Q&A with WSP on COVID-19: Business of engineering

Leaders from WSP USA reply to questions, reflecting on how the business of engineering will change due to COVID-19

By Lou Cornell and Rick Rome June 2, 2020

WSP USA provided responses to a virtual Q&A on various ways COVID-19 is changing the face of their business. Respondents include:

  • Lou Cornell, PE, President and Chief Executive Officer, WSP USA, Orange, Calif.
  • Rick Rome, PE, Chief Operating Officer, Property & Buildings, WSP USA, Dallas

How has your staff/team adjusted to the new work-from-home environment? What tips or suggestions do you have to help other firms remain connected while working remotely?

Lou Cornell: WSP USA has been fortunate as we already have a highly mobile workforce with clients throughout the U.S. Currently 90% of our workforce is working successfully from home. When it comes to our implementation of work from home, the success thus far has allowed us to continue to meet our targets.

To maintain a successful remote working environment, investment in more collaboration tools and technology that more effectively support a different way of working is critical. There also needs to be recognition and preparation that this will lead to changes in how we do business with a more intentional approach to work from home, knowing we can do it effectively. These are skills that will be valuable beyond the current situation.

Is your firm conducting any travel to visit clients or projects? If so, what types of projects are you working on?

Lou Cornell: We are restricting travel. Staff conducting essential functions continue to serve in the field and other locations while taking all necessary precautions. All international and domestic travel for WSP USA employees has been suspended, with a few special exceptions for critical, essential work. Fortunately, with offices across the U.S., we generally have available staff from local offices when we are needed on-site,

During the pandemic, WSP has been providing emergency management services, health care and high containment laboratory engineering, recovery planning, capital planning and program management services. We have environment, health and safety specialists; disaster and emergency response teams; and building engineers currently on the ground supporting critical project demands.

The demands on our emergency response services have increased tenfold. For example, we are working with clients who are reviewing and implementing strategies for drive-up clinics similar to what we have seen in other countries. Since COVID-19 testing does not require people to come into buildings, keeping those patients out of the buildings is safer for both potential and existing patients as well as caregivers.

What engineering or technical aspects of the job are now being done remotely?

Rick Rome: We have observed a keen interest from our clients in the updating of facility control systems and analytics platforms to enable deeper insight to remote management of facilities not only for monitoring, but actual control. Our commissioning team has been granted more direct remote access to client’s building management systems with monitoring-based commissioning becoming an even larger interest for clients.

We are coordinating many aspects of construction administration remotely including standard construction observation walks, construction inspections and state health inspections all via FaceTime or other similar methods. Our commissioning team has been granted more direct remote access to client’s building management systems and observing tests where possible via FaceTime or 360 virtual programs such as StructionSite.

What supply chain issues are you experiencing? Is your firm dealing with any challenges with materials or products from manufacturers or suppliers?

Rick Rome: Equipment that typically requires long lead times — things like air handling units, plumbing and lighting fixtures or electrical transformers needed to create safer medical environments — have been identified at the start, sometimes before final plans have been completed and approved. Using our knowledge and experience to anticipate these needs remains an essential element in enabling these projects to meet their expedited and extremely important deadlines.

What financial implications do you think this will have on the engineering industry as a whole?

Lou Cornell: The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting challenges unprecedented in modern times. From the global health implications of the viral outbreak and shortages of equipment, supplies and facilities, to associated impacts on communities, business and the economy, our societal resilience is being tested on many fronts. As agency budgets are impacted by reduced revenue and other financial sources, we expect to see much higher demand for alternative approaches to project funding, especially through public-private partnerships.

Do you expect to see pent-up demand hit once shelter-in-place restrictions have been lifted? How do you think business will trend three to six months after?

Rick Rome: We’re seeing some different things in different markets and locations. Some commercial projects have gone on hold, but for the most part, they are moving ahead. Science and technology — lab projects — are all moving forward and in some cases being pushed to accelerate schedules. Health care has been a mixed bag, with some projects put on hold but others pushing ahead. We think office projects may get re-evaluated, as tenants figure out their space requirements and space needs with the new “rules” of the workplace.

So I don’t expect to see the flood gates open to a significant level that would all of a sudden flood the market, but I do think that construction will start up much faster than design projects that were stalled due to COVID-19.

WSP has been experiencing a good flow of requests for proposal for new developments over the past two months. My expectation would be that awards of these projects will start to be announced, but the ramp up will not be extremely fast.

Author Bio: Lou Cornell is CEO of WSP USA. He has 28 years of extensive and progressive design and management experience in the engineering, environmental, architectural and construction industry. Rick Rome is COO for property and buildings at WSP USA. Over his 30-year career, Rome has led project design for over 10 million square feet of medical complexes and corporate high-rises.