COVID-19 was a 'real-life trial' of what it's like to work from home - with Matt Harris

Matt Harris is the Associate Principal – South Island Business Manager for Babbage Consultants based in Christchurch. He is also the ACE Regional Chair for Otago and Southland and a Board member of Engineering New Zealand. We found out a little more about what makes him tick and what he sees as the significant challenge for the sector post-COVID-19.

Matt Harris

What attracted you to engineering? 

I left school at the age of 16 and decided I would like to do something in the technical sphere. I was offered a role as a technician in a consultancy in the UK and started on the drawing board. I found that I enjoyed finding solutions to problems and realised that this was a career that I would like to pursue in the long term. After four years, I moved to a new position as a technician engineer, which is a little like a technician in New Zealand at NZCE level. It then became apparent that if I wanted to move into a management role, I would need to upskill, so I attended the University of Plymouth, where I gained an honours degree in civil engineering. 

What do you like about your job? 

I enjoy the challenge of finding a solution to a client's problem and then be able to see the results of your work right in front of you. It is also gratifying when you begin a project on a bare piece of land, design the development, oversee the construction phase and then witness the fruits of your efforts at the official opening. 

How do you balance your home life with your work life? 

The COVID-19 lockdown presented us with some unique lifestyle challenges, similar to the Canterbury earthquakes where we had to balance work and home life. In the aftermath of the quakes, engineering and consulting businesses in Canterbury had several years of extremely high workloads, and it was a challenge to ensure that my homelife received the attention that it deserves. One of the things that helped relieve the stress of the Canterbury post-quake recovery was undertaking a contract in Singapore. That allowed us to refresh and look at things a little differently when we returned home. I think keeping active by playing sport and getting out and about with family is vital to ensure you achieve the right balance between work and home life. 

Where did you work from during the Canterbury quake recovery period? 

We stayed working from our office. However, that was not without its challenges as I changed offices four times in 12 months. It was due to the buildings being deemed earthquake-prone, or we were not able to secure a long-term lease on the space. 

Is there any comparison between the working conditions you experienced post-earthquake and post-COVID-19? 

There are similarities, in that both events created a working environment that was very different from the norm. However, in terms of workflow, they have proved to be quite different. Following the earthquakes, the engineering and consulting industries in Canterbury have had an abundance of work for three or four years; which is still tailing off now. It meant that we were not having to go out chasing work. On the other hand, COVID-19 has bought us into recession-type conditions with many significant projects still on hold. You have to chase the work more now, but there is work available for businesses that can continually turn out a high-quality product. It's interesting to try and compare the working conditions presented by the two scenarios and what lessons we're learning. I believe if we had another big quake now, people would be more accommodating of working from home, as opposed to being in the office.  

How has your workplace changed over the past five years? 

There's a much greater acceptance of staff working from home now than there was in past years.  

Technologically, we are well set-up to have staff work away from the office, and COVID-19 has shown us just how efficient it can be to hold meetings online rather than face-to-face. The video and audio quality and ease of use of the latest meeting software have undoubtedly lessened the amount of time it takes to get everyone online and start the meeting. Staff have had a real-life trial of what it's like to work from home; so much so that many may never want to return to being office-based full-time.

Matt paddling out on the water

What changes would you like to see in the workplace over the next five years? 

If there is one thing that COVID-19 has shown us it's that flexible working arrangements are here to stay. I think there is still a need to meet up with your work colleagues regularly, but many companies have now realised that there are tangible benefits that come from having staff work away from the office. I think there is an opportunity over the next few years to further refine the balance between working from home and the office, and this will hopefully lead to a significant reduction in the country's carbon footprint. I can see businesses in the engineering and consulting sectors either giving up their office space all together or at least cutting down on the floor area they occupy now. 

You have recently become Regional Chair for ACE New Zealand in Otago/Southland. What prompted you to stand for the position? 

My appointment as Regional Chair was confirmed just before the country went into lockdown so I am just starting to talk with members about how we can support them. I am excited to take on the role as it'll offer me the opportunity for ongoing personal growth and to network with other consultants throughout the region. I think ACE New Zealand provides real value to the sector by supporting consultants over contract awareness and through organising networking events which get our members talking about issues that are of interest to them. 

What are the challenges of the role?  

The real challenge for the organisation and the branches is to offer value to members. My first task as Chair is to organise networking events as these have been put on the backburner while everyone navigates their way through the post-COVID-19 environment. I don't expect members will just come to me with their concerns and ideas; we need to be seen and be accessible. It is really up to us to engage with members to offer them support and networking opportunities that will add value 

What do you see is the main challenge for the sector in the medium term?  

I think the big challenge is for all businesses in the sector to hold their ground and sell their value. When conditions get tough, the temptation is for some companies to drop their prices to secure new contracts. If we all start doing that, it will very quickly become a race to the bottom, and that won't do the industry any good. The real challenge is to hold your ground and sell your IP based on value.  

What do you like to do for fun? 

Babbage has entered a team into the Coast to Coast for the last two years as we have runners, cyclists and kayakers on staff. In February this year, I kayaked the river part of the race as part of a three-person team. It’s 70kms down the Grade 2 Waimakariri River through the beautiful Waimakariri Gorge. The team came fifth in our category, and we’re training hard to try again this February 

I’m paddling three to four times a week but will extend this into rougher water and longer paddles as we move into the summer. 

Connect with Matt Harris on LinkedIn