New Realities: AEC Employee Perspectives on Reopening

briefcase and maskFor much of the last year, business leaders and public health experts have believed that it would be safe to resume in-office work at around the same time that schools reopened in fall 2021. With summer at an end, some of our clients have implemented this transition, while others have delayed their timelines dues to recent surges in the COVID-19 pandemic. Whenever AEC firms are finally able to move forward with reopening plans, work is likely to look very different than it did before the pandemic. In a February 2021 survey of AEC firm leaders, most leaders reported that they planned to adopt hybrid work arrangements, allowing employees to work remotely on a regular basis while working the balance of their time from their firms’ offices.

Early this summer, as many firms began to implement transitions to post-pandemic working arrangements, we wondered how employees were experiencing these shifts. How had they experienced the shift from in-office work to remote work? What were their perspectives on the change management process as they transitioned to new post-pandemic working arrangements? Finally, how and where did they want to work going forward? We suspected that employer and employee perspectives might differ on these issues. We also suspected that there might be important justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion considerations, with professionals experiencing these issues differently on the basis of race, gender, age or parental status.

To explore these issues, our team designed a 24-question survey and sent it to a cross-section of our clients with the request that they ask all of their employees to respond. Nearly 50 firms from across the country participated, yielding 1, 335 completed responses. The survey was conducted from June 25 – July 14, 2021.  The full research report can be downloaded here.

What We Learned
The data that we collected through these efforts reveals several key trends:

AEC professionals overwhelmingly support hybrid work, which allows individuals to split their time between the office and remote locations. The vast majority of AEC professionals – 93% – would prefer to mix their time between remote and in-office settings going forward. Moreover, 1 in 5 professionals say that they are likely or very likely to leave their employer within the next 12 months if their preferred working arrangements aren’t supported. Those who are most interested in remote and hybrid work are also most willing to consider changing employers in order to adopt their preferred working arrangement.

Getting hybrid right is a JEDI Issue: Women, BIPOC professionals, and parents of young children are most likely to want hybrid work options – and most willing to leave their jobs if their preferences aren’t met. Our research also shows that individuals who identified as members of these groups were more likely than others to have experienced the shift from in-office to remote work operations positively, citing increased well-being, personal productivity, and even increased levels of connection to colleagues in some cases. Implementing just and equitable hybrid work models might therefore become a key component of firms’ broader JEDI action plans.

To retain top talent, firm leaders may need to adopt progressive policies and culture. While nearly 3 in 4 professionals indicate that their firms will be offering some form of hybrid work option (just 2% say that remote work won’t be allowed), 62% of professionals also believe that their employers would prefer that all employees return to the office full-time when it’s safe to do so. This disconnect between stated policy and leaders’ preferences for employee behavior is linked to significant confusion regarding the specific policies and cultural expectations associated with firm’s high-level hybrid work plans. Less than half of AEC professionals believe that these specifics regarding how hybrid work will function have been communicated clearly. Meanwhile, employees crave greater cultural and logistical support for hybrid work: the most common forms of support that employees wished to receive from their employers during the transition to post-pandemic work included establishing core hours when team members would be available for collaboration, setting clear communication and collaboration guidelines for hybrid teams, adopting calendaring tools that would enable teams to know when and where colleagues are working, and providing tools and equipment to support hybrid work.

In today’s competitive recruitment and retention environment, hybrid work may become an important differentiator for AEC employers. This is especially true as employers consider the needs and preferences of a diverse workforce. With most firms offering some form of hybrid work option, however, firms that are experimenting with these arrangements might be able to better set themselves apart by focusing on adopting mindsets, behaviors and systems that will make these working arrangements equitable and sustainable in the long run. This more holistic approach to integrating remote and hybrid work into firm culture and operations will be complex but will also afford significant opportunities for learning and evolution as teams adjust to new modes of collaboration and more customizable ways of working.