The future AEC workspace will be flexible but more connected than ever, so invest in data bandwidth and mobility.
Those of us who started our careers in the late 1980s and early 1990s didn’t realize it, but we represented the end of an era. Until that time, the place where you worked was a defined space – be it an office, shop, project site, or factory. And if you weren’t in that physical space with your colleagues, you probably couldn’t get much done. So, we invested heavily in that physical space. It defined both our workforce, our ability to work together, and the products we created.
But while we were busy over the past 30 years, the entire concept of the professional working environment changed utterly, thanks to technology. Working together still means what it always has, of course, but the concept of physical space within this definition has dropped out completely. Time zones notwithstanding, we can now work with colleagues in New York, London, or Tokyo with such ease and clarity that we may as well be in the same room.
We in our 40s or 50s may not have changed much, but our younger colleagues have embraced the technological reality that allows for a much greater degree in physical work flexibility, and are not only productive but perfectly comfortable in a range of environments, be it a co-working space, in transit, at a remote office, or at home. Consider this: A worker under the age of 30 today has been internet-connected for their entire life. So, as my peers and I begin to transition our daily management responsibilities to this next generation of future leaders in the next 10 years, freedom of movement in work environments won’t be so much an option as an expectation, borne of advances in IT infrastructure and a greater awareness of work-life balance that we never sought. AEC firms that fail to leverage these two concepts in their workspace risk being left behind.
Sound far-fetched and broadminded? Or, are you thinking that this won’t fit your business model? Consider what’s changed in just the past 10 years alone, as we enjoy fiber-speed connections between offices and cloud-hosted applications. Further, the upcoming age of 5G data transfer from mobile devices and between the ‘Internet of Things’ will speed information wirelessly at rates that exceed even the fastest wired connections from just a few years ago. As this next phase of data infrastructure is built out, the costs to use these connections will become manageable within our business models. So if this isn’t traditionally how you’ve viewed your company operations, you’ll simply need to adjust your thinking a bit. Here are a few things to consider:
- Invest in speed. Right now there are few better investments for your AEC business than data bandwidth. Simply stated, it’s the glue that binds worker productivity and is well worth the cost.
- Mobilize your workstations. Light, stable, and affordable PCs that slide into work bags or purses have rendered boxy desktop PCs obsolete, even for the most data-intensive tasks. Today, nobody needs to leave their workstation behind.
- Simplify connections. Even the lightest mobile workstations and the fastest bandwidth won’t be the least bit helpful if you don’t have a simple and reliable way for your employees to connect to your company’s data set. Thankfully, this can be as simple as a gateway device sitting on your office server that allows a remote PC to map its files and folders, or an online portal that accesses cloud-hosted data and apps. Most importantly, these solutions are becoming more secure and affordable.
- Rethink your space. Think about that big stuffy boardroom and consider adapting this and other underused spaces into areas designed for web conferencing, or even co-working space for your field or sales staff. You’ll get more productivity out of each square foot.
Although it’s taken me a few years, I’m now a believer in this new definition of workspace, because I’ve made these changes myself and have seen the benefits at my firm. So the smart bet for AEC firms looking to attract young talent and transition to new leaders is to grow around this paradigm of connected freedom. Companies that do so will be poised to reach new levels of productivity and creativity into the 2020s and beyond.
David Coyne is a principal and the COO of Liberty Environmental, Inc., which provides environmental consulting and engineering services to clients across the United States. Coyne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.