A Virtual Culture shift has impacted the A/E/C Industry Promoting Resiliency and Flexibility: an industry well positioned for disruption

By Suzanne Abbott, Associate Vice President, HGA

A Virtual Culture shift has impacted the A/E/C Industry Promoting Resiliency and Flexibility: an industry well positioned for disruptionSuzanne Abbott, Associate Vice President, HGA

Few people could have predicted the global COVID-19 pandemic that emerged in March of last year. None of us were ready. This pandemic has forced us to reconsider how we work, live and prioritize the two. We found that the economy and wellness were not aligned enough for firms and families to be successful. Some we found were more aligned than others. We needed to be creative enough to find a way to be more flexible and resilient in all aspects of life.

While few industries have been unaffected by the pandemic-led downturn, there are places where adaptability and technological advances have provided a life line. The architecture, design, construction and engineering industries now face the necessity to pivot into a virtual workplace where collaboration and digital competence are essential in daily project work. The built environment has now changed forever and firms in the A/E/C industry that adapt first will be the most successful.

At HGA, I have had the unique experience of being able to pivot and adapt to the new remote workplace almost seamlessly. Firms that were more prepared for remote working through Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms along with IT teams that enable remote VPN service were better positioned to continue daily work and service clients during the immediate need in March. Now many industries are adopting a more flexible, confident work from home policy for the future. Work from home employees are now using virtual meetings and digital technology constantly to accomplish tasks.

Disruption is defined as both the disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity, or process and as a radical change to an existing industry or market due to technological innovation. This pandemic has caused a disruption of the status quo in our lives and forced industries to create new processes providing better outcomes for their employees and clients.

This challenge has sparked a revolution of critical thinkers to leverage creativity for the future needs of our population. The design, construction and engineering industries were always made up of professionals focused on creative problem solving through critical thinking on projects. Now, they are doing it together to address COVID-19 issues.

Partnerships in the industry, where competitors once existed, emerged organically to address COVID-19 and respond quickly. Creative problem solving and strategic thinking expanded in the A/E/C industry in a matter of weeks between existing relationships, as well.  For example, HGA and The Boldt Company partnered to build STAAT Mod™ critical care units to address the safety of patients and healthcare workers affected by COVID-19. This modular product has speed-to-market as the only quick-ship prefabricated solution to deliver true Airborne Infection Isolation rooms (as recommended by the CDC) for infectious patients undergoing aerosol-generating procedures. Addressing a truly urgent need for capacity and safety triggered by the outbreak.

We have adapted as a firm and in the industry to apply new ideas, processes and cultural adaptations to create better outcomes for our clients. The way buildings are designed, engineered, and constructed have changed forever to accommodate the impacts of global pandemics and work/life balance. Design firms like HGA were already focused on research, evidence-based design to solve problems and exceed expectations for our savvy clients. Now more than our gathering, analyzing and designing from data is necessary to be a truly resilient design firm.

The disruption has also brought a surge of creativity that has transpired through these partnerships that is not only benefitting our clients, but our firms internally, as well. A new way of critically reviewing all diversification of services, equity in the workforce, and wellness in the workplace has arrived.

Resilient firms are focusing more on diversifying through digital service offerings and programming, as well as the emerging professionals best equipped to support these programs in the future. Leveraging these technologies become a competitive advantage where it was critical for survival in the Spring. Creativity sparked through these new technologies and their data will encourage the expansion of critical design thinking and lead to better project solutions. These new solutions and service offerings are providing and enhancing current revenue streams in an economic downturn.

Throughout the pandemic and recent current events, equity, diversity and inclusion have also held a long-overlooked spotlight in work and home life. Living our values and having tougher conversations in our personal lives has brought about a shift at home and in offices throughout the country. These all are becoming bigger considerations in the people that are hired, the mentors that are selected and the leaders that are promoted. As well as hiring strategically, A/E/C firms are looking harder inward to retain talent that they rely on for their long-term investment in people. HGA is committed to increased equity in the economy, within our own practice, in partnerships on our projects, and through designs we create for our clients.

We also see this shift in our competitors, collaborators, as well as our clients. Many Requests for Proposals now ask what you are doing for racial and social equity within our firm and teams. Like most future forward design thought leaders, we are exploring what a more inclusive and equitable design process looks like and what it means to design at HGA. We are working to identify how systemic inequities have impacted the design of the built environment and community planning. That understanding then guides decisions in our daily work. Continually reviewing our internal policies, practices, and procedures through an equity lens, and make changes as a result. In 2020 we have brought a diverse group of employees from every level of experience to the table to learn more about racial equity and help challenge our business as usual.

In the healthcare design market as well as most others, designers thrive on projects with a sense of community focus and on purpose driven outcomes. This disruption from COVID-19 will encourage creativity in design work that feels truly holistic and immerse sour work in the fundamental benefit to human health and wellness for the communities we serve.

While human health and wellness have been an important theme the design of the built environment, it no longer just applies to things like daylighting and access to the outside. Now firms designing and building spaces for human occupancy now must consider health and wellness through a pandemic by making safer working environments and practices. Working schedules are also shifting and morphing to accommodate families and daily schedules that no longer demand an employee show up at an office. Now not only do employees and employers need to be flexible and resilient, work spaces do too.

Resilient firms will be flexible enough to find ways to utilize technology to elevate their existing business practices and design, construction and engineering processes. Flexibility and creativity will be two key factors in the success of A/E/C firms in the upcoming years.

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