Professioneel

15 januari 2021

FIDIC: 'Workplace challenges and best practices due to COVID-19'

This article focuses on new and evolved challenges faced by consulting engineering firms in their internal environment with respect to their staff and facilities and their resulting best practices.

 

Information was gathered by FIDIC between 20 November and 4 December 2020 from a variety of sources, including 48 senior leaders in 19 countries* representing 39 firms ranging in size from 15 to 50,000 employees. Note that, while diverse, this sample is by no means statistically balanced with respect to firm size or geography. Some generalisations made are based on aggregated information without attempting to account for exceptions.

 

* Japan (15), Canada (9), South Korea (5), Indonesia (2), New Zealand (2), Spain (2), and (1) each from Italy, India, Iran, Jordan, Mali, Morocco, Sweden, Sudan, Tanzania, Turkey, UK, USA and Zambia.

Working from home during the pandemic

Most employees of most design firms were teleworking from home most of the time during peaks in the Covid waves. Regional differences were evident due to countries being at different levels of lockdown and because of the differing quality of communications infrastructure.

 

  • in Japan and New Zealand only about 50% were teleworking, while in South Korea the figure was barely 10%.
  • in North America about 85% were teleworking; in the Middle East, India and Indonesia about 80%; and in Europe about 70%.
  • Africa had the widest disparities, ranging from 0% to 90% teleworking.

 

For staff that were working from offices, most firms implemented masking, increased office cleaning, improved ventilation, physical barriers and distancing protocols in compliance with their national guidelines or even stricter.

Future of office space

Many firms expect to either delay any increase in office space or to decrease space, with the overall decrease averaging about 15%. There were no discernable geographic trends with the notable exception of South Korea where all firms expressed a strong preference for office-based work and expect no decrease in office space.

However, there does appear to be a correlation with firm size:

 

  • Some larger firms see the opportunity for teleworking to cut costs by reducing space and converting the remaining areas to collaborative space, implementing staggered hours/days, hot-desking or office hoteling.
  • Smaller firms are less likely to reduce space, citing the importance of intimate, collaborative relationships among employees and between employees and clients. These firms also place importance on the physical presence of employees in the office to enable successful on-boarding of new staff, mentoring of staff to ensure successful technical, emotional and social development and immersion of staff in the corporate culture.
  • Most firms foresee a hybrid model where many staff will be given the opportunity to work from home part of the time but preserving a minimum core presence in the office.

Communications with employees and performance evaluations

Prior to the pandemic, many firms were in the process of adopting new communications technologies such as Zoom and Teams. The advent of Covid served to accelerate this process and firms that had not already started were able to deploy rapidly. There is widespread consensus that, following a short transition period, corporate communications with employees have not been impaired. Many firms have placed increased emphasis on communications through frequent, scheduled online town hall meetings enabling management to convey current information to employees, and permitting employees to question and discuss issues of concern. This improvement in corporate communications has raised expectations among employees that this additional effort will be maintained after the pandemic is over.
 
In some firms there is concern that corporate communications have, to some extent, displaced middle-management communications at the branch and division level. A number of firms have attempted to address this by delegating the transmission of corporate messaging to middle management, but the results have been mixed.
 
At the project level, communications have become more formalised, with more scheduled meetings and most firms believe that productivity is better than before. However, there are fewer impromptu discussions, leading to concerns that such things as innovation and the development of peer-to-peer relationships may have suffered.
 
There are mixed opinions regarding performance evaluation, but it was noted that employees with strong communications skills and/or able to work independently are performing more strongly, whereas employees with poor communications skills and/or requiring close supervision are doing less well than before. In the current environment, performance will be evaluated more on production volume and accuracy and less on qualitative and subjective judgements of the individual.

Employee control procedures

In general, internal control procedures such as timesheet approvals and authorisation levels have not changed except that they are now being carried out digitally in cases where they were previously manual. Employees working at home are taking advantage of the opportunity to work flexible hours, but there is no evidence that employees are claiming more hours than actually worked or exceeding their authority levels. On the contrary, the pandemic seems to have brought out the best in people and time saved by not commuting is often used to the benefit of the employer.
 
