Preparing the Construction Workforce for an Upswing

Are architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms prepared for an upswing? More than 80% of CEOs participating in a conference board roundtable see improved economic conditions in the coming months, the highest confidence level since 2004, according to Axios.

While some AEC markets declined during the pandemic, others experienced growth. For example, warehouse construction grew from approximately one-quarter of put-in-place commercial construction in 2015 to nearly half in 2020, representing approximately 18% growth year-over-year. For many AEC companies, 2021 will be a “bridge year,” of recovery in preparation for a possible upswing in 2022.

How do leaders prepare their firms for recovery? By examining foundational elements and making corrections to prepare for growth.

A disruption of significant magnitude, such as COVID-19, forces companies to make adjustments. Pivots made during survival mode often become permanent. In some cases, these changes are positive innovations. However, some changes made hastily during a crisis become cracks in a company’s foundation.

“New hybrid arrangements should never replicate existing bad practices—as was the case when companies began automating work processes, decades ago,” writes Lynda Gratton, in "How to Do Hybrid Right." “Instead of redesigning their workflows to take advantage of what the new technologies made possible, many companies simply layered them onto existing processes, inadvertently replicating their flaws, idiosyncrasies and workarounds. It often was only years later, after many painful rounds of reengineering, that companies really began making the most of those new technologies.”

Below are four areas leaders need to examine to transition out of crisis mode and into growth mode.

Problem areas ignored during profitable seasons become more apparent during challenging times. Changes amplify existing problems. Now is the time to examine operations for inefficiencies and redundancies. Where are bottlenecks slowing down operations? How have processes and procedures changed? Are those processes still necessary? If employees are struggling with basic operations, there will not be sufficient resources to fuel growth.


The work environment is the biggest area of change for many AEC firms. Many firms shifted to a work-from-home model or a hybrid model with a combination of employees working remotely and at the office. As businesses open back up, leaders have to decide what the future work environment will look like. Will employees work remotely or will they be required to come into the office?

Collaboration is common when employees are in close proximity. Collaboration is more challenging in a hybrid environment where the location and hours employees work shifts. Leaders need to emphasize the need for managers who opt to work from home periodically to let their staff know. Now is the time for leaders to set standard protocol for the new work environment.


Communication and knowledge transfer is critical in highly technical fields such as architecture, engineering and construction. The more complicated the work, the more leaders must invest in fostering clear, efficient communication. Now is the time to establish guidelines for communication and knowledge transfer.

Do employees know who to communicate with and when? Are there preferred channels of communication with internal teams, clients and vendors? What is the protocol for who should attend which meetings? Who should be copied on which emails? How can companies retain knowledge from employees spread across geographies or exiting employees?

Leaders can leverage technology to capture, store and share knowledge within a company. To foster knowledge transfer, an employee at Intel used the open-source software that runs to build a platform dubbed “Intelpedia” that allows employees to post and access information. As of 2018, more than 8,700 Intel employees have contributed to the platform. Streamlining communication and knowledge transfer sets the stage for growth.


Crises situations often disrupt mentoring and training efforts. Yet, intentional, structured leadership development is critical for equipping a workforce to deal with adjustments in operations and changes in the market.

Whatever informal mentoring happens in the office disappears in a work-from-home environment. Leadership development and coaching is even more critical when a workforce is spread across geographies or working remotely. Are teams cross-trained? Can the health care team also guide the education projects and the retail sector? How well prepared are NextGen leaders to take the business through a growth phase?

Now is the time for leaders to shift from crisis mode to growth mode, and growth begins at the foundational level.

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