Construction firms catapult into the virtual work world
From established home offices, makeshift workstations in bedrooms and kitchen tables cluttered with kids’ schoolwork, construction professionals are keeping an industry alive through their sudden, sweeping adoption of telework.
Following the rush in March to make sure employees had the laptops, Internet connections and software packages essential to continuing their work, companies began honing processes to help employees, clients and project partners become more adept, productive and supported in this dramatically altered work world. Some BC&E member companies shared some best practices they have implemented to date.
At BALA|SVA Consulting Engineers, the sprint to a fully remote workforce was not so much a challenge of deploying technology but a process of “people and training whack-a-mole,” said Matt Ezold, Director of Digital Planning.
By mid-March, the company was three months into a six-month rollout of a platform supporting online collaboration, video conferencing and other remote work capabilities. Employees possessed the technology but had only started to receive training.
BALA|SVA addressed the situation by creating a “proactive help desk,” Ezold said. “The minute we got more than five requests for ‘how do I do this,’ we created a quick video and posted it onto Teams.”
Ezold started popping into online meetings to remind participants of best practices, such as muting microphones, and providing individual help to people who were struggling.
Gradually, the videos and other training materials are moving on to additional features of the telework technologies.
“As we do that, the quality and efficiency of work goes up,” Ezold said. “If we can get five percent improvement every week, after a month or two that will amount to huge improvements in the quality of collaboration.”
Suddenly transitioning a highly collaborative and relationship-based industry, like construction, to online meetings is no small challenge, and it doesn’t succeed without thoughtful efforts.
BALA|SVA instituted a schedule of team meetings and a “video-first culture” that requires everyone to turn on their webcams. As a result, all 200 employees are able to connect with colleagues, raise issues and get updated information from management every day by 9 am.
“Managers who are used to managing people in person don’t always realize how valuable incidental interactions with their staff are,” Ezold said. The daily meetings help those managers “understand the pulse of their teams – who’s doing well and who’s not – which is important because people don’t always ask for help.”
Realizing that “the learning curve for online meeting systems has been pretty incredible and immediate,” Plano-Coudon Construction adopted new standards for conducting online meetings with clients and project partners, said Kimberly Kohlhepp, Business Development Manager. Those include sending out meeting agendas and relevant documents in advance so that participants can better prepare and don’t have to rely solely on assessing documents shared on screen.
Although Plano-Coudon has its preferred systems for online meetings, it offers to use whatever platform the client or partner is most comfortable with. Since web services are being strained by the number of people now working from home, the company also tries to use meeting platforms that allow participants to call in should their streaming falter.
Not every company was fortunate enough to have all the software, hardware and bandwidth in place when COVID-19 suddenly required employees to stay home.
Brawner Builders, for example, was a few weeks shy of getting a fiber connection to its offices when it switched to telework. Challenged by limited bandwidth, the company began educating employees on best practices for connecting to its VPN (virtual private network), said Erik Bird, Vice President of Information Technology. It advised employees to download files to local storage, make changes there and then upload the revised documents. The company also temporarily moved some files to the cloud to ease access.
The last few weeks have enabled the company to learn more about technologies that can easily help sustain productivity in the midst of a crisis.
“For phone service, we use RingCentral, which is one of the many VOIP providers out there,” Bird said. “That service allowed our receptionist to unplug her phone from her desk, take it home with her and she can still answer phones and transfer calls just as she did while sitting in the office.”
THE HUMAN TOUCH
Fueling productivity among remote workers also requires creating opportunities to exhale. BALA|SVA created a “water cooler” site on Microsoft Teams where employees could pop in for casual chats. The posts, Ezold said, trended from photos of employees’ home work space to photos of pets and kids to discussions of ways to take breaks from work and the news cycle. Communications from Plano-Coudon’s leadership have included anecdotes about the challenges of working at home and sparked discussions about how to set effective house rules when your new workplace is filled with children, Kohlhepp said. “It’s important to acknowledge the challenges that everyone is facing now…and understand that work-life balance is more essential now than ever.”