Best Practices for Hiring and Retaining Talent in the Post-COVID World
September 10, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark in many ways. For architecture and engineering (AE) firms, it has created a seismic shift in the way they do business. Industry observers, including the firms we work with, are pretty much unanimous in their opinion that the 40-hours-in-the-office work week is gone and will never return, at least not as a requirement for all employees all the time.
There may be projects or phases of projects that require more in-office hours, but as soon as those requirements are met, employees will be allowed to go back to telecommuting. Firms that don’t allow that type of flexibility will struggle to recruit top talent, and this is in a period where finding good employees is already difficult, with baby boomers aging out of the labor pool in numbers that exceed those of people choosing architecture or engineering as a career.
What we’re finding is that many firm owners have recognized this fact, but fewer have thought much about how this change will affect productivity, reporting relationships, and other aspects of day-to-day firm operations.
Puzzling Productivity Numbers
As the pandemic forced firms into remote working, many started noticing a strange statistic. While employees seemed to be logging a higher number of hours to projects, those hours weren’t resulting in the completion of a lot more work. While the reason for this isn’t clear yet, the numbers will surely have an effect on how individual performance is measured, how high and low performers are identified and rewarded or coached, and how, in general, talent is managed remotely.
Unfortunately, A/E firm managers and principles, by and large, weren’t exactly excelling at the interpersonal, “soft skills” side of the business before the pandemic. Architects and engineers just aren’t wired that way. And now, when staying connected requires an even greater degree of intentionality, something’s got to change.
Effective Hiring Is More Important Than Ever
Making good hiring decisions has always been important for AE firms, like it is for any business. But in the post-COVID, dispersed workforce world, it’s absolutely vital. To be successful, firms will have to recruit self-motivated, self-disciplined employees exclusively.
In truth, A/E firms have always had people who drove the firm’s success as well as others who produced good work but exerted only the amount of effort necessary to do so. And it worked out just fine.
Today, however, that second group of team members has become a big liability. If they were doing “just enough” when they were in the office every day, odds are they aren’t meeting that already-low standard when working from home. And that lack of productivity—which can easily go unnoticed in a remote working model—can drive a project (and ultimately a firm) right off a cliff.
From our perspective, the result will be a new professional standard for architects and engineers. People who aren’t internally motivated to do well either won’t be hired or won’t be retained for long.
Firms will also need to use different metrics to ensure they're getting appropriate productivity from employees. For example, utilization rate (the number of hours booked to projects vs. to non-billable activities) may not be as helpful now, since, as we mentioned, firms are seeing an uptick in hours that isn’t reflected in throughput.
Built into Factor AE is a figure called “percentage work complete” that’s independent from hours and budget. It will be a more useful figure. However, it’s one that is “measured” by a project manager (PM) checking with team members and asking about their progress—something that’s much easier when you’re working in the office and can just stop by someone’s desk to chat.
Not only does remote working make assessing the percentage complete more challenging, the fact that people working from home often have unusual work schedules (like working after putting their kids to bed at night) complicates things even further. Nevertheless, PMs will have to find a way to get the updates they need to be confident employees are being productive.
It seems that firms will have to find a compromise regarding flexibility. They will likely have to allow employees to work from home, but may need to request that they do their work during some agreed-upon set of hours so that communication between and among coworkers can take place with some degree of predictability.
"Industry observers, including the firms we work with, are pretty much unanimous in their opinion that the 40-hours-in-the-office work week is gone and will never return."
Accounting Must Adapt
Accounting departments at A/E firms will also have to adapt to the new normal. They’re used to measuring work by hours and tracking projects by hours and billing by hours. But it may become the case that the hourly rate charged for employee work may become virtually irrelevant, as the value they provide to the firm and the client for each hour worked is clearly changing.
We feel this will be a good thing for the A/E industry, since firms will start charging clients based on the value they provide. But, again, figuring out how employees’ contributions will be assessed based on value will be a challenge.
Seeking the “Gig Worker” Mentality
Owners today are finding that a good way to address recruiting in the wake of the pandemic is to look for people with a “gig worker” mentality. In pre-pandemic times, architects and engineers who got hired on for short periods to complete a defined set of tasks for an agreed-upon sum were very focused on getting the work done correctly but quickly. The fewer hours they expended, the higher their effective hourly rate was.
Firms that shift to compensating people this way will enjoy a couple benefits. First, they’ll attract highly motivated employees, and second, they’ll be better able to retain them, as workers will know that becoming faster and better at their job will, in essence, allow them to set their own pay rate.
Personnel Management Post-COVID: Looser and Tighter Simultaneously
What we’re seeing as firms adapt to a remote working model is that the management of employees has to become both looser and tighter at the same time. It’ll be looser in that you are forced to “let go of the reins” a bit, since you can’t sit down with your team members whenever you want to. It’ll be tighter in that mediocre employees will, by necessity, have to be weeded out.
That’s a hard truth, but one that we believe firms will have to come to grips with to be successful in the post-pandemic world.
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