Tackling business matters during COVID-19

Affiliated Engineers Inc.’s leadership team has updated a lot during the coronavirus pandemic. Learn best practices from their strategies

By Joel Boado, PE, LEED AP, and Greg J. Quinn, PE, LEED AP October 22, 2020

How have your business practices changed during the past three months? What new tools and techniques have you adopted? How has your firm become more efficient/learned to pivot more quickly?

We’re not unusual in how our business procedures were turned upside down in those early weeks of March. Remote working operations and abrupt travel limitations forced the entire architecture, engineering and construction industry to change routines in many dimensions; from how we communicate, at what frequency and the priority of subjects we address.

Affiliated Engineers Inc.is currently 18 offices of varying scales and located in all corners of the U.S. and the United Kingdom. For us, several key techniques set us on a new path swiftly and thus far, have positioned us well for continued endurance through the impacts COVID-19 has imposed:

Redeployed leadership teams. By mid-March, we established a new meeting cadence and expanded membership to our two primary, firmwide leadership teams; AEI’s board of directors and executive team. In the past, these teams met quarterly and monthly, respectively. They now meet weekly and biweekly and have temporarily grown to include broader expertise and leadership from across the firm.

Established rules of engagement. The board’s mission during remote operations is to gather information, prioritize it and establish general guidelines for the executive team to customize and implement within their offices. Recognizing public health policy logistics varies widely across the country, we felt this offer the most efficient firmwide guidance.

Focused early on technology. We reprioritized and accelerated rollouts of several technology tools, including comprehensive Microsoft Teams access and training, BIM 360 and remote device enablers such as MiFi for engineering and design personnel with at-home connectivity challenges. 24/7 information technology helplines were also put in place to assist with troubleshooting recognizing work hours varied widely.

Expanded workday flexibility. Each employee has a unique set of personal and professional responsibilities and early in our remote working operation, we learned our expectations needed to quickly shift to accommodate both. This primarily dealt with managing effective working time and in coordination with their respective teams, adapt working schedules that balanced the responsibilities for both.

Organized a digital suite of tools. Technical subjects, leadership communications, health and wellness information, technology assistance, etc. are a sampling of themes touched in the “Tools During COVID-19” page on our internal digital media site. Having this portal proved extremely helpful and is a source of related knowledge refreshed steadily as we learn more about how our industry and our firm responds to the pandemic.

We fully expect to permanently adopt elements from each of the techniques shared above. If anything, our organization has grown completely confident in our ability to shift operational working models yet remain consistent with our client- and partner-focused service model.

Do you anticipate your firm’s professional office spaces will change in the next six months? Be redesigned to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/public health guidelines or changed in size?

Absolutely. And as many of our offices have begun return-to-office procedures, we are beginning to learn some physical changes may remain permanent; such as physical distancing and/or partitioning in open-office situations. However, during the life cycle of this COVID-19 pandemic, many temporary space matters are in play:

  • Social distancing and mask-wearing policies.
  • Occupancy limitations for conferencing areas.
  • Easy access to sanitization products for office cleanliness and personal hygiene.
  • Routine sanitization procedures for high-touch areas.
  • Office visitor access restrictions.
  • Signage offering guidance for circulation, expectations for office procedures, access to information, etc.

How are engineering or technical aspects of the job being completed remotely?

It’s not perfect and as with many firms, we are relying heavily on technology and on our trusted partnership with clients and construction teams to help fulfill site-based engineering responsibilities. Virtual touring, photo documentation and expanded video conferencing are part of this. Active business travel is beginning to show an uptick in some areas of the country, but it’s not pervasive.

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

Indirectly. As an engineering services firm, our products for practice-based investments are largely office- and technology-based. Timing and deliveries have been sluggish, but not extraordinary.

What financial implications do you think COVID-19 will have on the engineering industry in the next three months? Six months? Twelve months?

