Considering all the impacts of the pandemic on the consulting industry and client relations

Consultants’ Forum 2020


By Ken Campbell, P.Eng., ICD.D, R.V. Anderson Associates Limited

When COVID-19 hit Canada in March of this year, many in the consulting engineering business had never heard of Zoom. Web-X meetings had to be set up by one of our administrative staff, and we watched teams play sports, rather than do our work on Teams. Working from home was something only a few of us did, and the daily commute was a normal part of life.

This has all changed. While some impacts of the pandemic have been negative, it is remarkable that some impacts on our business have been positive and hopefully will become permanent.

Since March, many consultant staff have been working from home. Most proposal and project meetings have been held virtually. Design and drafting work have continued. Construction site inspection and designer site visits have continued, but most construction progress meetings are held virtually. Clients have continued to release requests for proposal and awarded new assignments. Most consultants have been able to utilize new communication technologies to adapt and continue to deliver services, in many cases almost “seamlessly”.

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Positive impacts

An informal poll of staff at R.V. Anderson Associates (RVA) showed there have been some positive impacts. There has been a savings in business travel time. One senior engineer says he is saving two hours a day on average, by not driving to client, construction and business development meetings. The saved time means he gets more done at work and has more time for himself and his family.

Others have said working at home has been great and saved them hours of commuting every day. That results in less stress, reduced travel expenses and less negative impacts on the environment.

Virtual meetings can be more flexible as individuals with specific information or expertise can join the meeting for short periods as needed and computer screens can easily be shared. All participants can better access their own files and can quickly locate photos, drawings or other resources to share in the meeting. Participants can send emails or texts to non-participants to get quick answers to questions that arise during the meeting.

People are generally more available. It used to be that engineers were always out on the road, and it could be difficult to get a group of them corralled for a meeting. Now, meetings can often be organized within a day. Even when individuals are participating in a virtual meeting, they can usually respond about their availability for another meeting or call later in the day. Project roadblocks can be dealt with faster.

Interestingly, virtual meetings tend to start on time. There is less time waiting for stragglers to arrive. Participants aren’t stuck in heavy traffic, or don’t get “ambushed” by someone anxious to speak with them on their way to a meeting room.

In general, most staff are happy with some of the changes, and the consulting industry has been able to continue to deliver its work on time and realize some efficiencies through the move to remote work.

Negative impacts

Unfortunately, there have also been some significant negative impacts caused by the shift in how consulting work is done.

For some, working from home can be a challenge. Staff with young families face a heavy burden of struggling to keep youngsters occupied, while trying to focus on challenging project issues. Some young parents miss their commute, where they had time to mentally “shift gears” from work challenges to home challenges. Some staff have limited home workspaces and much prefer their office workstation. Some staff don’t get out of doors and struggle to get exercise or even a little fresh air.

Staff cut off from the office are also cut off from social connections. This is especially challenging for new staff. RVA has some new employees who have never met any of the people they work with, except through virtual meetings and calls. Getting to know the team and building positive collegial relationships is certainly a challenge for them.

Client relationships can suffer with the lack of in-person client meetings. Small talk, sharing coffee and muffins, having a working lunch, or just talking about items of personal interest is difficult at a virtual meeting. With less positive relationships, it can be harder to collaborate and more difficult to work through project challenges or conflicts. Lack of in-person construction meetings can have the same negative impact on relationships between consultant, owner and contractor staff.

Online meetings have other drawbacks. Sometimes, too many meetings are called. Sometimes, staff mute their microphones, do other work and don’t pay attention. Sometimes, poor Internet connections can make meetings less successful. Sometimes, at large virtual meetings people are too shy to speak up. Meeting chairs need to be better organized and conduct their meetings in a more structured fashion in order to get full input from participants.

Online training is useful, but the loss of in-person professional development activities is a big negative impact. Technical seminars and conferences are key opportunities for staff to meet clients, learn about projects going on in their technical area, chat with suppliers and even compare notes with competitors.

These kinds of events help younger staff to recognize and get excited about their important role in society, contributing to safe roads, safe drinking water, a cleaner environment, healthy communities and a modern, efficient economy.

The most important aspect of professional development is on-the-job training. While virtual meetings and screen sharing help, there is nothing that beats two or three people sitting or standing around a table and grappling with a problem. In the virtual world, it’s not easy to “walk down the hall” and ask for help. In a virtual world, you also can’t overhear a conversation in the lunch room or hallway and offer ideas from your experience that could help solve a problem. So far, the virtual world simply doesn’t replace a buzzing, energetic office environment.

Recommendations for the future

We all hope that successful vaccines will be available soon and that the world can put COVID-19 behind it. When that happens, there are some important things we have learned, and some changes that should become permanent.

We have proven that working from home can be effective. We need to be open to allowing members of our workforce to continue with this arrangement. At the same time, we need to recognize that working in the office helps create a positive social environment, helps new staff get to know people and the organization, and is a better way for active on-the-job training and collaboration. We will need to find a new balance between these two options.

Clients and consultants need to use more virtual meetings than they used pre-pandemic. Routine meetings held virtually can be just as effective, save a lot of time and help the environment.

Proposal call meetings, routine project meetings, routine construction site meetings, and even some public consultation meetings where there are not significant public concerns are candidates for virtual treatment.

At the same time, all key meetings should be in person. These include project or construction start-up meetings where teams can get to know one another; key workshops where important decisions need to be reviewed and discussed; and meetings to discuss challenging issues or conduct negotiations.

We need to optimize the “culture” of virtual meetings. Meeting chairs need to be better organized and more directive. One of our project managers asks that people use the video feature for her meetings whenever possible. That way she can read faces, have better interactions and get to know people a little better. People on video are also less likely to be distracted by other tasks. We also need to get better at not talking over one another.

When the world returns to normal, all employers need to strongly support participation in seminars and conferences. We need these to keep building enthusiasm for our various technical areas and broadening our staff’s knowledge.

In the future, we shouldn’t need a pandemic to embrace technological advances. We need to continually be finding new ways to use technology to increase efficiency in all our operations—consultants, owners, suppliers and contractors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy for many in our world, but it has had both positive and negative impacts on the work of consulting engineers. When the pandemic starts to fade, consulting engineers, their clients, suppliers and contractors will have opportunities to make permanent improvements in staff working environments and development, as well as improvements to efficiency and our overall contributions to our economy and country.

Ken Campbell, P.Eng., ICD.D, is the chairman of R.V. Anderson Associates Limited. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s December 2020 issue.


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