to the benefit of efficiency, productivity and global competitiveness? The pandemic has surely accelerated the need for such readiness.
The answer is a resounding: “Kind of.”
Technology uptake has shown to differ between industries and even within it. On the higher end of the technology use spectrum, the built environment industry has demonstrated its eagerness to use the latest developments to full advantage. For some firms, this has meant simply ensuring they have the most recent Microsoft Office and teleconferencing software. For others, this has meant using cloud capabilities and drones.
“The built environment sector is one industry which has been given greater freedom to operate amid the current restrictions,” says Sugen Pillay, MD of Zitholele Consulting and president of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA). “This has given us the opportunity to put our systems to the test.” While critical public works construction was still allowed under Level 5 lockdown, “other public works civil engineering projects” have been permitted to restart under Level 4.
Tech adoption in the drive for business
While the industry widely understands the benefits of greater technology adoption, there is a clear difference seen in the readiness of firms to work remotely. The first Big 5 Construction Performance Index Survey is currently being conducted by DMG Events, and will benchmark and predict industry trends on a monthly basis. It has already been completed by hundreds of industry professionals, and it was found that more than half the respondents had already implemented smart working measures before restrictions were put in place. However, regardless of the maturity of these measures, 54% claim this crisis would change the way their company works for the better.
Smaller and younger consulting engineering firms have shown agility and flexibility in their response to the crisis. Zimile Consulting Engineers is one such example. The company acted fast, says CEO Shawn Gama: “When the state of disaster was declared on 15 March, we conducted an audit of our team’s ability to exclusively work remotely to determine hardware, software and data requirements. By 25 March we had both our technical and support teams activated on our virtual private network. In addition, we hardened our network to provide extra data security given the threat of a potential cyber breach associated with remote working. Except for a few data devices and associated running costs, no additional investment was required.”
On the other hand, larger firms found themselves up for the challenge and already had comprehensive technology in place. Mott MacDonald, for example, successfully enabled remote working some time ago through cloud-based data storage and engineering systems. Zutari (formerly Aurecon South Africa), too, had prepared by implementing several electronic communication tools over the past few years: “Our staff are very familiar with using these tools to connect with each other as well as our clients. We just had to fast-track our cyber-security measures and optimise what was already in place,” says Dr Gustav Rohde, managing director for the company. Rohde reports that almost 90% of their staff are working from home.
Medium-sized firms seemed to be less confident in their response to the new working restrictions imposed during the full lockdown, with some considering halting operations until business could return to normal. However, once acquainted with the “new normal”, these firms realised they could make the necessary adjustments and went about ensuring their staff had the right infrastructure in place for a home office.
Refilwe Lesufi, CESA board member and MD of Prana Consulting, says hardware was a barrier for them: “In order to remain operational, we had to provide our engineers with Wi-Fi infrastructure, headsets, and individual printers. We ensured everyone had a smartphone, and upgraded their storage capacity where needed.”
Olu Soluade, CESA deputy president and CEO of AOS Consulting, says his company had started exploring the possibility of remote work prior to lockdown. “We had already installed a firewall to ensure remote server access and business continuity. By the time lockdown was announced, this system had been perfected and we found it very operational indeed. However, the issue we then faced was the connectivity stability for all personnel, and we are now exploring the possibility of fibre installations to all employees’ homes.”
Tech takes the cake
The modern built environment profession relies on some essential software, which perhaps explains the general readiness of the industry to use technology in whichever way necessary during work restrictions.
On the forefront of advanced technology usage, COENG Consulting and Construction Engineers cites virtual desktop infrastructure as their best tool amid lockdown. COENG CEO Casian Dendere explains: “The system virtualises all components of the desktop which allows for a highly flexible and much more secure desktop delivery model. All data is essentially managed in a cloud-based data centre and backed up through our traditional redundant server. This empowers our decentralised COVID-19 safety compliant work teams operating from homes with anytime, anywhere access to their digital workspaces from any device.”
Leading engineering design tools from Autodesk and Bentley are highlighted as critical by Mott MacDonald. The company’s local transportation director and CESA immediate past president Neresh Pather adds: “We also make use of advanced virtual desktop infrastructure to enable resource-intensive engineering design work to enable us to continue from any location on any type of hardware platform, allowing us to be versatile and responsive to client needs.”
Technology needs, now and into the future
Internet access has been a clear issue across the board, regardless of company size. The country has been hit with the reality that while mobile penetration is pervasive, data remains an issue for a huge number of people. The consulting engineering industry has found that even in the big metros, internet provision has been a problem for many staff. Ensuring cyber security has also been a challenge faced by many firms, and ensuring that company insurance policies are adequately amended to protect company assets in employees’ homes. With the problems identified, the built environment industry is doing the necessary to equip themselves for continued remote operations, and many have identified further technology ambitions.
Pillay found that his company was largely ready but recognised the need for better project team integration tools, particularly at the drawing office level.
“Project managers were easily able to work independently, but we need better tools to interact with and review drawing office output. We are now considering additional tools which will come at a cost, but will enable us to continue with ‘business unusual’ as long as we need to,” reports Pillay. The company is also considering fast-tracking its virtual reality capabilities for client presentations as well as for design team review.
Drone technology is being considered for more regular use by Prana Consulting. Lesufi reports, “To continue with the project assessment phase on one of our projects, we found a service provider to take photos using a drone. This proved very useful and will change the game going forward.” Lesufi reports another positive development in the use of virtual meetings. “To address sometimes chaotic teleconferences, we developed and formalised our virtual meeting etiquette. This has led to more effective and efficient engagement with our stakeholders, which we will maintain going forward.” She also notes their flexibility in using their clients’ preferred virtual meeting platforms.
Settling into the new normal
The built environment industry will face many challenges as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds. Project management and team communication face new requirements, and the confusion about what projects can recommence, and when, is likely to keep many firms busy pleading for information. With so many variable situations to consider, safe working measures applied in one environment are not immediately applicable to another. There is a need for innovation within the guidelines and regulations published by the Department of Employment and Labour, so that firms can remain within the legal prescripts, manage the health and safety of staff, while commencing with various processes that are required in the business activities of a consulting engineering company. On the ground, construction sites will have to make up for lost time, and the stringent safety measures that must be adhered to will certainly not help efficiency. There is a possibility that companies may have to work more than one shift, to make up for programmed deliverables.
However, with technology in various forms being added to the arsenals of those driving our infrastructure development, the built environment industry has the opportunity to minimise the wrath of lockdown and be pleasantly surprised by just how much can be achieved. We have never before been in such an advanced age of technology. And we will never again be so technology-deprived, as we continue to develop and adopt new technology.
By: Consulting Engineers South Africa CEO Chris Campbell