The post-pandemic world knows that digital transformation is the key to business survival. During this past year, the AEC industries have had to adopt a digital environment and start looking for ways to improve their internal technology adoption. But what does digital life post-COVID really look like? What challenges arise with digital adoption, and how can we continue accelerating forwards?
To answer these questions and more, Mail Manager hosted an APAC webinar with guest speakers Gavin Crump, Founder & BIM Consultant at BIM Guru, Jeames Hanley, National Digital Technology Manager at Gray Puksand, and Tylney Taylor, Head of Digital Engineering at Lendlease.
State of the AEC industry in 2021
The global construction industry is set to grow by 5.2% in 2021, even while recovering from COVID-19. Supporting this movement of growth, Deloitte recently reported that AEC firms around the world have been responding to new work, workforce and workplace norms, and are working towards bridging the ongoing skills gaps in the era of digital transformation in the industry.
How the industry is responding to digital transformation
The new ways of working brought about by the pandemic have changed a lot of things within the industry, but email is still the number one form of project correspondence in the industry. Mail Manager put together a research report in 2021 where 75% of respondents noted that they used email for 70% of more of their projects. COVID has made email and collaboration more important than ever, with another 80% of our survey respondents indicating they believe collaboration tools generally have become more important during the pandemic, including BIM & financial software.
Gavin Crump commented: “One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in regards to transforming how we work is we’re a lot more reliant on cloud technology and collaborative platforms that force us to not only collaborate externally, but also internally… [During the pandemic] there was a move to platforms like BIM360 which were able to establish something closer to a common data environment, and as a result I saw more clients get involved in those platforms as well because there were less in-person meetings.”
Jeames Hanley added: “I think this move has brought people’s thinking so far forward about ‘where’s my information stored and how do I access it?’ When we’re talking about information storage or data storage, multiple platforms, whether it’s on-prem servers or OneDrive Cloud, all of these different areas put the IT team into the conversation more than ever before. I think we’ve seen business partners and leaders paying a bit more attention to the yearly budgets, and looking at where we’re spending the money, how we’re spending it and are we getting the best value for money in terms of continually pushing money into platforms where we might not be using the entire platform. Streamlining what we’re using and how we’re using it has been a big focus for us.”
Gavin responded: “Also consolidating some functions into multiple from multiple places. I saw a lot of companies get more dedicated towards building up things like SharePoint and storing more things on platforms like Teams. Even if they’re not necessarily always the best places to store them, we’re noticing an effort to bring some company efforts together.”
The importance of collaboration tools in the post-pandemic AEC industry
When discussing the initial lockdown in Australia, Jeames commented: “Everything really had to jump the bridge in terms of platforms and digitisation. I think now, 12-months on, everyone was pushed into that scenario of going on to Teams and Zoom and all those applications. But now, we’ve actually had time to catch up, breathe and ask ourselves ‘what does the next one, three or five years look like?’.” He continued: “AEC businesses need to think about the future in terms of you’re not always going to have everyone in the office all the time.”
Tylney Taylor added: “It’s interesting because AEC is very much a collaboration game. It’s all about working together and it's really complex getting all the different parties together. Quite often there are inconsistencies and things that need to be worked out. That is now the new norm.”
Embracing new technologies and digital transformation
Everywhere you look, experts are shouting about how the AEC must continue to embrace new technologies and keep up with digital transformation for the industry to thrive. Gavin mentioned: “It’s been interesting to see that the quality between the people working the best and most collaboratively compared to the ones that are a bit behind. It’s really starting to become quite obvious now that expectations are raising from an industry but also a client perspective.”
He continued: “It’s become quite obvious to me that some people really shoot ahead of the pack, and others are either staying where they are, which is naturally going to put them behind.”
Jeames echoed this sentiment and added: “We might see a case of the digital haves and have nots.” He later commented: “If companies aren’t using new technologies and they don’t want to spend the money on it, we can’t really push it. Whereas other companies with the largest scale see the value and will invest in it. I wonder if we’ll see a diverging of companies on who’s willing to back technology and who isn’t.”
