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Don’t forget the forest for the trees

1340 A/E advice AEC Category_Articles challenges Change communicate communication coronavirus COVID-19 flex time history immediate Information invest IT JQ Leader Leadership marketing overcome overhead pandemic remote work Stephen Lucy this too shall pass virus work-life working remotely

In these uncharted times, we run the risk of only thinking about the immediate and not about where we are going to be three months, six months, or a year from now.

For the last several weeks we have been attempting to chart our course through some very rough seas for which there is limited prior experience and data to inform our decisions. As we are continually bombarded with ever increasing dire news, we run the risk of only thinking about the immediate and not where we are going to be three months, six months, or a year from now. In no way am I diminishing the harsh work-life environment in which we now operate, but we must also acknowledge that the world is not stopping, and, as the adage goes, this too shall pass.

In early March, we decided to begin working remotely, closing our six offices in Texas well before stay-at-home orders. The decision was based on our preparedness to serve our clients and our focus on keeping our employees and their families safe and healthy. In the process, as CEO, I have reflected on numerous actions that are vital to keeping business running smoothly, among these:

  • Be a leader. Many of the greatest leaders in history were molded through the challenges that they faced and overcame. There is no denying the challenges we have and are facing, but we must step into those challenges as we cannot abdicate our role in leading our firms. The challenges are not going away, so unless you step aside and let someone else fill the void, be a leader and take responsibility.
  • Communicate often. Our industry is not known for being populated by great communicators, but now is the time to actively engage with our staff. They are looking for information and for leadership to provide that information. Be it good or bad, they deserve to be informed as they depend on firm leadership just as much as firm leadership depends on them. The simple act of caring enough to engage and be empathetic to their issues speaks volumes about the value you place on your most important and irreplaceable asset, your staff. Odds are staff will reciprocate and their input will also help guide the firm. Encourage conversation and feedback.
  • Change how you work. Mandated working remotely will forever change our industry. For all those who dismissed flex time and work from home, you have now had to face the cold hard facts that it is possible, and, in fact, seamless if you provide the correct infrastructure, set the right policies, create the right metrics for oversight, and trust in your staff to conscientiously do their jobs. Now that we have been forced to incorporate this into our work process, there is no turning back. So, get out in front of it and determine how you are going to do this going forward.
  • Invest in your firm. For those who gave up near term profit to invest in their firms and, especially, the IT systems of their firms, my hat is off to you for doing the right thing. The data backs up that investing in a growing and thriving AEC firm will pay long-term dividends, but so many want the immediacy of the reward at the cost of their long-term fortune. Hearing from peer and client firms how they were hindered because of lack of investment in IT infrastructure was shocking. And trying to adjust during a crisis is almost impossible to do. I understand that anticipating and planning for a pandemic was not a realistic expectation, but planning for remote work was very realistic for a variety of reasons.
  • Don’t slash your overhead. No matter how tempting it may be, do not decimate your overhead positions. You still have to invoice, you still have to provide human resources, and you still have to market the firm. Some can be outsourced, but hopefully you were already doing that if warranted. You cannot afford to cripple your ability to be in business, and, if your team members have any “down time,” suggest ways that you can improve processes, identify new business strategies, and “bank” future marketing plans that will raise your firm’s visibility post-pandemic.
  • Never forget history. I thought I had faced some of the hardest challenges in my career: the S&L debacle, 9/11, the Great Recession, and a contentious ownership transition. Tackling those business events with persistence and a fair and steady hand may pale in comparison to the invisible challenge we are currently facing. The COVID-19 pandemic has roared through our world in a way not seen before as we are far more interdependent regionally, nationally, and globally. We have much to improve to better serve our communities in a crisis of this magnitude.

The strength of our collective human will and our ability to invent and innovate will undoubtedly help us forge ahead. This is the part of the “this too shall pass” that so many of us forget. As we emerge from this daunting experience, we need to remember that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We cannot afford to go through another catastrophic event or anything similar again. Nor can we forget the lessons learned that have been paid for at such a tremendous human price.

Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Lubbock, and San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at slucy@jqeng.com.

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