Lockdown is taking digital collaboration to the next level

Will Squires, Associate Director for Digital – Cities and Infrastructure, Atkins  

From the likes of BAE Systems, Airbus, Microsoft and Red Bull Racing joining forces to design and manufacture medical ventilators, to the nine-day transformation of London’s Excel Centre, which is now being dubbed the world’s largest critical care unit, the engineering and construction industry has answered the UK government’s call during this unprecedented crisis. 

Alongside this, there is still the essential business as usual activity which must continue during these most unusual times. 

Our roads and railways still need to provide safe passage, energy must be generated and distributed, and clean water still needs to flow. The world hasn’t stopped turning: it’s just being spun remotely from our kitchens, living rooms, studies and garden sheds. 

Digital design, delivery and project management has come to the fore, driven by a collective desire to get things done despite the wide-spread disruption to life as we know it. 

For example, while technologies such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams are of course in full utilisation, we’re already seeing some interesting, innovative pivots which are taking collaboration to the next level. 

For detailed design projects, tools such as 3DRepo and BIM 360 are being directly embedded into Teams to ensure that data is never more than three clicks away – be it for the client or supplier. This combination of traditional ‘BAU’ technologies and AEC industry specialist tech is perhaps a sign of things to come – bringing design data to the fore in a way that the web dashboard brought reporting information into our day-to-day lives. 

Meanwhile, earlier stage and master planning projects are benefitting from visual collaboration platforms such Miro and Mural which allow front end visioning and ideation work to continue effectively without a physical post-it note, flipchart or person in sight. 

Some of these technologies require tweaking to suit the specific demands of the built environment sector, but examples of people repurposing UX and UI design tools to sketch out building facades show that creative thinking can prosper in times of adversity. 

Just as importantly, we’re seeing subtle differences in behaviour which some would argue is the true catalyst for digital transformation. Current circumstances have seen technology work to actually strengthen ‘one team’ ethos’ across project teams, bringing clients, partners and the supply chain - who already share a renewed sense of purpose to deliver during these difficult times - even closer together. 

Utilisation of agile project management techniques has skyrocketed, with individuals previously resistant to change embracing stand-ups, backlogs, and retros with newfound enthusiasm. 

Increased agility and pace is being facilitated by tech which is allowing teams and individuals to communicate, work and innovate together more fluidly. Opinions, insights and data are being shared more fluidly as opposed to being siloed into a single team. 

There is more focus on live, discursive working as cross-project data can be scrutinised by the collective, allowing decisions to be made at pace with buy in from all parties. 

Again, this may not be ‘new’ for some people, but there’s no doubt that many are discovering more about tech and indeed about themselves. Maybe this is the beginning of the end for PowerPoint meetings… 

The industry is playing its part now and will be ready to help get the economy back on track once the country starts to emerge from the COVID-19 nightmare. Technology will be absolutely central to this with lessons learnt during the crisis standing us in all in good stead as we to continue our digital transformation journeys. 

While digital has always had a pace of change suffix attached to it, there’s been an exponential increase in that over the past few weeks – who knows how the sector will adapt as the situation continues to evolve. 


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