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2020 presented many challenges for the engineering and construction industries. The impact of COVID-19 forced worksites to lock down, delaying and suspending numerous projects, and disrupting supply chains across the world. While an immediate upturn in 2021 will be difficult, the prospect of widespread vaccinations on the horizon shed light on the control and end of COVID-19. But that alone is simply not enough. There are sure to be future unexpected crises and companies must consider how to become more agile and prepared for the future.

Embracing a Digital Mindset

Digital transformation was a trend before the pandemic—one that was embraced to varying degrees across industries. Today, many companies agree on one thing: Digital is the way of the future. Adopting a variety of digital technologies allows companies to improve project delivery and efficiency and enable remote operations while reducing risks and enhancing safety.

Companies that entered the pandemic with a digital mindset fared better than those that did not. Prior to COVID-19, 77% of engineering and construction CEOs were already planning for more 4IR1 operational efficiencies to drive growth. Despite the massive cutbacks many companies had to make, they were least likely to cut any planned digital transformation investments.

Implementing Digital From the Inside Out

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the industry’s workforce and workplace, but there are ways engineering and construction companies can digitize priority functions moving forward. 

Back Office and Management

During times of economic stress when companies are examining how to lower costs, investing in digital tools for back office and management has a proven ROI that can benefit organizations. Introducing tools such as robotic process automation (RPA) technologies to back-office processes help centralize and streamline workflows and creates a more efficient ecosystem. 

Automating in the back office allows for a seamless connection across all functions. For example, creating integrations between accounting and finance with front-office needs can provide quicker approvals and access to real-time data on costs, schedule status and change order approvals. The HR team can also introduce 4IR for interview scheduling, background checks and onboarding processes. Bridging the ongoing digital talent gap, automation can also help attract new talent who now expect a seamless digital experience.

Introducing bots and workflow and integration tools will help companies eliminate “swivel chair” work so that workers and management can focus on higher value creation tasks that benefit the bottom line.

Construction and Extraction

Construction is often slower to digitize due to the manual labor and processes that are typically involved. However, by creating digitized and tele-networked platforms, companies can improve productivity and deliver projects to clients in a shorter timeframe, and at more reasonable costs.

Advanced work packages (AWP) provide a framework that enables companies to deploy smaller components of work to a client in the early planning and development stage. This allows workers to complete their work in a smart, logical fashion, resulting in faster, more agile and accurate field executions. 

Like the manufacturing sector, construction is exploring more automated off-site fabrications which would help companies reduce the number of on-site workers, reduce overhead costs, and further prioritize site safety and workforce health.

IT and Software

Engineering and construction companies have been modest in IT and software investments– but have been shifting their focus on digital since 2016. This push has been a response to growing competition from not only construction technology companies, but also Big Tech. An increasing number of engineering and construction companies are working with software startups to develop differentiating digital capabilities that will set them apart.

To promote innovation in-house, companies are encouraging their employees to think outside of the box with how technology can improve their day-to-day processes and even client relations. Incentivizing this type of creative thinking enables workers to focus on higher value tasks.

Remaining Prepared for Future Crises

By undertaking these changes across business functions, companies can fully embrace a digital mindset. Only adding technology is not enough— companies must refresh business processes from the inside out. Many companies were not fully prepared for the changes and disruptions of COVID-19, but implementing new processes across business functions, clients and suppliers will create a more efficient ecosystem. These digital tools will streamline the workflow between the front and back offices.

In an industry traditionally dominated by manual labor, companies cannot overlook the need to properly upskill their workforce to work efficiently alongside technology. If companies use automation to reduce the number of on-site workers, they must upskill employees to ensure there are ways they can continue contributing to the business. 

Companies are increasingly adding digital to their business strategies, so there is a race to recruit the best tech talent. However, the best talent can often be found within a company’s existing workforce—among the employees who already have the knowledge of a business and have dedicated years to it. Incentivizing workers to learn new digital skills and voice new ideas will encourage a constant stream of innovation.

Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, many people expected things would return back to normal, but COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for business leaders to revisit their digitization plans. Adopting a digital mindset will allow companies to create a more agile and efficient business strategy to get to the other side of COVID-19 and future challenges.

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