#Big5Asks: Drue Newcomb, Director at P&T Architects & Engineers Limited
The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is severely impacting the lives of billions of people around the world, and businesses are facing unprecedented challenges. We take a seat with Drue Newcomb, P&T's Director, to hear his insights into how to address these challenges in the construction sector.
Q: What are the major challenges you faced as a business in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: As an architecture and engineering consultancy firm, our main challenge is to address the changing work conditions for our staff, who are located in many countries and regions of the world.
Not only are they located within offices managed by us, they also work at construction sites that are managed by Contractors. Therefore, our response needs to be specific to both the country and workspace location of individual staff members.
Q: What are the first steps you took to address these challenges?
A: P&T has recently celebrated its 150 year anniversary, and we’ve weathered many regional and global interruptions to standard business routines. The most recent and similar event that the company had faced was the 2003 SARS-virus outbreak. From this event we understood the potential for contagions to disrupt office productivity and potentially create an unsafe working environment for the staff.
Looking at the present pandemic outbreak, prior to the UAE government initiatives of social distancing, we already had in place hand sanitization facilities at all our office entrances, and provided in-house prayer room facilities, while limiting the number of people allowed in meeting rooms.
However, where we have been most successful was our ability to harness the significant advances in IT and internet related technologies to allow staff to work and collaborate remotely.
Q: And what solutions would you say were most successful?
A: There is not one most successful solution to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but rather a successful mindset.
Understanding and appreciating that people are adaptable and enjoy working is perhaps the biggest key to successfully unlocking the ability for architecture and engineering consultancy companies to remain fully productive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With this in mind, it is essential to provide the necessary and most efficient tools to the staff to achieve this objective. Flexibility and adaptability are also key to success.
Q: Are remote working and social distancing having an impact on your industry?
A: The advances in information technology, both in the transmission of written information and the communication revolution of VOIP services, have allowed us to maintain our productivity. Not all companies have been as agile in the transition into remote working, however, we expect the industry to adapt quickly.
We believe all construction design professionals should be working unaffected within the next couple of weeks.
Q: Was your company technologically ready to deal with the current remote working drive?
A: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, our remote working system was delivered via a VPN. However, due to the variable internet speeds of our staff home connections, this was found to be impractical. Faced with this challenge we implemented an alternative remote access methodology that does not rely on the staff home internet speed.
However, being an international company, we understand that solutions are not always universal, and consideration for the most efficient and effective local conditions is the most practical way to address challenges.
Q: How do you see your industry evolving over the next months? What challenges and opportunities do you spot ahead?
A: Spurred on from the adoption of remote access and VOIP services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the IT industry is likely to further improve the services provided.
We shall continue to look at emerging technologies for ways to improve our service delivery, and we already have five and ten year plan projections for the adoptive technologies that we are currently pursuing.
Although remote working has been proven to be successful for a whole office, nothing replaces the collation of professionals exchanging ideas on an ad hoc basis. Furthermore, we believe workshops remain a critical aspect of our ability to achieve our clients design aims.
Therefore, although complete remote working may be appropriate for some branches of the company, we don’t envisage this as a solution for our Dubai Branch.
This interview was conducted in the initial months following WHO declaration of a COVID-19 pandemic and insights expressed are subject to change.
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