Will the Covid-19 pandemic drive digital transformations?

16 June 2021
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A considerable part of the world’s population has now been in and out of “lockdown” for over a year. Employees have been forced to work remotely and adjust their working lives accordingly. As people return to a changed workplace, what will be the lasting impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the way we will all work?

Like many in our industry working from home was historically discouraged and regarded as one of the ‘perks’ of the job for senior staff. There is value in face-to-face working and, because we’ve always done it, we’ve perfected it. For Amey Consulting the cultural impact of changing to work from home was hard for many.

The cultural challenges to change

People have long believed that technology-enabled remote working could and should work, but there has also been a lack of trust in people, especially those more junior, not to ‘slack off’. We needed an extensive pilot project to prove the value of remote working and to address these concerns.

It has taken a global disaster in the form of Covid-19 pandemic, but we have had one of the biggest unintentional pilot projects in history. We have people working across the UK, Spain and Malaysia, all working effectively and delivering their projects.

Technologically, the limitations of working from home were mitigated by much of our engineering project data being remotely accessible on a centralised collaborative software systems (such as Bentley ProjectWise) and virtual meetings (on MS Teams) already in use around the business. Accessing information on these systems bypasses the Amey Virtual Private Network connection (FortiClient), which helps improve performance on home internet connections.

Crisis and innovation: a brief history

We’ve seen that past economic setbacks have helped fuel innovative growth, Lagarde says. “The 2003 SARS outbreak precipitated an acceptance by Asia Pacific economies to develop stronger digital infrastructure, which increased ecommerce massively. In the same way, after the financial crisis we had in 2008, we saw an increase in something the World Economic Forum has championed – social entrepreneurship.

Similarly, in a recent article by the World Economic Forum, Christine Lagarde explains that: “Digitalization will have an impact in terms of how services are provided…they will probably be less local and more from anywhere in the world. And in the same vein, businesses providing those services will be more challenged from a competition point of view, which may bring about improved productivity.”

And we see this in the way that, when forced to work remotely, we adapted surprisingly quickly, proving that this way of working was viable and, in many ways, beneficial. It has also highlighted some challenges and areas that need improvement if it is to continue successfully.

I believe the need to communicate is a natural thing, but can only virtual communication satisfy that need? Although not a perfect solution, MS Teams does have value, enabling the functional requirements for meetings and collaborative working. But I believe something richer is needed to assist our home-based designers, specifically in assisting with the collaboration and coordination of engineering designs. We need to build on MS Teams by adding interactive collaboration to produce concurrent mark ups, multiple media streams and additional automation within a Common Data Environment.

A vision for the future

Digital transformations have been accelerated in many aspects of life – both professional and personal – as people have adapted to remote working and education, e-commerce is booming, and people are getting more of their recreational activities via the internet. A survey carried out early in the pandemic found that 32% of people in the US were arranging virtual parties with friends or family.

As an industry, we need to move away from things like wet signatures and accept digital signatures on drawings and reports. There may be more development needed with authentication but with this already happening on some ProjectWise projects, it is certainly possible.

Digital processes are reliant on technology and the interoperability of software, which needs to improve. Software should be procured for its features, efficiency and user experience rather than compatibility with other products. More transferable open source!

Yet, exploring new digital possibilities is time-consuming and difficult while meeting project demands.  This needs to be recognised and embraced in our industry.  As we rethink our working environments, we have an opportunity to explore digital possibilities like satellite digital war rooms across the country.

I envisage all project data being standardised and accessible from a cloud based Common Data Environment. Workplaces reduced from rows of desks to a suite of digital ‘war rooms’ consisting of large touch screens on every wall. One running visualisations of the site, one looking at different views of assets, one displaying all the video callers carrying out their concurrent design checks and another for site staff using HoloLens glasses to verify existing data and conditions.

Nature and nurture

The pandemic has showcased the value of new technologies and highlighted the need to accelerate digital transformations around the world. The private sector, too, has an important role to play in creating jobs and income for people through ongoing innovation that brings new products and services to market. But at a time of economic uncertainty, this is a challenge for many businesses. It could cause some to adopt a more cautious outlook, paring back on any investments that aren’t necessary.

I believe the opportunities presented by the pandemic will ultimately have many positive effects on our business and project delivery. Alongside this we must continue to embrace the more traditional practices, especially the very human need for continued, in-person, face-to-face interactions. Human nature demands this need and when it comes to the crunch nature will likely win out, for the time being at least.

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