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How COVID-19 brought on the great digital transformation

Remote working might have started as a temporary solution during the pandemic, but it’s now key to many businesses’ long-term strategies. Are we entering a new era of tech-enabled collaboration?

Author: Stephen Cousins

18 January 2021

Michael Parkin - Folio Art

One of the rare positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the success of the transition to remote working. US-based Enterprise Technology Research recently revised its forecast on how big the global permanent remote workforce will be in 2021 – doubling its estimate from 16.4% before the pandemic, to 34.4%.

Lessons learnt over the past 10 months have encouraged many organisations to push ahead with digital transformation plans and invest in innovative new tech and upskilling programmes. The change in tack has led to a reimagining of the office itself as a place of work.

“Mindsets have been changed,” says Nelly Twumasi-Mensah, business projects & change lead for the UK and Europe at Faithful + Gould (F+G). “The pandemic has made the art of the possible very visible, and people’s attitudes have changed as a result.”

But challenges still remain: small businesses with limited resources have to fight to keep a seat at the digital table; some staff experience difficulties sharing experiences with colleagues online; and leadership struggle to integrate new talent and instil corporate culture.

As infections continue to surge in many regions, other innovative remote working solutions and approaches are expected to emerge that may stick with us for the long term.

Hard reset

The devastating effects of the pandemic, including disrupted supply chains and operational restrictions, are still being felt by most countries and industries, which points to continued reliance on distributed workforces for the foreseeable future.

Property and construction firms have been on a journey, when the first restrictions and lockdowns were introduced in the first quarter of 2020, many had to scramble to adapt.

In the UK, project manager Turner & Townsend quickly rose to the challenge, rolling out a 100% remote alternative to face-to-face design development for a new engineering workshop and teaching building for City of Wolverhampton College.

The project had just entered concept stage, and so a new project execution plan was drawn up, based entirely around virtual meetings and online document and model sharing. Two-hour video conference meetings were scheduled each week with the client team and bi-monthly meetings with the entire project team to review the design, progress and any changes required by the client to keep things on track.

Project information was shared via email with large models and documents sent using a file sharing service and completed drawings, reports and survey information uploaded to the client’s SharePoint site.

The hastily implemented “experiment” was a surprise success, says Rajvinder Cholia, an associate director for project management at T&T. “The weekly virtual meeting made things much more efficient and focused than face-to-face. The team hasn’t wasted any time travelling to the office and therefore had more time for discussion than before.” Now she plans to run at least half of meetings on all projects virtually, even when offices are open.

Several months on, and with curbs on face-to-face interaction now a daily reality for organisations in many countries, lessons learnt around digitisation are feeding into longer-term strategies and investments.

“A number of companies in Singapore, including our own, have indicated that accelerating their digital transformation is a strategic necessity,” says Wilson Lim FRICS, CEO of professional services firm Asian Assets Allianz. “We can run virtually every aspect of our business better and faster using a data and digital platforms approach.”

Virtual collaboration at the company has often enabled teams to meet or exceed objectives, says Lim, and since the outbreak, it has introduced new digital systems for construction management, inspection and quality control. “We can enhance project supervisory operations by using AI to optimise the scope of maintenance and inspection,” he says. “We can improve a range of support functions using robotics and AI to digitise functions, such as processes, IT operations, and employee onboarding.”

Digital upskilling has become a new priority for PwC, which as part of a $3bn investment in staff training and technology development, now requires every employee to attend at least one Digital Academy session per quarter.  

The course is designed to bring staff up to speed with key digital topics and the way technologies now influence business decisions and transform methods of working.

“The weekly virtual meeting made things much more efficient and focused than face-to-face” Rajvinder Cholia, Turner & Townsend

“We gamify certain upskilling elements and offer learning on the go, so our people have a choice regarding where and how they upskill,” explains Randa Bahsoun, a partner in PwC’s People & Organization practice, based in Dubai. “We’re finding there’s a natural appetite to take this learning further as our people want to develop skills that will be in demand for the digital economy, so the base level of digital acumen is increasing organically.”

Although many large firms have found it relatively straightforward to slipstream into remote or hybrid-working set ups, SMEs have found the transition more difficult and costly due to the lack of human and financial resources.

However, the less developed infrastructure of smaller businesses has sometimes been a benefit, making them flexible enough to engage in more agile decision making, says Dan Hughes, founder of digital transformation consultant Alpha Property Insight.

“Large and established companies in real estate often prioritise inclusivity and low risk, rather than the ability to change fast. That business process infrastructure will become a real challenge going forward and SMEs are debatably in a better position,” he says

The widespread availability of powerful, yet affordable, digital technology can also help level the playing field. Most working professionals have a powerful smartphone in their pocket that can be used to remotely access and update files or view detailed 3D models of buildings and infrastructure. The move towards cloud computing eliminates the need for server storage on site, companies only need pay for the space they use.