Gavin added: “Project quality is going to keep going down. The clients are going to be less flexible unless they are innovative, and what’s going to make projects less innovative is budgets are going to become tighter. The turnarounds are going to get less reasonable and people are going to be less happy. It’s a bit of a volatile situation potentially if you don’t have your house in order and win the right type of work by having the right types of systems in place.”
When talking about the added cost of companies being innovative Tylney mentioned: “People haven’t really looked at it from a holistic perspective of ‘that’s the foundation’. If you get that right, you can start using computer systems effectively to do calculations, better collaboration so things can streamline… If we get those foundations right, then you can start collaborating a lot more using computer systems and come up with ways to create a lot of value.”
The panellists then went on to discuss how innovation is specifically impacting the AEC industry, particularly for architectural firms where newcomers are disrupting the sector.
Tylney lead the conversation by saying: “ What I see there is that we need to get to a stage where the manager or the digital engineer isn’t seen as the interface to a computer, where quite often people come in who don’t want to embrace it or don’t have the time to embrace working with these new tools. I think there’s a huge opportunity for the business or the AEC industry, especially the architecture industry to review how they can continue to add value. Traditionally, they’ve been squeezed out of the market and do less or get less and less of the overall pie.
“Where they want to be is all the way across the process and be custodians of the data, from intent through the design, all the way through and actually ensuring that the right kind of design is ultimately delivered, or at least the design information is properly managed, to be able to provide the new digital virtual deliverable that is now real. There’s an opportunity in the market that could readily be embraced by the architectural kind of fraternity.”
Remote working, rebuilding and restructuring after the pandemic
In the final part of our panel discussion, Gavin, Jeames and Tylney were asked what they think about remote working, and how they expect the industry will begin to rebuild after the pandemic.
On remote working, Jeames commented: “Teams and other online platforms did the job and continue to do the job, but people are craving that face-to-face communication. We are such a collaborative industry across all sectors, and sometimes we need to get around a table and discuss what is going on with a project or whether we agree on a specific design. I think work from home is going to be interchangeable with flexible working in the future, and I think it will always continue…”
Tylney added: “The challenge for businesses, overall, will be ‘how do we really work in this hybrid space?’ How do we allow people with different functions and different ways of working to do have what they need? I think that hybrid will stay, and that will be a real challenge around being a real estate company. What does that mean for office spaces and commercial going forward?”
Tylney continued: “ Right now I think companies are making people want to come back because that’s what they’ve invested in for the next two to three years on the lease contracts.”
Jeames also brought up the logistic issues that arise from having a remote or hybrid workforce. He said: “As a design technology manager, and managing upwards of 30 software, we are struggling with how we push out software updates or patches for up to 130 computers, 70 of which right now are in lockdown in Melbourne. So how do we actually make sure that the software is up to date?
On having dispersed project teams working together interstate, Jeames commented: “If we’ve got staff within a project and they’re working from Melbourne during lockdown, Sydney and Brisbane , the Sydney and Brisbane computers will be easy to get to for an update, but when we have to roll out an update over VPN, that’s seven or eight gigs. How are we going to do that over VPN connections when we’re locked in? It can be really hard to manage.”
On the topic of how the industry will look like in the coming years, Gavin commented: “Restructuring after the pandemic is a bit of a tricky one because a lot of companies got rid of middle managers. From my experience, I know a lot of friends who were made redundant went into consulting, and it would be quite hard to entice them back into that working model, especially once they saw that maybe their company didn’t necessarily respect holding on to people in these roles. But once projects come back, they are pretty much the glue of holding together the operations of projects. There’s a lot for companies to think about… There’s two sides of the coin, but I’m sure a lot of people will be going in on higher salary expectations now to build in their own redundancy packages.”
Tylney added: “We’re on the other side of the fence… We’ve certainly held on to as much of the team as we could, and right now we’re seeing demand going through the roof. We’ve been looking for digital generic managers for six months and haven’t been able to find people. We also don’t have the influx from overseas, so we can’t get people from overseas that previously helped out on that front. I think there’s a huge opportunity for not just universities but other educational institutions or even businesses to build managers.”
Thank you to all our panelists for providing their insights on a very interesting discussion. If you’d like to hear more about what was discussed, you can access the full webinar via our YouTube channel.
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