A year of higher expectations

Jan 03, 2021

2021 is looking to be a year of increasing freedom, control, and opportunity.

This article will not be another opine of 2020. Instead of looking back, let’s kick off the new year by looking ahead to what should be a year of more opportunity. Although most are glad to see 2020 in the rear-view mirror, we have some decisions in the trunk that we must carry into 2021 and be prepared to handle in the months ahead. Many of the deferred decisions, opportunities, and experiences of 2020, we will get to live in this next year. Here are a few things to consider as you envision your 2021:

  • A return of control. 2021 should provide us more control to make some important decisions. The disruption in the “way we work” was profound, and continues to affect many firms as we start the new year. Because the COVID vaccine is finally in distribution, it is safe to assume we are on a clearer path to eradicating the virus and the restrictions it brought. This will allow you more control over what your workplace looks like. Push the buzzwords like “new normal” out of your head. That term invokes something that we have to accept. Instead, AEC firm leaders need to think very hard about what the future of work looks like in their firms and be intentional to make it a reality. The return of this control should not be taken lightly, nor should the control default to “getting things back to the way they were.” The disruption we’ve all experienced has allowed us as an industry to make some much-needed advances together. I referenced some of these advancements in my Quantum Evolution” article. Consider those and other things your firm will harness to get a competitive edge in the future. 2021 will be the year where you have to decide what you leave behind and what you take with you in the future.
  • Evolving the culture. How AEC firms worked post-COVID lockdowns was all over the board. Talking with AEC firm leaders, some had 0 percent of their workforce in the office, and others had 100 percent. Firms with multiple office locations had a great deal of variability across offices. On the surface, the variability might appear to be dictated by state and local restrictions and virus trends, and that was true. But the way offices or groups of people worked in response to the virus was a reflection of their micro culture as much as it was a reaction to how the virus was trending. In other words, I saw groups of people reacting to the conditions and making work adjustments based on what they wanted to do, versus what they were forced to do. So while many firms have been worried that their cultures have been negatively impacted by the lack of company picnics and water cooler talk, I’ll submit that their cultures are very much intact and that the COVID disruption has allowed firm and individual office cultures to express who they are and who they want to be in a new way. The employee experience is evolving in AEC firms. The evolution in 2020 was driven by many elements out of our control. In 2021, it will be up to us to take the incrementally increasing control and design an employee experience that keeps the best of what we’ve adapted to, brings back what needs to be brought back, and introduces new elements to make your firm more resilient and competitive in the next decade.
  • Balance consistency and uniformity. Consistency and uniformity were turned on their heads over the past year. Fortunately, we’ve all been on a level playing field, including our clients. As firm leaders consider how to design the future of work in a COVID-free world, they are going to have to direct control that balances consistency and uniformity. Consistency is conformity in the application of something, typically that which is necessary for the sake of logic, accuracy, or fairness. It is more about local coherence. Leaders will need to design a work environment and policy that is free of contradiction, while being flexible to varying ways their people want to work and can work best. We’ve learned a lot about flexibility in 2020, and leaders need to examine what flexibility was – and needs to be – at both the macro and micro level. This is not going to be easy. The need to be uniform further complicates it. Uniformity is the state of being uniform, alike and lacking diversity. The brand promise and client experience needs uniformity across your market sectors and geographies. Your employee experience design will need consistency and uniformity. To get that, you must have clarity around what that looks like and do an excellent job of communicating it. After all, the employees define the brand and the client experience. 2021 brings the challenge of defining a new work model that considers how employees want to work and how your firm can sustainably deliver the brand promise to your clients.

2021 will bring higher expectations of a proactive design of the employee experience in a post-COVID world. As a leader, this is not where you want to be reactive. The days of us being held hostage to uncertainty and constantly increasing and relaxing restrictions will diminish in the months ahead. Be prepared to be very proactive in defining a new work model for your firm that will affect every area of the business. What that work model looks like will affect office space design, property leases, IT investments, recruiting and retention tactics, marketing, business development, project management, and the list goes on. 2021 is looking to be a year of increasing freedom, control, and opportunity. 2020 happened to us. Let’s make 2021 happen for us.

Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.