Although it is too early to be sure, there is a sense that employees are successfully self-monitoring their project budgets with the result that there is no perceivable increase in project write-offs. Project management oversight is trending towards measurement of output rather than monitoring of hours.

Employee independence

Most firms feel that teleworking has encouraged the growth and development of staff to work independently but has also increased the risk of undetected errors in drawings and documents. Some firms have introduced new quality control procedures, but they will only know how effective these have been when projects go to construction.

Teleworking is not satisfactory for new employees and junior employees that depend heavily on interaction with more senior colleagues. Consequently, during the pandemic, firms have been incentivised to rely more heavily on existing staff to work extra hours rather than hiring additional staff or new graduates. 

Some firms fear that ‘independence’, with all its positive attributes, can too easily become ‘isolation’, with all its negative consequences.

Employee morale and purpose

There is concern that the use of technology has resulted in a colder social environment, and mentoring, training and supervision are less effective. Steps that firms have taken to maintain morale, purpose and a sense of community include:

 

  • Extreme focus on communications (town hall meetings; employee bulletins; intranet Covid information page; celebration of project wins, awards and anniversaries; messaging focussed on staff and family welfare; anonymous question and answer forum with the president; employee surveys).
  • A generous provision of home office furniture, computers, screens, internet access, personal protective equipment, company-branded clothing and one-time Covid bonus.
  • Joint staff/client webinars delivered by either internal staff or external guests.
  • Increased subsidy of online education.
  • Company-supported virtual events such as socials; meet and greet for new employees; Toastmaster meetings; webinars on equality/inclusion/diversity and health/safety.
  • Provision of Covid testing, Covid insurance and improved sickness benefit for Covid.

Employee mental health

Some firms don’t feel there is a problem. A survey of teleworking by one large Japanese firm found improvements in most aspects of health, including reductions in mental stress, smoking, and drinking and improved sleep. The only reported negative consequence was weight gain.

 

Most firms perceive employee mental health as an invisible enemy. Steps taken by some firms, in addition to those already mentioned, include:

 

  • Monitor attendance/absence at meetings and social events to identify uncharacteristic behaviour.
  • Monitor hours worked for signs of workaholism, and ensure buffers between meetings.
  • Ensure a confidential Employee Assistance Programme is in place, including an intranet website with a mental health toolkit, and encourage exercise and fresh air.
  • Implement a Peer Buddy System and scheduled one-on-one check-ins with a supervisor.
  • Make the office as safe and welcoming as possible, so that employees that need social interaction can find it there.
  • Allow maximum flexibility of hours and work location.

Employee-related best practices

The practices that most firms found to be successful were:

 

  • Extreme focus on openness and communications between leadership and staff.
  • Training and implementation of on-line tools for communications, resource-sharing, and interactions with remote staff.
  • Maximise flexibility of working hours and location.
  • Provide teleworking employees with technology, office furniture, corporate clothing, small bonuses, enhanced benefits etc., recognising that the modest expense is usually repaid many times over.
  • Recognise the importance of the office environment to teamwork and social life and ensure a safe and welcoming environment for those that need it.
  • Implement the highest possible standards of sanitisation, ventilation, distancing and barriers at the office.
  • Appreciate the value of regular, scheduled, but short project meetings, whether online or in-person
  • Reduce travel time and cost by meeting online and using video/scanning tools to reduce construction site visits.
  • Appreciate the importance of management agility in adapting to new situations.
  • Emphasise the value of consulting engineering associations in facilitating frequent but informal meetings of company leaders at national and regional levels to share best practices in real time.
  • Improve protocols for providing clear instructions for junior employees working independently

 

Less successful initiatives were:

 

  • Some firms found in retrospect that cost-cutting and staff reductions implemented early in the pandemic were more cautious than needed, creating unnecessary staff anxiety. However, these firms preferred that they had over-reacted rather than under-reacting.
  • Some firms found that online social events were popular at first, but employee interest eventually waned.
  • Some firms found that employees are not initially enthusiastic about hot-desking and office-hoteling. The models need to be refined to provide employees with a sense of belonging.

Feedback on this article?

Please let us know if this information was useful and if there are aspects that require further examination. Also, please share with us if your experience differs from what is outlined above. You can find our contact details here.

Source: FIDIC bulletin 1 on Workplace Challenges and Best Practices


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