Sticking to the Plan

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Feature by Dan Adams, PE

Serving as the Underground Division President has been a tremendous journey. Helping our staff engage with one another, from Melbourne to New York; serving clients through any issue; and advancing our industry have been the best part of the trip. What I’ve learned over the past decade is that for us to thrive we must embrace change, planning for it when we can, and adapting quickly when we cannot. In fact, adaptability is so important that it has become part of who we are.

Since February we’ve had quite a few unplanned events: COVID-19 closures and project shutdowns, a prolonged period of uncertainty, a self-inspection on racial equity, and a thoughtfully staged reopening of offices for those few who struggle with working from home. Combined, these events have led to some extraordinary changes within the company. Our leadership transition from myself to Victor Romero had been planned for over a year and was to happen in 2020, although we had no specific date. As we worked our way through the challenges of early 2020, however, it became clear this is the ideal time for him to step into the role. Victor’s leadership on where we’re heading in the virtual world comes easily. He has spent the last decade bridging time and space, keeping people engaged across three continents. He is better aligned with the needs of our company than we ever imagined a year ago.

We’re figuring out new ways to collaborate in a virtual environment. Mentoring, innovating, problem-solving as a team, and establishing trust with our clients are at the heart of our company culture. But the challenges are significant. What do client outreach and networking look like now? When, during the timeline on a project, do team members know one another enough to establish trust? Where can new employees “go” to get complete understanding of the who’s who in the company?

We’re communicating on a screen, using the technology we’ve had for years but was never quite embraced. For most of our staff, office and home are one. The shared screen is our whiteboard. Instant messaging has replaced standing up and presenting an alternate idea or sticking your head in someone’s office just to say hello. We have team calls to assess progress and check deadlines, looking for clues to reactions in the little windows—a smile or head nod. In our company and with most of our peers, we’re seeing this as increased efficiency. Utilization is up. Our collaboration between offices is higher than ever before. Most of our staff have little desire to return to the office and their commute right now, so we’re rethinking what an office really is.

But retooling how we maintain our company culture and collaborate in a virtual environment with each other and our clients will take some creative thinking. After all, we don’t write code, analyze data streams, or trade paper. We collaborate to create underground infrastructure, a three-dimensional, multisensory process that involves soil, rock, and water—elements that are truly understood only in person, for which construction experience is key. Therefore, we will work together to recreate what mentoring looks like, establish a new norm for networking without indoor gatherings, and build trust with people who have nothing more than a screen shot in common. Throughout our 65 years in business, our staff have always been the driver of our success, and the camaraderie and trust among us are key to our reputation. As we look towards the future, we may appear a bit different and will deliver our work in new ways, but we will always gain our strength from and be defined by our people.