Those companies that are resolute, agile, and creative will define the workplace rules of tomorrow, while the rest will be forced to follow or buckle beneath the pressure.
I look back on the initial months of the pandemic with a chuckle; we were clueless, weren’t we? I recall the many discussions indicating that if we all just shut down for two weeks, the virus would burn itself out and we could all return to business as usual. Then, one by one, we watched as the cities where we live and work enacted stay at home orders, and we saw two weeks stretch to two months, then six months, then a year – and so on. Somewhere in the summer months of 2020, the reality and depth of the crisis finally began to sink in, and for the first time in my nearly 25-year career, I found myself taking on a new role: futurist.
Like our peers, Ardurra peered into an uncertain future – one with macro- and micro-economic unknowns, concerns for the health and safety of our families, friends, and colleagues, and a business landscape that was unrecognizable. We simply did not know what the impact would be on the business or our lives. But out of that uncertainty, we found resilience. We discovered that we were far more capable and adaptable to remote work than previously thought – and we recognized, in real time, that the technology, tools, and skill sets that were emerging out of necessity would accelerate trends that previously seemed far off. The future was nigh.
The talent gap. The scarcity of talent in the AEC industry is nothing new; even during the Great Recession, unemployment among engineers never rose above 3 percent. Fortunately, our fears of economic calamity assuaged as the pandemic proceeded, and any hiring freezes were short-lived. By summer 2020, we were hiring, onboarding, and integrating staff wholly remotely. What’s more, as an acquisitive firm, we acquired multiple new businesses during this period and integrated all of them remotely. Certainly, we would have preferred to welcome them in person, but we managed and we were successful.
The pandemic had an unintended consequence on our recruiting; we discovered that we could take on talent wherever they were, not just where we were. It broadened our reach and we began to cast a wider net that resulted in organically opening new offices in new geographies that we hadn’t specifically targeted before. It also provided access to candidates who were dissatisfied with how their current firms were dealing with the pandemic. While we proved resilient, others were less adaptive or lacked the technology to support remote work effectively.
New people challenges. While the transition to remote work proved that we could be successful without the physical proximity an office setting provides, it brought with it new challenges. A few months into the pandemic, we surveyed our staff and found that this new reality was having profound impacts on their mental wellness. Almost 20 percent reported being lonely, while others reported increased anxiety. For years, the elders of the industry believed that remote work was not feasible because there would be too many distractions and not enough oversight. What we found was the opposite; instead of employees becoming neglectful of their work, the real challenge was maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
There were indeed great benefits from remote work – time saved on commute, more flexibility to balance personal responsibilities, etc. – but many found it hard to turn work “off” after normal business hours. There simply wasn’t a significant differentiation between work and home when you’re working from your couch or dining room table. We take for granted the psychological value of brief talks around the watercooler or a shared lunchtime in the employee lounge; work is a key source of social interaction and support that was immediately lost. We found that employees stopped using paid time off; they reasoned that there wasn’t anywhere to go, so why waste their vacation time on a day stuck at home. At Ardurra, we recognized this challenge and went to work at it – and we quickly realized that replicating the social closeness proved far more difficult than efficiently transitioning work tasks. We did what most other firms did – organized Zoom happy hours and special “virtual” events. We provided every employee with an annual subscription to the Calm app to help them find an outlet for relaxation and mindfulness. We encouraged leadership to take a more personal approach to management, routinely check in with their teams, and be sensitive to their personal and professional needs. We communicated openly and honestly about mental health and highlighted the resources available for those in need. But in the end, we only found true resolution when staff began to return to the office; even just a day or two per week was transformative.
What it all means. Up until now, I have discussed the many challenges we faced and the lessons we’ve learned from them, but the more difficult task is putting a solution into practice that understands and respects the new realities of our workforce and our workplaces. Some companies reacted too quickly, stating that their staff would never return to the office, while others set arbitrary deadlines for staff to return “or else.” The prudent response lies somewhere in between. The days of having a physical presence are not over; they remain an important and salient bond among the staff. At Ardurra, we talk about culture a lot – it’s what sets us apart from other firms and is central to our business strategy – and I don’t know that a company culture can exist without a physical space where people intersect. I believe that more today than I did before the first mention of COVID-19.
However, I don’t think that translates back to what work looked like pre-pandemic. The future I see is variable, where staff find a balance of remote and in-person work that best suits them and the business. This necessarily refocuses “in office” time as social and collaborative, while remote work becomes independent, concentrated, and productive. In the end, there can’t be one solution to meet the needs of every person and every business, but I know without question that those companies that are resolute, agile, and creative will define the workplace rules of tomorrow, while the rest will be forced to follow or buckle beneath the pressure.
Kevin Brown, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is chief human resources officer at Ardurra. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.