The pandemic has forced companies of all types to reckon with the challenges of remote work, but it has given those in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry the perfect opportunity to transform their businesses. The impetus for that change is the industry’s ever-growing dependence on technology.
Frankly, working from home would have been simple for many architects, engineers, and construction professionals a generation ago, because they dealt primary with paper and pencils. The increasing sophistication and complexity of the computers they now use — along with the critical importance of being able to share files with clients, vendors, contractors, and fellow professionals — makes the transition to remote work problematic for many A/E/C firms.
For example, the typical architecture firm has invested heavily in complex CAD platforms that require substantial computing power and storage. Each architect and designer’s workstation is a powerful computer, all linked to a robust network.
But what happens when that architect starts to work from her kitchen table? First, she may be using a high-end laptop, but it probably lacks the graphics capacity to display enormous and complex files. No problem, right? We’ll simply move those files into the cloud. That creates problem number two. The firm’s office in a contemporary business park has a robust local area network capable of delivering those massive files quickly. The architect’s home on a suburban cul-de-sac accesses the web through a cable modem shared with her family. Even with the files in the cloud, she can only load them as quickly as her connection allows, and that may mean waiting several minutes. Her upload speed is even slower.
Similar situations occur when a construction manager tries to review submittals from the trailer at a jobsite, or when an engineer needs to examine details at a client’s site. The firm’s office may have the most sophisticated system money can buy, but it’s only going to be as powerful as the weakest links available to its team.
That leads to key questions for leaders of A/E/C companies. Do they have the infrastructure to support this style of working (which experts suggest is here to stay, even after the pandemic goes away)? And if not, who is responsible for paying to improve the infrastructure? If an employee’s home internet connection is slow, do you expect that employee to spend the money for an upgraded connection? What about security when an employee’s children are accessing online games and TikTok while your employee is using the same connection to review confidential details about an upcoming bid?
Most of all, do those A/E/C leaders have the time, IT staffing, and funding to manage what is essentially a brand-new infrastructure?
Questions like these explain why forward-thinking A/E/C leaders have shifted their thinking from completely internal IT networks to external relationships such as co-managed IT. They turn to firms like ours to sweat all the details so they and their team can focus on the client work that needs to be done. Through a co-managed IT arrangement, a provider like our company can handle everything from assessing the adequacy of connections, to owning and issuing the devices the team uses, to establishing sufficient storage. Just as important, we take the responsibility for all levels of security, creating backups and other strategies to protect against business interruptions, and evaluating and making recommendations related to new technologies in support of the firms’ business goals.
There is one critically important thing companies like ours cannot do for A/E/C companies, and that’s to create and sustain the kind of culture they need to thrive in this rapidly changing environment. When company leaders express a need, the question I always ask is whether they’re describing a technology problem or a culture problem. Do you really think you need the power to read every employee’s texts, or do you need to address the root cause of whatever makes you think you need to do that? You can’t fix culture with technology.
The A/E/C industry has traditionally been led by top-down managers who exert substantial control over their firms. Succeeding in this new model requires a willingness to distribute responsibility and trust that your team will do what’s expected. Because people will no longer be sitting in open plan offices where they can converse and overhear what their coworkers are doing, you’ll need to find new spaces — virtual or otherwise — to foster collaboration. You’ll also need to think about culture as it applies to your relationships with your clients and vendors.
It’s a big task, but making the transition successfully can give your firm a powerful competitive edge today and improve its ability to adapt to whatever changes are ahead. Finding experienced partners to guide you through the process will make it a lot less painful … and less risky.
Doug Miller is CEO/CTO of Brightworks Group, a best in class Technology Success Provider (TSP) primarily serving Midwest-based companies in industries such as manufacturing, distribution, healthcare, financial services, and engineering.