Through the digital looking glass

Apr 18, 2021

With the vaccine rolling out and workers trickling back into offices, we need to determine what innovations we will carry forward and how we will continue to evolve.

In 2017, the article “Imagining Construction’s Digital Future” by McKinsey & Company listed the AEC sector among the least digitized, ranking just above agriculture. However, the past year has proven that our industry has the ability to rank much higher and that we are in fact incredibly agile and adaptable when it comes to our technological future.

This pandemic has pushed our industry into the technological future that we were already working toward, but accelerated the trajectory out of necessity. COVID-19 transformed how we work, from huddles over trace paper and conversations over cups of coffee, to an alternate reality defined by digital interaction, screens, and Zoom conferences. In this alternate world, the pandemic has tested our resiliency and shown us that the AEC industry is able to embrace and thrive in a primarily digital world, which will be a major component of our future. With the vaccine rolling out and workers trickling back into offices, we now need to determine what lessons we take with us as an industry, what innovations we will carry forward, and how we will continue to evolve.

Adapt and innovate – quickly. Like many firms, FXCollaborative immediately embraced and adopted the necessary digital collaboration tools in the weeks following the initial outbreak, a process that likely would have taken months, if not years, to accomplish with our industry’s traditionally slow pace. But the pandemic took away that choice, and everyone rose to the challenge. From virtual meeting and chat platforms, to collaborative PDFs, pin-up boards, and project notes, we’ve gained fluency in the digital facsimiles of our standard tools. That quick implementation has been a collective effort, and we saw an amazing reverse-mentoring occur organically with many emerging professionals – digital natives trained primarily through the use of technology – helping other colleagues learn and adapt. We also saw increased collaboration with our consultants, shortening the review cycle by coordinating and developing solutions in real-time rather than relying on weekly coordination meetings.

In order to scale and transform quickly, it is imperative that our industry and offices stay committed to our new role as technological innovators. One key lesson we learned early was that it is critical to keep abreast of the latest technology and to continually have small pockets of users pilot new technology. The pilots we conducted pre-shutdown allowed us to more quickly and effectively develop implementation workflows and best-practices. We were then able to easily scale and implement these practices firmwide, with a built-in set of experts ready and able to provide guidance. The future of our practice is dependent on turning the focus toward digital innovation to establish agile methodologies at an industry-scale so that firms can continue to digitally transform and adapt.

Embrace an inclusive future of work. Although distance has made some forms of interactions more difficult, technology has helped democratize conversations and increase representation at the table. In Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings, there is no head of the table; every tile is the same. The digital format also allows more people to be present and involved in the conversation – allowing more junior staff to attend client meetings, and more constituents to attend virtual community board meetings – which results in more input and perspectives earlier in the process. Virtual workflows have proven to foster more inclusion in the design process, allowing for more frequent meetings, higher attendance, and more opportunity for input. With the successes seen from these efficiencies, it is likely that future in-person meetings will continue to have a digital component to increase participation, representation, accessibility, and transparency.

Working remotely also opens up staffing possibilities. While a local presence will still be necessary for site visits, remote working gives firms the opportunity to hire talent regardless of geography, and provides flexibility to local staff for a healthier work-life balance. Even for teams needing to review projects under construction, we have good success with virtual site visits led by the on-site contractor and using 360 degree photography to capture conditions that teams could then explore in detail remotely.

As staff begin to physically return to the office, the next challenge will be finding the best ways to support a hybrid workforce. Our industry needs to embrace and innovate on practicing in this “new normal” to ensure a seamless interaction between groups of in-person staff with remote individuals. Technology will continue to play a critical role in this, such as by connecting physical smartboards to remote-accessible collaborative platforms, incorporating videoconferencing cameras in meeting rooms – even smaller huddle rooms, and rethinking the format of in-person meetings to allow for virtual participation. There will also undoubtedly be greater attention given to firms’ technology infrastructure, with additional redundancy and resiliency measures, more technology-focused staff, and more training.

Advance industry-wide digital transformation. Despite the challenges and hardships, this past year has helped spark a change needed in our industry. It has created a new way of thinking wherein technology is not merely a tool, but is integral and indispensable. FXCollaborative’s integrated technology “Digital Practice” structure brings together experts that focus on design technology, business technology, IT, and data integration. This framework supports a performance-based, data-driven, and collaborative process, where we consider not only how BIM models function, but how we can capture data to feed sustainability, or how we can better leverage accounting data to influence project schedules and projections. Technology will help us holistically improve design, building, firm, industry, and collaboration efficiencies.

We have gained an awareness that we can adapt and move quickly. Now, there needs to be a bigger picture, one with more cooperation between firms to develop tools, workflows, and common data sets that can help bring the whole industry forward. Our increased adoption of digital collaboration tools and new perspective on the role of technology in the AEC industry has led to lessons and practices that can be carried through to whatever new future awaits us.

Alexandra Pollock, AIA, is chief technology officer and principal with FXCollaborative. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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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.