In March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first started shutting the doors of “non-essential” businesses and ushered in the greatest work from anywhere experiment of our lifetimes, many architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms transitioned to remote work for the first time.
While many AEC firms began this transition with a fair share of trepidation about conducting work remotely— as historically paper-heavy industries, who can blame them?— now, over six months after they began adjusting to their new remote work lifestyles, these same firms are thriving thanks in large part to remote communication and collaboration technology.
Here are the top AEC firms who have found success working from anywhere, thanks to remote tech tools keeping them productive and on schedule, all the while prioritizing their employees' health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When COVID-19 sent this Rotterdam-based architecture firm to shelter in place in their home offices, they leaned on cloud-based teleconferencing platforms to stay connected. Additionally, they used digital modeling to continue operations as usual from their respective safe locations. “Within one week, we organized all 250 of our staff members on a secure server so they could work from home,” says Inger Kammeraat, CEO of MVRDV.
Tom Wilcock, digital services leader of this Utah based firm, believes that COVID-19 has sped up the industry’s advancement of digital design tools. “We’ve been active in the digital transformation of the built environment for many years; the pandemic is accelerating that already existing trend,” he says. His firm relies on Virtual Engage software, which integrates digital building models and virtual reality, for remote client presentations and due to its success, they plan to continue this reliance on remote tech even after it is safe to return to on-site work.
This Denmark and Manhattan based firm is ready to embrace the digital future of architectural design. Bjarke Ingels is currently working on a tool that uses augmented reality to allow for 3D design and collaboration. “The big challenge for any architect is to shorten the gap between what you are capable of imagining and what you are capable of delivering,” says Ingels. “And often a lot is lost in the translation from data to matter, from idea to building.” According to Ingels, as long as the scalable capacity of 3D printers can support it, there is nothing else stopping the future of architecture to be all-digital.
Jon McNeal, director of this Norwegian firm, initially assumed that COVID-19 would force a change in how office spaces are laid out, but now believes that the pandemic will completely change everything about the way architects work. “This shift away from tethering designers to computers and desks towards mobile workstations has already changed how teams collaborate: Design models can develop more rapidly and contain more detail than ever before; reports and presentations can be edited from any place with a data signal,” said McNeal.
Although this California based firm was utilizing video conferencing software to keep their remote team members connected before COVID-19 forced all of their employees to work remotely, they still faced challenges embracing their new reality. For example, they had to transition their biannual Global Engineering Days event into a new, virtual event known as Project INgage. While this change took some getting used to, thanks to expansive video conferencing platforms, this new format allowed Intuit to connect teams from around the world that otherwise would have missed out on the event.
While some firms had experience dabbling with remote work tech for the occasional flexible work schedule before COVID-19, many never had to test it on a broad scale. Due to the remote work success that this Maine-based firm found when they did transition to working from anywhere, CEO Douglas McKeown has considered closing some on-site office locations permanently. “Now that we see what is possible through technology, we may decide that we don’t need the amount of office space we thought we did, or that the standard workday isn’t necessarily what we thought it was. We may have a completely new normal,” said McKeown.
Due to an industry wide increase in remote tech tools over the past few years, some organizations such as this Boston based firm already had the necessary tools on hand to seamlessly transition their entire workforce remotely. “In less than 48 hours, all of our nearly 5,000 employees were set up and fully functional in their own protected space,” says Anthony Bouchard, president of CDM Smith. And while this smooth transition was the result of years of technology investments for the firm, that in no way diminishes the reality of how well their employees work from home.
This organization has been providing support to AEC firms through artificial intelligence since its creation. At the onset of COVID-19, CEO Josh Kanner quickly modified this AI technology to include new social distancing requirements on work sites into its reports. As construction sites continue to embrace AI and advancements in remote technology, AEC industries will surely see long-term positive impacts on safety and productivity.
For an industry that in the past has been hesitant to adopt digital innovations, COVID-19 has prompted construction tech startups to embrace remote tech devices such as 3D scanning and remote inspection tools. "The current pandemic has been an accelerator in moving the construction industry through digital transformation faster than most had planned," said Darren Bechtel, founder and managing director at Brick & Mortar Ventures.
When COVID-19 made in-person meetings and on-site visits impossible, many AEC firms focused on transitioning their teams to remote work. Tyler Sosin, a partner at Menlo Ventures, instead looked past COVID-19. He believes that once firms are able to clearly see the benefits of regularly utilizing remote and cloud-based tools to keep their teams connected they will digitize the rest of their organization as well. "The demand for tools to operate in a post-COVID environment will be important as people spend more time thinking about how they can be more collaborative without on-site visits," said Sosin.
To join these top AEC firms who have successfully utilized technology to stay connected and productive during COVID-19, download the Meeting Owl Guide for Architecture, Engineering, and Construction and join the Build From Anywhere movement.