“It’s kind of remarkable that I could set up a company today and have essentially the same access to storage and processing power as major tech corporations such as Google or Facebook,” says Hughes. “SMEs can exploit this to build their businesses, which simply wouldn't have been the case a few years ago.”

"We can run virtually every aspect of our business better and faster using a data and digital platforms approach” Wilson Lim FRICS, Asian Assets Allianz
Power ups

In construction design and delivery circles, talk of digital transformation has in recent years focused on digital collaboration tools like building information modelling (BIM), which enable multi-disciplinary teams to collaborate on projects from different locations and time zones.

The pandemic provided an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate their value and reduce the need for multiple departments, contractors and clients to meet in person.

According to recent research by McKinsey, designers and engineers are relying even more heavily on these platforms with leading organisations using 4D and 5D simulation to replan projects and optimise schedules.

Remote technology is enabling many traditionally site-based roles to be carried out remotely, for example 360º photos, drone laser scans and virtual walkthroughs in software such as Matterport can provide project managers with regular updates on progress from the safety of home.

Valuers are using the virtual viewing experience to adapt to a new normal where physical inspections are prohibited. This process requires a different set of skills, says Mark Shepherd, senior lecturer in real estate at the University of Manchester. “If a third party is providing virtual access to a property via real-time video, it is up to the valuer to guide them to ensure it is a true picture of the premises and not a superficial one the third party wants them to see. Inevitably, the quality of online video can make it easier to miss those visual clues to a problem.”

The pandemic triggered massive interest in video conferencing, but businesses are now experimenting more with design-oriented visual collaboration tools, including digital whiteboard applications such as Mural, Microsoft Whiteboard or Miro, which allows the creation of diagrams and brainstorming using different templates.

Various departments within Arcadis have been spending more time running workshops on digital whiteboard solutions. The firm is software agnostic, but a particular favourite is Lucidspark, which according to UK Chief Entrepreneur Nilesh Parmar “allows users to collaborate in a more consultative way.”

Arcadis runs its own engineering App Store, which experienced a spike in downloads during the pandemic to support day-to-day work in different settings. “We run voluntary online workshops where people can drop in to learn about a specific tool, the sessions are videoed, so people can watch them whenever they want,” explains Parmar. “One thing’s for sure, the old ways of everybody flying to different countries to have internal meetings are long gone, we'll see the power of technology being fully embedded into the way people do business, especially for internal collaboration.”

“People want to develop skills that will be in demand for the digital economy, so the base level of digital acumen is increasing organically” Randa Bahsoun, PwC
Staying socially engaged

It’s easy to get swept up in all this technical wizardry, but the remote-working paradigm also introduces challenges. Where some employees now feel more in control of their time, others are unable to separate work from their personal life, and distractions can mean working longer hours than usual.

Staff may lack the specialist tools and resources available in the office, and greater reliance on home laptops and cloud computing services, which centralise company files and data, has increased cyber risks. “Data security becomes an issue,” says Shepherd. “Businesses spend substantial amounts of money creating a secure data environment and this is much more difficult to manage with a remotely distributed workforce.”

Another concern is social engagement and company culture. Established teams forced to migrate to Zoom or Teams have already formed relationships, they understand the culture of an organisation and expected behaviours, but what if you’re a new hire and merely a face among other faces on a flat computer screen?

A recent survey of UK workplaces, carried out by design and architecture firm Gensler, found that less than half of Millennial and Gen Z workers have participated in mentoring or coaching during the pandemic, a factor that may be exacerbated by working from home.

“It’s the social aspect that’s the hardest challenge, I can’t imagine what it must be like to start a job now, whether you’re early careers or an experienced hire, everyone’s just this voice in the ether,” laments Twumasi-Mensah.

There are workarounds: leadership can be more intentional and specific about how to integrate new people from a social perspective, whether online or through periodic face-to-face meetings.

Faithful + Gould runs lunchtime video conference calls where teams meet purely to chat, and internal “chat roulette” sessions where employees sign up to be matched with a random person in the business to share experiences.

“You have to plan the fun time,” says Twumasi-Mensah. “I always try to make sure that ‘purposeful fun’ is had in most of our team meetings because it’s a way to get to know each other and an opportunity for people to get to know each other. It breaks down barriers, so people feel a lot more included.”

Conversely, the emotional distance of virtual meetings might in some cases encourage engagement. Larger teams can assemble on screen, which gives exposure to younger or less experienced staff who might otherwise not get a seat at the table. The remove of a virtual connection can also make it less intimidating to speak up.

Such considerations will come to the fore in the weeks and months ahead as professionals and businesses seek to redefine the digitally enabled workforce of the future.

“I always try to make sure that ‘purposeful fun’ is had in most of our team meetings” Nelly Twumasi-Mensah, F+G

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