Unanswered questions

Jan 24, 2021

While we’re entering 2021 with a renewed sense of purpose and greater clarity, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Working for Zweig Group for the better part of the last decade, I’ve gotten used to being able to provide research-based solutions to a multitude of issues facing firm leaders in the AEC industry. 2020 was a year of incredible change and uncertainty, and while we’re entering 2021 with a renewed sense of purpose and greater clarity, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Here are a few areas of firm management I think have been irrevocably altered and are likely to see continued changes in 2021. These are also the areas we are seeking to gather data on throughout 2021 and beyond.

  • Remote work. Looking back to 2016, Zweig Group’s Policies, Procedures & Benefits Survey found that 63 percent of firms allowed for some employees to work remote sometimes – and of that 63 percent only 26 percent allowed for any employee to do so (just over 16 percent of the sample). Just five years later, Zweig Group’s most recent data from our Impacts of COVID-19 on the AEC Industry finds that 67 percent of AEC firms have made policy changes to allow any employee to work remotely at any time. Firms also report that a median of 90 percent of their workforce can effectively telecommute. While at the beginning of the pandemic this work-from-home situation seemed temporary, I’m hearing from quite a few clients that increased profitability, maintained levels of productivity, and employee demands may make this situation more permanent. What remains to be seen is how many firms adopt a flexible or work-remote policy for all or some staff as a long-term policy. If they do, the effects will be far-reaching.
  • Recruiting/hiring. Recruitment and retention has previously been the No. 1 challenge for the AEC industry. In the future, will a more flexible and remote work environment be an incentive for younger individuals to want to work in architecture/engineering? Will this new environment open up new geographies and candidate pools that previously seemed inaccessible due to proximity or time-constraints? Has a decrease in face-to-face networking events hindered word-of-mouth recruitment as well as more traditional routes such as career fairs, or has an increase in time spent in front of screens and on social media/networking sites easily replaced these channels? Will all these new opportunities help make our industry more diverse? Looking back to our Impacts of COVID-19 on the AEC Industry, when asked about spending in recruitment/hiring, 17 percent of firms stated their spending in this area would see a “significant decrease” over 2019 and 26 percent said “slight decrease.” What we don’t know is if this decrease in spending is reflective of a temporary hold on hiring, lower expenses created by increased efficiencies from a more streamlined or virtual process, or a combination of both. According to Zweig Group’s 2020 Policies, Procedures & Benefits Report, on average, AEC firms spend more than $9,000 per new hire. I predict we’ll see that number go down next year as hiring and on-boarding processes become more automated and efficient through technology. Last year’s figures show that 40 percent of AEC firms were willing to pay to relocate both new and existing employees. I think in 2021, we’ll see even less spent on relocation, and this money will be spent in other areas. While many of these shifts may draw individuals to the industry, it’s double edged as they can also cause increased turnover. Will 2021 be a year of job hopping to more desirable opportunities?
  • Paid time off, leave policies, and project management. Last year, 90 percent of firms allowed employees to carry paid time off from one year to the next and the median number of days that could be carried over was 10. In the majority, 68 percent of firms, paid time off earned in excess of the maximum had to be forfeited. These numbers were gathered before the second half of 2020 and do not include last minute end-of-year adjustments. I’ve heard of many firms extending this to allow for greater PTO carryover. What will happen to all this PTO in 2021? Are firms adequately budgeting for this increase in PTO? Are project management and work-load procedures and policies able to handle more frequent or potentially longer periods of employee leave? Will a more flexible or more remote workplace of the future decrease the overall PTO demanded or offered employees?
  • How many firms have downsized or significantly changed their physical workplaces in response to COVID? The amount of space needed to effectively work has changed drastically over the past year. While some firms have had to make investments in an increase in space to allow for more physical distance between employees, other firms have decreased their square footage. I think we’ll see AEC firms spend less on rent/utilities and other related overhead in 2021.
  • If we learned anything from 2021, it’s how important culture and teamwork is. Many firms have had to get very creative to maintain communication and culture in an uncertain environment, through upheaval, remote work, and a multitude of other challenges. I think the industry as a whole will see firms continue through 2021 with a stronger sense of culture – something that will positively impact recruitment and retention. I’ve personally witnessed the culture change at many firms over the past year. I’ll be interested to see how this is reflected in our Best Firms To Work For scores.

The events of the past year have undoubtedly altered our industry. As a researcher and advisor, I look forward to tracking the ways in which firms can not only cope with difficulties, but find ways to grow and thrive, using difficulties and changes as an impetus for improvements within their organization.

Christina Zweig Niehues is Zweig Group’s director of research and e-commerce. She can be reached at czweig@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.