Significant and in varying capacities. The engineering industry supporting less essential markets such as commercial workplace, hospitality, recreation and sports are already and will continue to see the biggest and most enduring financial impacts. Health care, health sciences, privately funded education, research, utilities, technology and other more direct, mission-critical influences will likely see less negative yet varied impacts. Some conjecture looking forward:

Three months out: Our prediction is much of the same as we’ve seen over the past three. Economic recession, high unemployment and overvalued public market indices suggest our less-essential markets will remain rough. We predict market sectors in health care, education, health science and technology will continue to tolerate general economic uncertainties.

Six months out: The presidential election will prove impactful to many markets, particularly on the economy’s ability to rebound from recession. However, we do not expect significant improvements related to COVID-19’s impact on our industry but do remain bullish on our ability to be nimble with remote operations and our ability to serve. In general, we have a sense of optimism for 2021 and believe the uncertainty of COVID-19’s economic impacts will have stabilized.

Twelve months out: Clearly this is challenging to predict, however we’re bullish that COVID-19’s fate will be more certain, its economic impacts stabilized, unemployment lessened and the resultant financial implications on our industry positive.

What is your firm doing to mitigate a predicted downturn in business?

We’ve done a few things to strengthen the core, shed unnecessary liabilities and prepare ourselves better for continued market uncertainties. However, first and foremost, we’re thankful for several foundational qualities that have positioned us well for the challenges we’re enduring:

Diversity in our firmwide market presence. Strategically, we’ve grown to consciously not overinvest in any single market but have a steady balance in several.

Prioritize expertise in essential markets. As mentioned earlier, while we haven’t gone through the current downturn unscathed, we’ve been able to endure well largely because we invest in expertise to support mission-focused client-base with partners who share like interests in doing so.

Having a strategic plan. Quite coincidently, we’ve recently completed an update to our firmwide strategic plan and are using its priority objectives as beacons for decision making.

Several select matters we’re doing to mitigate near-term business downturn potentials:

  • Reviewing our books for low-efficiency capital, liability and overhead expenditures.
  • Imposing more frequent and more accountable new business development procedures.
  • Updating our project workload and financial management data more rigorously and with more transparency to our firmwide leadership teams.
  • Exploring office-to-office work-sharing opportunities with more rigor to better balance workload across our system.

In down markets, retrofit/renovation and maintenance/repair/operation tend to increase. How is your firm working with clients and building owners to keep this conversation going — and keep the money coming in?

In traditional down markets, this is true; operations-based, maintenance and renovation-type projects tend to prevail. However, this pandemic-triggered down market has imposed a new set of health and safety challenges that have throttled even this type of work. Our health care projects have been particularly impacted in this fashion.

Nevertheless, we’ve seen upticks in various scales of planning projects, facility conditional assessments (executed via virtual walks and video-conference interviewing) and early-phase design assignments where remote execution is completely doable. Inviting clients to consider master service agreement contracting to streamline business procedures and increase communications has also been helpful.

How do you ensure your subject matter experts stay educated while conferences, events and in-person meetings are not available? What types of tools or resources does your firm use?

As noted above, online resources of various kinds have been helpful. Also, volunteering to be a lecturer or instructor on web-based educational resources has historically provided greater impact for our subject matter experts than by simply being a passive listener. More than ever before, we have encouraged our leaders to become more engaged in this manner. Some of the benefits include:

  • Forces an instructor to research, prepare and convey material to an audience with an appetite to learn.
  • Builds an inventory of presentation materials for cross-beneficial use.
  • Positively impacts the market presence of our firm.

Principal, health care market leader and executive team member Greg Quinn joined Affiliated Engineers Inc. soon after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Working one some of the company’s most prominent projects, Quinn quickly gained expertise in the design of complex health care and research facilities.

Joel Boado joined the Affiliated Engineers Inc.’s Madison office in 2004 as an entry level mechanical engineer, rapidly developing an expertise in facility planning, design and construction. With the breadth of experience gained over years of project work, he applies his expertise additionally to assisting clients with facilities master planning and project budgeting.

Author Bio: Greg J. Quinn, PE, LEED AP, Principal; and Joel Boado, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.