Fast track: a year’s worth of digital change in three months with Andrew Maher

We caught up with Aurecon's Chief Digital Officer, Andrew Maher about how COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation at an alarming pace. 

''Like many people I’ve had some long work commutes: for a while, I’d work a week in London and I had a regular routine. Every Sunday I would catch the red-eye to Heathrow, arriving in time for the UK work week to begin before leaving the office on Friday UK time touching down back in Melbourne on Sunday. The lack of sleep didn’t bother me because the work was stimulating, my colleagues were engaging and the learnings hugely rewarding. I did this for years before the jet lag finally caught up with me.

While this situation was an unusually long commute, it may sound downright unbelievable in a post-COVID-19 world. Once we emerge from various phases of shutdowns across the world, face to face meetings will, of course, remain valuable, but what this crisis is showing us – in some cases forcing us to understand – is what we are capable of achieving through completely digitised ways of working.

The impacts of COVID-19 have accelerated digital transformation at a pace we could never have predicted. Depending on how fast we were going, we are essentially compressing at least a year’s rate of change into three months, probably more. COVID-19 is forcing us to collaborate in an unprecedented fashion and consequently speeding up the adoption rate for new systems and ways of working.

Aurecon’s digital transformation was put to the test when we, like many other organisations, moved to remote working to protect the health of our staff and our communities. Below are my reflections on what worked well, what could help other organisations, and what these new ways of working look like across industries.

What have we learnt?

The past few weeks have really driven home the importance and value of digital ways of working for business continuity. We had done quite a bit of work already at Aurecon to transition our projects into our digital workspace which includes web-based SharePoint with some custom workflows that help manage how we work. This made the rapid shift of our workforce from the office to home a lot less disruptive than it could have been. While our experience wasn’t perfect, we focused on four key priorities that allowed us to transition 90% of our workforce with only a 3% drop in productivity.

Rapidly scale existing practices

The digital platforms available, combined with flexible work policies already in place, meant that our workforce had the experience, albeit not everyone at once, working remotely. In responding to COVID-19 we were able to rapidly scale these practices across the organisation. We had more than 2,000 projects on our digital workspace which meant we weren’t relying as heavily on a VPN under pressure and we have skilled practitioners in every office working with Digital Practice Leadership in each region we operate.

Quickly develop new protocols

The need for almost our entire workforce to work from home pushed people into using enterprise collaboration tools, Microsoft Teams in our case, requiring more people to familiarise themselves with the platform quickly and interact with systems in a way that wasn’t happening previously. We also experienced challenges with access to some design systems. For example, our creative visualisation team, Unsigned Studio, have specific software on dedicated machines they need to work on to produce high-quality 3D designs. They opted to use Chrome remote desktop, leaving their dedicated machines in our office and logging in from home. I saw this play out in real-time when I visited the office last week to pick up some equipment – it was quite something to walk around and see all these giant screens, cursors rapidly moving but with no people sitting in front of them. By experimenting with new ways of working, sharing best practice, making choices, and spinning up system support models quickly, we were able to adapt with the speed demanded by our people, and clients.

Maintain social connection

Maintaining social connections has been crucial, we just needed to learn how to do this digitally. Our executive committee leadership team meets regularly as we grapple to systemise and finetune new ways of working. I’ve also been meeting with my digital practice leadership team multiple times a week. There’s a sense of comradery and togetherness in this unfamiliar landscape as we work and sit in our homes instead of the boardroom or office desks. Remembering that the people we work with are humans first and colleagues second has ensured we are prioritising our social connectivity.

Health, safety and wellbeing is a way of being at Aurecon. Every meeting starts with a safety moment and during this time we have been deliberate about the frequency and focus of our team check-ins.  What we have already found is that working from home results in some people working longer hours, and later into the evening, as stepping away from the laptop becomes even more challenging. Prior to this, work email was always available on phones at all times of day and night, but the boundary becomes even more slippery when all your work is only metres away from the couch you should be relaxing on when the day is over. We are reminding our teams the importance of logging off and carving out time for exercise, leisure, checking with family and friends, so they are refreshed for work the next morning.

Rapidly increase learning

Our Digital Practice Leaders at Aurecon are on the frontline developing new training materials and sharing through online platforms to bring people up to speed quickly on innovative ways of working and collaborating. We have also fast-tracked new sessions as part of our learning and development program, Aurecon U, which provides digital learning featuring internal and external experts on topics like how to manage and lead remote teams, how to run effective meetings, ways to work productively, getting the most from technology and remote project delivery tools. Where we had invitations for people to give presentations in our office, we are now doing these via Microsoft Teams. This has meant we invite a wider audience and often record them for others to see. I can see we will do much more of this in the future.

Collaboration is key

This pandemic is accelerating a transformation that has already started. There are a greater acceptance and comfort that people will operate more digitally than ever before. When speculating about the long-term impacts, I expect this sustained period of working remotely will fundamentally change how we interact together as a business, with our clients and with each other.

Simply put, systems are everything. Without those, we can’t do our work and we certainly can’t achieve outputs that contribute to the bottom line. Yet once you have business continuity under control, what opportunities exist? We’ll no doubt have a new set of priorities when we emerge. We’ve shown very quickly that we can work remotely when we need to and while we’re all looking forward to seeing one another in person again our physical workspaces can be very different from the ones we left weeks ago.''