New Realities: Future of the AEC Workplace

In March 2020, most AEC firms made an abrupt shift from nearly universal on-site or in-office work to remote work in response to the global health crisis. Today, with COVID-19 cases on the decline and more than half of the US adult population fully vaccinated, many of our clients are planning to safely reopen their offices.

While office closures occurred in the context of crisis response, these reopenings present a strategic opportunity to reflect and to intentionally recalibrate patterns in where, how, when, and with whom we work. The decisions that leaders make in the coming months regarding remote work policy, office space, and expected norms and behaviors will have lasting impacts on organizational culture, both within individual firms and in our industry at-large. So, how should firm leaders go about making these decisions? What has been learned from our year at home? What working patterns and relationships seem possible now, after our collective experiment with remote work? What will the role of the AEC office be going forward? Finally, what challenges do leaders anticipate as they reopen their offices and implement new norms and policies?

We explored this topic in Cameron MacAllister Group’s ‘New Realities’ survey of AEC firm leaders, representing many of the best architecture, engineering, and construction firms in the U.S. and Canada.

Below are some findings from the survey. The full research report can be downloaded here.

Lessons Learned from Remote Work
When we surveyed firm leaders about remote work in June 2020, we learned that most were experiencing remote work more positively than anticipated, with approximately 4 in 5 firm leaders reporting that they viewed remote work more favorably as a result of their experience with remote work during the initial months of the pandemic. When asked about the impacts of remote work on their people and their business approximately 9 months later, perceptions of remote work were more mixed: while the vast majority of firm leaders reported that productivity remained the same or had increased over the last year, firm leaders also reported that remote work, combined with the ambient stresses of 2020, had taken a widespread toll on employee well-being. As many in our industry contemplate new hybrid and remote work arrangements, it will therefore be critical to carefully assess the impacts of these new policies on employee engagement, well-being, and retention over time.

The New Normal is Nearly Here
In February 2021, most firm leaders reported that they had already reopened their offices, or planned to by the end of the third quarter of 2021. However, most reported that the transition to the new normal wasn’t yet complete. Many who had already reopened reported a gradual process, with reduced capacity and employees coming in on a voluntary basis. Others – about 1 in 4 – indicated that they hadn’t yet set a reopening date, instead preferring to wait for reduced health risks, widespread vaccinations, or the re-openings of schools and daycares. On our call with survey participants, we heard both real enthusiasm about teams coming back together in person and a widespread recognition that many outstanding questions of logistics, policy, and culture needed to be resolved to ensure a smooth transition to the new normal.

Hybrid Work is Likely to Become the New Normal
Findings from our survey suggest that widespread adoption of remote work policies is likely in AEC firms of all sizes following the acute phase of the pandemic. Only 1% of participating firms indicated that they didn’t plan to allow remote work going forward. Meanwhile, just over half of our respondents indicated that they had decided to allow all staff to work remotely on at least a weekly basis after the pandemic, with 34% reporting that remote work would be allowed 1-2 days a week, 17% reporting that remote work would be allowed three or more days a week, and 1% reporting that staff would be allowed to work fully remotely. 21% reported that remote work would be allowed on a case-by-case basis. Finally, about 1 in 4 firms surveyed indicated that they hadn’t yet decided what their remote policy would be going forward.

Decision-making status and anticipated remote work policy varied significantly on the basis of firm size, with larger multi-office firms embracing remote work more enthusiastically than firms with a single location. Almost half (48%) of leaders of firms with a single office reported that they had yet to determine remote work policy, compared with 18% of firms with multiple offices. Meanwhile, just 5% of single-office firms planned to allow staff to work remotely 3 or more days a week, while 22% of firms with multiple offices planned to do so. We’re curious to see whether this shift in the firm policy landscape will alter longstanding industry employment patterns wherein working caregivers, and particularly those with primary caregiving responsibilities, are most likely to choose to work for the smallest firms and least likely to work for the largest ones.

AEC Offices Reimagined
With the anticipated embrace of hybrid work models, wherein many employees will work from home on a regular basis, the anticipated role of the AEC office is changing. When asked about the role of the office going forward, firm leaders were most likely to cite collaborative and social functions, indicating that “collaboration, generating ideas in teams,” “social interaction, a sense of community” and “mentorship, teaching younger staff” would be their offices primary functions. Just 3% believed that one of their office’s primary functions would be “focused solitary work,” suggesting that many are reconsidering the traditional production studio model of an AEC workplace. Participants in our call suggested that the office will also continue to play an important symbolic role, demonstrating a firm’s character, capacities, and values to clients and employees.

With the role and average occupancy of offices shifting, most leaders (58%) anticipate making changes to their office spaces. Anticipated changes ranged from making social distancing measures permanent to reducing space allocated to personal workstations to introducing new or enhanced collaborative spaces and technologies. In addition to these changes to existing office space, many on our call reported allowing leases to expire during the pandemic, with plans to move into new spaces later this year. Several indicated that their new spaces would enable them to cut overhead costs, either by reducing footprint or by reopening in new, lower-cost locations.

Navigating Hybrid Work
As firm leaders craft their reopening strategies, many foresee significant challenges. Survey responses clearly demonstrated that our year-long experiment with remote work hasn’t prepared us for the cultural and managerial complexities of hybrid work. Both in their survey responses and on our call, firm leaders shared a range of concerns regarding the shift to hybrid work, ranging from questions of equity between employees in and out of the office to managerial concerns regarding employees whose appetite for remote work exceeds that of their employers to logistical challenges associated with maintaining both in-office and remote work locations for employees.

Navigating this change successfully will require clear policies and reopening plans, training on how to collaborate or lead a team in a hybrid work environment, ongoing communication with employees and managers, and regular monitoring of the impacts of new policies on employee productivity, well-being, and development and making adjustments as required. This is a moment of tremendous potential for our industry, as we explore new and more satisfying, and efficient ways of working that seemed impossible just 15 months ago. We all need to take time to reflect and plan, to communicate, and to learn from one another as we move into this new era of post-pandemic work.