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COVID-19: “Our people, clients and partners are counting on us like never before – through innovation and resilience we will all come out of this stronger”

 

Covid-19 is creating unprecedented challenges for all of us. In the face of such adversity, however, it is inspirational to see how organisations and people in the economic development sector are rising to these challenges to support each other and to ensure that through innovation and resilience we all come out of this stronger.

This was demonstrated in last week’s IED webinar ‘Resilience in crisis: How are economic development and regeneration professionals responding to coronavirus?’ and perspectives from colleagues in the public and private sector. By sharing our innovations and experiences, and collaborating, we can make a real difference – not only in responding to these difficult times but also in developing sustainable and resilient working practices for the future.

Here is my personal experience of how AECOM is responding to this crisis and what we are doing to support our people, our clients and our partners in these extremely difficult times.

Supporting our people

Since the beginning of the crisis we have stayed open and worked remotely. In one day, approximately 7,000 AECOM staff in the UK transitioned to working from home, transforming into a capable remote workforce, leveraging technology and digital tools to continue delivering for our clients. We could not have done that without our most valuable resource, our people.

AECOM already had a well-established flexible working culture in place, called “Freedom to Grow”. This gave employees the freedom to work remotely and flexibly in a way that works for the employees themselves, their teams and our clients. This made the transition to everyone working from home smooth and without disruption.

I believe that the current crisis will lead to a fundamental change in all organisations’ attitudes to flexible working. Any organisations still resisting this should hopefully realise through this experience that it is essential for business resilience and continuity, rather than something to be tolerated or simply a ‘nice-to-have’.

Of course, with everyone working from home come a new set of challenges, particularly in terms of supporting employees. Remote working can blur the lines of work-life balance. Taking care of our mental wellbeing is of particular importance during this period. We have been doing this by providing a range of tools, resources and webinars to support mental health, and by our Employee Assistance Programme offering free and confidential support to all employees.

The Economic Development team is having daily Teams calls to catch up with each other, make sure everyone is doing well and maintain the team spirit (as well as to discuss work!). Colleagues from across the UK and Ireland recently came together digitally for our first virtual Town Hall. The message is clear: we are all in this together and stronger because of it.

Maintaining technical excellence and continuing to support the development of our people is as important as ever. We have moved our project and management documents on to shared platforms to allow real-time editing and make our work more efficient. Successive calls and long virtual meetings can cause fatigue and reduce productivity. We strive to run efficient calls, which last no longer than they have to, and we make sure to allow a short break between calls (e.g. by scheduling them to start at five minutes past the hour or finish five minutes to!).

AECOM has provided a plethora of bespoke new online training courses for all employees, with a particular emphasis on ensuring the highest quality of our work, and the support that we provide to our clients and partners through this challenging time and beyond.

Supporting our clients

We appreciate that our clients are also facing significant challenges as they work through their own response to the coronavirus pandemic. It has been heartening to see that many, like AECOM, are making every effort to continue operating efficiently and safely. AECOM is using its expertise and resources to support NHS Covid-19 emergency projects, such as The NHS Louisa Jordan at the Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow delivering 1,300 temporary beds.

In our sector, the Economic Development team is continuing to support our clients, including local authorities and local enterprise partnerships across the country that urgently need to progress projects such as local plan evidence base work, Future High Street Fund applications, and business case appraisals.

For business case appraisals, as well as our detailed business as usual due diligence, we have developed a bespoke C-19 assessment template which is used to identify issues and any possible mitigations in what is a fast-changing scenario. This is helping the Boards we advise to continue to take timely decisions and have a pipeline of fundable projects integrated into their emerging Local Economic Recovery Plans.

We appreciate that many of our clients are facing resourcing issues with people being off sick, caring for their families or being unable to work. We continue to provide secondments remotely and effectively (e.g. North London Waste Authority) and to reassure our clients that we can maintain business as usual so that we are collectively able to pick up the pace when we gradually return to normality. In fact, some of our clients are using the opportunity to progress or even accelerate work so that their projects are ‘shovel-ready’ when things return to normal and we are doing everything we can to support them.

A particular challenge shared by everyone at the moment is how to engage with stakeholders and conduct meetings and workshops. It is, therefore, critical that we create digital solutions that make it possible to visualise projects, meet virtually and bring communities together in partnership with our clients. AECOM launched a global interactive web-based tool that allows our clients to engage and consult stakeholders from their computer or mobile device during the coronavirus pandemic. By providing a more resilient approach to community engagement, the new tool makes it possible to engage with a wider audience who cannot attend in-person meetings during consultation periods.

Through the new platform, a virtual event can be personalised to show consultation materials including virtual reality and sound demonstrations, videos, maps, plans and pop-up banners. The tool allows for instant feedback so public reaction can be captured and saved for analysis and accurate reporting. There is also a chat function so on-hand experts can remotely answer questions as visitors look around the materials, similar to what would take place during an in-person event. Several of our clients have already signed up to use the public consultation tool, including East Lothian Council, Oxfordshire County Council and Public Health England.

A demonstration of the tool is available to view here: https://consultation.ai/demo/.

Preparing for the return to normality

We do not know when things will return to normal, or indeed what exactly the ‘new normal’ may look like. The recovery is likely to be a gradual process, with possibly some ups and downs along the way. But it is important that we plan for tomorrow, learning lessons from this experience, and focusing on shaping the future of our workplace and how we engage with our partners and clients moving forward.

As a global company, AECOM has the benefit of learning lessons from parts of our Asia-Pacific region where business activity is resuming, and our colleagues – who in some cases have been working remotely since January – are safely returning to offices in Hong Kong and mainland China. Employee screenings, facemasks, staggered work schedules to reduce office density, frequent cleanings, sanitizer stations at key touchpoints and more are all part of the careful choreography required for these times. We are keeping a close eye on their experiences and planning for how we will be able to safely return to our offices here.

All agile organisations must begin preparing now. This includes advancing a safe ‘workplace of the future’ that extends the creativity, resilience and other strengths we have demonstrated during this period. What will the office experience be like? Do we need to rethink hot desking? How do we ensure employee health and wellness? Should we expand remote working policies? What technology is required to advance connectivity and innovation? How can new digital tools and safety processes benefitting AECOM today be extended as services for clients, much like our new virtual public consultation tool? We are hard at work to answer these questions and look forward to sharing more soon.

It is also important that the current challenges do not stop us from investing in our future. Our Talent Acquisition team recently hosted a very successful Virtual Career Fair that attracted over 300 attendees. We have a shortlist of 50 who will be considered for potential future hire when the time is right.

This month marks 30 years since AECOM was founded, building on a legacy of predecessor firms dating back more than 120 years. While these are not the ideal circumstances to celebrate this milestone, we appreciate that our people, our clients and our partners are counting on us like never before. There is no doubt that the expertise of all economic development professionals, in particular, will be needed more than ever to enable the recovery from the significant economic impact of the pandemic.

Ilias Drivylas is Associate Director at AECOM, a member of the Institute of Economic Development

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