Pandemic effects on technology within the infrastructure sector

By Rich Plumery, SVP Project Delivery & Controls, AECOM

Rich Plumery, SVP Project Delivery & Controls, AECOM
Rich Plumery, SVP Project Delivery & Controls, AECOM
In the spirit of full disclosure, my role and background would not be considered a technical IT role, although I often lead software implementations related to our project delivery population. My role is to oversee project delivery support for over 50,000 projects annually in AECOM’s, the world’s premier infrastructure consulting firm, business in the Americas, providing project teams the resources, training, processes, systems and tools needed to accomplish our project delivery goals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we do business and how we navigate the workplace of the future. This pandemic disrupted our entire industry, forcing most professionals to abandon their typical field or office routines. We were made to rethink the way we do business.
After the health and safety concerns for our employees and clients were addressed, our immediate focus became quality. How could we still deliver a quality product to our clients with the new hurdles presented by the pandemic? As I often state “You can’t check the quality into the work, quality comes from an engaged staff”. This was a multifaceted issue which required us to reimagine how we use the systems and tools already at our disposal. Many challenges arose from this exploration including:
  • How would our VPN handle the increased volume?
  • How would our design modeling platforms hold up from a control and performance perspective?
  • How would we create adequate training environments with our current training platforms?
  • How would we get new hires onboarded, equipped and trained?
  • How could we use our current tools to continue our quality control processes and maintain employee engagement, which is the core element to good quality?
  • How would we properly validate progress in design and construction?
  • How would we address tool repair and dysfunction issues with a remote workforce?
Of course, we learned some lessons as we addressed these questions.
One key take-away was the impracticality of rapidly testing solutions at the volume and at a diversity scaling that would be commensurate with the actual environment. The sudden surge in staff working from home allowed us to note areas of improvement in systems and tools that had been deployed for months or even years. Although new patches were tested thoroughly, we had to adjust and adapt when patches were deployed globally and linked in with other applications. We learned you must be willing to adapt with a robust hyper care system to help coach users, answer questions, and instill patience.
We learned the value of cloud solutions and applications that did not require special VPN access – new and improved security protocol improvements were implemented to promote a more protected environment.
We accelerated focus on digital solutions and virtual reality and augmented reality platforms. These innovations, including our virtual consultation tool, were essential in helping our customers conduct site walk downs, envision design elements, and conduct environmental and other stakeholder input meetings. This allowed easier public access for their input to environmental related projects.
The challenge presented by the ever-widening experience gap in our industry was exacerbated by this pandemic. The increasing number of people retiring combined with the lack of students graduating in a STEM discipline or looking for careers in the trades is a significant industry concern. I like to say, “you can’t train experience,” but we must find learning platforms more conducive to providing simulated environment experiences in order to succeed in bridging the experience gap. Re-evaluating the way we mentor, coach and train newer employees in a virtual environment caused us to adjust learning environment tools.
As I stated earlier, employee engagement is vital. When teams are engaged, they band together to tackle issues. We held a global contest encouraging employees to present out-of-the-box solutions and ideas of what the future of work might look like for our company. They responded in spades, offering ideas on every aspect of our work environment, and many of those ideas were able to be implemented. Engagement and collaboration are also crucial in the areas of design, design checking and constructability reviews, which moved us to implement collaborative platforms more rapidly.
Technologies that facilitate lean construction approaches, such as pull planning in a virtual environment, are extremely helpful but developing the working relationship, mutual understanding and commitment bond are still important and need to be addressed.
These learnings and the process of making the required adjustments allowed us to become stronger in many areas of our business and improve our quality while effectively managing the other risks associated with the pandemic.
Looking ahead, this year will certainly bring fresh challenges as our industry continues to adapt to the new normal. I’m confident that any challenges also present great opportunity to leverage technology in unexpected and meaningful ways.