Opportunity in crisis

May 18, 2020

Though the immediate impact of COVID-19 is bleak for many in our industry, there is reason to see the foundation forming for a different type of AEC firm.

The true worth of any profession or business – including the AEC industry – is revealed in a crisis. We have seen the AEC industry make itself suddenly more relevant to societal and environmental issues, and there’s opportunity in this circumstance.

For an industry that has acknowledged reluctance to change and suffered from analysis paralysis, I think it’s worth calling out as an advisor to this space that this is no longer consistent with my experience. Leaders in the AEC industry have responded brilliantly; it is incredible to see how the firms that we talk to are not just open to change but are functioning as strategic change agents and making decisions without the benefit of research and information to rely upon. Firm leaders have been thrown into turmoil and have resoundingly risen to the occasion.

With this acknowledgment is coupled a plea to stop exhibiting the behaviors that have led to the stereotype of the AEC industry as one that is resolutely behind the times. The business case has been made that your employees are resilient, dynamic, and able to work differently than we believed they could. It will soon be time to make decisions about what this means for your organization, rather than a circumstance we have had to adapt to, and a chance to reassess our comfort level working on teams with asynchronous schedules and delivering projects in a flexible environment.

Not only in terms of workplace practices, but also the role of A/E professionals is so very relevant at this very moment. The national spotlight is shining on thought leaders in architecture, urban planning, environmental consulting, and engineering. That “seat at the table” that we have sought out collectively is in front of us, in interviews from Forbes to talking heads in the news on subjects from public health to development to education. For many, it may feel like the first time the AEC industry has been considered “essential.”

Though the immediate impact in many AEC firms is bleak in market sectors and geographies that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, and the daily news of layoffs is not encouraging, there is reason to see the foundation forming for a different type of AEC firm. To follow the money: the massive spike in M&A interest in AEC from private equity recently is evidence that we have far too long undervalued our time, expertise, and services, and therefore our companies, too.

This is the time to reframe the value proposition for the design industry. If we intend to bounce back and recover “stronger than ever,” that has got to include a shift in how we see our own contributions to our projects and how we price our services and see ourselves as professionals leading the charge instead of being beaten down on pricing and burned out by unrealistically demanding schedules. Less humility, more reminders to the market, to stakeholders, clients, and the public that this industry, in many respects, serves as both the front line and the last line of defense in fighting an outbreak.

Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Contact her at jkiser@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.