December 7, 2020
A/E CEO Interview Series
As the most challenging year that A/E firm leaders have ever faced draws to a close, hopes are high for a better, calmer 2021. Over the next few weeks, Word on the Street will feature interviews with CEOs of some of the A/E industry’s leading firms to hear about the adaptations they were forced to make in 2020 and what they are expecting to see in 2021.
This week’s edition features an interview with Mark Bernhardt, president and CEO of engineering and architecture firm Burgess & Niple, which is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. With 25 offices in 12 states and the District of Columbia, Burgess & Niple provides land development, transportation, utility infrastructure, architecture, and environmental services.
Morrissey Goodale: How has the pandemic forced your business to adapt in 2020?
Mark Bernhardt: I think the biggest change is the same one that most everyone else is experiencing in shifting to a remote workforce. From a professional services firm perspective, that alters how we interact with each other and try to infuse culture in an organization. We’ve had to change how we market to and interact with existing and new clients. How we communicate with each other and with external stakeholders has probably been the most significant change as we moved from sitting next to each other to being remote.
MG: How are you communicating and using technology differently?
MB: We had made a big investment three or four years ago to change our IT infrastructure to support a mobile workforce. We had done that as a strategy to allow us to share and work on massive files across our branch offices, and it really paid dividends when you now have people essentially working from hundreds of different offices.
The embrace of the video chat culture forced us to figure out effective ways to stay plugged in when you no longer have those chance encounters in the office, and it really manifested itself in the back-and-forth process of how we review designs and drawings. Before, if you had a quick question while reviewing, you’d pop over to a person’s cubicle. It took a while for everyone to get used to having Microsoft Teams up on a second computer screen all the time in case someone needed a quick question answered.
Another shift we saw in the remote environment as people became more used to it was a shift in the workday with some people getting up at 5 A.M., working for a few hours in the morning, and then taking a break to tend to things at home, and their workday stretched over 12 to 13 hours. At the same time, some were still working the traditional 9-to-5 schedule. So we needed to get everyone to be sensitive to the different work schedules and not fire out emails at 10 P.M. and not have people feel obligated to respond at 10 P.M. when they’ve already worked a full day.
MG: The next six months could be the most important in the next five years. What are you watching for and why?
MB: Externally, I think there is certainly an opportunity for big, important infrastructure initiatives to happen. If you look back at other times in the nation’s history, big infrastructure programs have to be driven by the federal government. I’m certainly hoping for leadership in political circles to push some meaningful funding to infrastructure that will put people to work and create long-term assets to benefit our nation for years to come.
We have seen the transportation and water/wastewater markets stay fairly steady, and actually they somewhat accelerated as clients wanted to get projects shovel-ready for when funding does come. It will be interesting to see if COVID-19 will affect different industries in different ways. We don’t do that much private-sector work, but we do some land development and senior housing work. With senior housing, we are looking to see if any changes will be made based on things learned over the past nine months.
Internally, I think our firm has gotten better at communicating through this. We’ll have to keep communicating with each other and have individual market sector leaders updating everyone with what they are seeing. I don’t think geographic areas and markets will recover at the same pace, so our leaders have to be in tune with that so we know where work is stopping and starting and where more resources are required in terms of who is accelerating the quickest.
MG: How do you think business development might evolve in a post-vaccine world?
MB: We have tried to figure out what’s the best way to stay connected to our clients. This is a relationship-based business at the end of the day. Our work relies on maintaining relationships and knowing what is most important to clients so that we are best positioned to serve them. We figured out how to connect remotely with existing clients. For instance, we are doing lunch-and-learn programs virtually now as opposed to doing them in person.
One of the business development challenges that remains, though, is with new clients. It’s one thing to maintain relationships that were already established in a pre-COVID world, but it’s another to figure out how to cultivate new relationships. We are still trying to figure that out.
In a post-vaccine world, I still think business development will be a hybrid. We have figured out we can do things more efficiently, connecting remotely without having to do a four-hour drive to meet clients. Still, I think there is a reason to meet someone in person because you can connect with them differently than through a computer screen. We want to maintain the capabilities to do both and stay good at personal connections and good on the virtual side, too.
MG: How do you think work from home might evolve in a post-vaccine world?
MB: I think there will be a permanent shift in that there will be some people fully remote all the time. We can hire subject-matter experts anywhere in the world, but there is still a large chunk of people that we will want to be in the office two to three days a week so that they are collaborating and helping others develop.
I still think there are reasons to have people report to an office in this profession for the learning, development, and collaboration that happens there. In the design world, there has been this apprentice and master craftsman model. When someone comes out of college, they are a blank slate and learning as an apprentice by sitting next to someone and learning from their conversations. It’s difficult to do that in a fully remote world.
It will be interesting to see how easy or hard it will be when we want workers to come back to the office. Obviously, some of them love this new arrangement. Others miss the office. We don’t see it as a right for every employee to work 100% from home. There are times we are going to need them in the office, and there are some jobs that don’t lend themselves to being fully remote.
We are thinking about this a lot as we talk to staff about office sizes and expectations. We still see a lot of folks who want dedicated spaces for themselves in an office and don’t want to share desks. Once we start the “new normal” and see what it looks like with the next round of office leases, it might look different, but we are of a mindset that our offices will be collaborative spaces and still have small cubicles.
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