Employee wellbeing crucial in post-Covid workplace, say future leaders

29 Jun 2021

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The latest FIDIC webinar offered a unique opportunity to find out about what the future holds for the consulting engineering industry – from those who will make that future happen, writes FIDIC communications advisor, Andy Walker.

The webinar, The post-Covid consulting engineering industry – Future Leaders’ global perspectives, on Tuesday 29 June 2021 was attended by 358 industry professionals and organised by the FIDIC Future Leaders group. The event discussed how those leaders of the future think that the industry will shape up going forward as the world moves towards a post-Covid situation.

The webinar was moderated by Adam Bialachowski, chief executive of B-Act/Vintage Consulting and chair of the FIDIC Future Leaders Council from Poland. Panellists included André Jabir Assumpção, business development director at TPF Engenharia in Brazil, Riitta Kujala, technology manager at AFRY in Finland, Kaveh Heshmati, civil engineer and structural designer at SANO Consulting Engineers in Iran, Masao Yamakawa, chief consultant at Yachiyo Engineering Co in Japan and Eoin Cullinane, senior project engineer at Nicholas O'Dwyer in Ireland. As ever, they were joined at the event by FIDIC president Bill Howard and chief executive Dr Nelson Ogunshakin.

Kicking off the webinar, André Jabir Assumpção, business development director at TPF Engenharia, offered his observations on the industry situation in Brazil, highlighting the move towards more remote working in particular. Riitta Kujala, technology manager at AFRY in Finland, said that during the pandemic, available work time had seemed to increase as people were able to do more online and attend more meetings. She did not believe that this was all good however as “forced remote working” could be very challenging and people should be “looking at what meetings were really essential and which ones were not”.

Kaveh Heshmati, civil engineer and structural designer at SANO Consulting Engineers in Iran, highlighted how he thought that the pandemic would affect the design of future homes, as more people were working at home. “Designing offices as an integral part of home design” would become more prevalent, Heshmati predicted and he also thought that there would eb a move away from city living to the suburbs as more and more people would want to avoid large, built up spaces with crowds.

Eoin Cullinane, senior project engineer at Nicholas O'Dwyer, saw the pandemic as leading to even greater use of technology, especially AI and VR, on projects. “Communications between project stakeholders has been crucial during Covid and we need to ensure that we keep those relationships strong as we emerge from the pandemic,” he said.

Masao Yamakawa, chief consultant at Yachiyo Engineering Co, gave his experiences from Japan. He said that digital tools had enabled him to be flexible, especially at a time when he had a new arrival in his family. Flexible working was a good thing, particularly for people with young families, but it was important to guard against “online harassment” when people were working from home and appropriate safeguards needed to be put in place.
Interestingly, a poll during the webinar revealed that a third of attendees were still not ready to return to the office full time, with 60% saying that they were. The poll results highlighted the reluctance of some in the industry to move back into office working and also showed that many were keen on home working or at least to adopt a ‘blended’ approach to work.

The panellists also discussed the impact of the ‘new physical’ on new virtual technologies for consulting engineering practices. Riitta Kujala said that new efficient ways of working have been learned due to the forced remote working. She highlighted online workshops and online site visits without for example background noises and smooth customer meetings despite the location. Kujala also spoke about the importance of creating “the feel of communality during remote work”. She said that this was extremely important for employees from a work and wellbeing perspective but also for companies in order to keep people in their firm happy and content in their work. Eoin Cullinane lamented the lack of informal interaction when working online remotely and he said that it was important to arrange regular catch-ups between teams to ensure that people felt supported despite having to work on their own.

Another online poll at the webinar revealed that 80% of attendees had been provided with assistance from their employer in delivering their work during the pandemic, which showed that engineering companies were taking seriously the needs of their employees during challenging times.

The panellists then discussed striking a balance between the potential increase of productivity from working online and safeguarding employees’ mental health in a post-Covid world. André Jabir Assumpção said that this was a leadership question and it was important for senior staff to take a lead in this area and ensure that the right atmosphere was created and that people felt supported at work. “Companies that manage to deliver this will be more successful in the future,” he said.

Many of the panellists highlighted the need for employers and industry leaders to be aware of the need to safeguard employee wellbeing in the post-Covid workplace. The increase in productivity brought about through remote working and greater use of technology should not be at the expense of people’s health and a balance needed to be struck that did not adversely affect employees’ mental health. This was a key message that came through loud and clear from all the panellists and it is clear that the industry needs to take these warnings seriously and put appropriate measures in place to negate the danger of overwork and the resultant harm to people’s mental health.

Masao Yamakawa made the important point that technology and digital communications should also be used to improve the work-life balance of employees and this should not be forgotten in the discussion of some of the negative effects of remote working. Eoin Cullinane highlighted that remote working has worked better for some people than others and this needed to be recognised. Younger workers without access to home offices were challenged in this area and it was harder for them to maintain a work-life balance as a result, he said.

FIDIC’s Future Leaders should be commended for organising this important webinar. The  panellists’ observations during the event were reflected in the questions and discussion in the chat from attendees, many of whom shared the same concerns about wellbeing. The final online poll at the event was particularly instructive, revealing that that 75% of attendees believe that the change in the way that business is conducted over the recent period has had an effect on the mental health of employees.

It is a crucial finding that the industry needs to take note of and act upon.

The next FIDIC webinar is entitled, Tackling the global water crisis - FIDIC’s State of the world report series, which takes place on Thursday 22 July 2021 at 12 noon CET. Please register your place as soon as possible to secure your place at this free event.

Click here to book your free place at the FIDIC webinar, “Tackling the global water crisis - FIDIC’s State of the world report series”.

Watch the recording of The post-Covid consulting engineering industry – Future Leaders’ global perspectives on the YouTube link below.

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