ACEC-BC Launches COVID-19 Advisory Team

March 15, 2020

In our continuous effort to support the industry in these uncertain times, we’ve formed the ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Team – a group consisting of members and clients tasked with addressing important questions facing the industry as we navigate under the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The ACEC-BC COVID-19 Team includes senior leadership from the consulting industry and our engineering counterparts from large infrastructure owners, including public sector agencies responsible for our transportation networks and water and wastewater systems.

The group is united in their priorities:

  1. Protect the health, welfare, and safety of the public
  2. Provide safe and supportive working environments for our team members
  3. Ensure the consulting engineering industry remains resilient

One March 19, 2020, the team convened for the first meeting and shared experiences, challenges, and strategies in transitioning to a remote workforce and virtual client-consultant team environment. Additionally, areas of common interest were identified for the team to begin addressing such as work practices to maintain project momentum and workforce productivity.

Some key highlights include:

  • Remote Workforce: as of Thursday March 19, 2020, majority of engineering and consulting firms had already moved to a work-from-home for majority or all of their workforce. Clients had limited access to buildings and were transitioning their workforce to work from home.
  • Tools and Resources: most workforces have shifted to a communication and collaboration platform such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, or Zoom. Some of the challenges being faced are VPN capacity; shifting schedules can help accommodate network traffic and personal obligations including managing childcare and partner working hours.
  • Planning Horizon (remote workforce): consultants and clients are using a planning horizon of no less than 1-month, with an average timeframe of 3-4-months.
  • Electronic Submissions, submission deadlines: consultants are concerned that some clients continue to require hard copy proposal submissions. Clients will ensure options to submit electronically are considered a priority change to work processes. Clients may be able to accommodate extensions to submission deadlines on a case-by-case basis; consultants should work with clients to communicate risk.
  • Force Majeure, project timelines: clients and consultants want to encourage judicious use of contract terms. Frequent conversations focussed on risk mitigation are encouraged. Future meetings are likely to focus on contract language and the risks posed to all parties.

Updates

Meeting 1: Managing a remote workforce and virtual client-consultant team environment

In our continuous effort to support the industry in these uncertain times, we’ve formed the ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Team – a group consisting of members and clients tasked with addressing important questions facing the industry as we navigate under the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The ACEC-BC COVID-19 Team includes senior leadership from the consulting industry and our engineering counterparts from large infrastructure owners, including public sector agencies responsible for our transportation networks and water and wastewater systems.

The group is united in their priorities:

  1. Protect the health, welfare, and safety of the public
  2. Provide safe and supportive working environments for our team members
  3. Ensure the consulting engineering industry remains resilient

One March 19, 2020, the team convened for the first meeting and shared experiences, challenges, and strategies in transitioning to a remote workforce and virtual client-consultant team environment. Additionally, areas of common interest were identified for the team to begin addressing such as work practices to maintain project momentum and workforce productivity.

Some key highlights include:

  • Remote Workforce: as of Thursday March 19, 2020, majority of engineering and consulting firms had already moved to a work-from-home for majority or all of their workforce. Clients had limited access to buildings and were transitioning their workforce to work from home.
  • Tools and Resources: most workforces have shifted to a communication and collaboration platform such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, or Zoom. Some of the challenges being faced are VPN capacity; shifting schedules can help accommodate network traffic and personal obligations including managing childcare and partner working hours.
  • Planning Horizon (remote workforce): consultants and clients are using a planning horizon of no less than 1-month, with an average timeframe of 3-4-months.
  • Electronic Submissions, submission deadlines: consultants are concerned that some clients continue to require hard copy proposal submissions. Clients will ensure options to submit electronically are considered a priority change to work processes. Clients may be able to accommodate extensions to submission deadlines on a case-by-case basis; consultants should work with clients to communicate risk.
  • Force Majeure, project timelines: clients and consultants want to encourage judicious use of contract terms. Frequent conversations focussed on risk mitigation are encouraged. Future meetings are likely to focus on contract language and the risks posed to all parties.

The next meeting on the advisory group is Thursday, March 26 and upcoming updates will be shared on acec-bc.ca.

Meeting 2: Shifting to Digital and Building Industry Resilience

The ACEC-BC COVID-19 Team reinforced their commitment to the industry, working together to shift to a digital environment and sharing ideas on managing schedule uncertainty.

Engineering practices and construction site health and safety continue to be of high priority to support project momentum and workforce productivity. The importance of industry resilience was reinforced by both client and member commitment to industry liquidity.

  1. Clients confirmed their approvals and payments processes have transitioned to a remote team environment achieving typical payment timelines.
  2. Members were clear in their commitment to subconsultant relationships and solvency; accounts payables teams are fully remote and resourced to keep the cash flowing.

Key highlights:

  • Digital Proposal Submissions: Metro Vancouver issued addendum for all open consulting engineering RFPs to notify proponents of a new process to accept digital submissions. The Ministry of Transportation has advised they are making progress toward adoption of a similar process.
  • Digital Signature / Electronic Seal: The Ministry of Transportation committed to review their practices with respect to sealing of engineering documents. ACEC-BC is supporting the Ministry with resources and training to accelerate the transition.
  • Site Review: Owners and consultants shared practices employed in the past week to perform site visits without increasing risk to the health and safety of team members and their communities. ACEC-BC is working with Engineers and Geoscientists BC to clarify the practice guidelines with respect to the use of proxy reviewers and video technology.
  • First Nations Monitors and Site Work in Indigenous Communities: Protecting vulnerable Indigenous communities is a high priority with additional measures being taken to reduce risk through use of technology and increasing safety practices when working in community.  
  • Schedule Uncertainty: Delays related to supply security, pricing, approvals processes, and availability of sub-consultants and trades are unavoidable. All team members are committed to mitigating risks and managing schedule changes. Consultants are encouraged to work closely with clients to manage schedules and to highlight risks as they arise. Clients have committed to manage costs and delay as they become apparent.

The team will meet again on Thursday, April 2 to address areas of common interest which include: maintenance of capacity, industry liquidity, contract delays and other issues that arise. This week we will also discuss concerns regarding permitting processes – especially those already a source of delay in construction – and commercial processes for managing delay or cancellation.

Meeting 3: The Long Journey from Crisis Management to Practice

While much of the first few weeks of the current crisis has focussed on the rapid redeployment of industry capacity under a completely new operating strategy, we are beginning to consider the practical issues project delivery and professional practice while social distancing. Field reviews, consultation processes, and practice supervision are more challenging in an environment where we cannot be together in person.

Practical challenges discussed include:

  • Field Review: ACEC-BC has produced practical advice to Professional Engineers for the performance of Field Reviews. The guidance document is available on the ACEC-BC COVID-19 Resource Centre.
  • Public Consultation: Requirements for public consultation pose a challenge. While technology can be deployed, the process will be less efficient and may not satisfy contractual obligations. Consultation guidance will be discussed in the coming weeks as some of the more immediate challenges are addressed.
  • Worksite Hygiene: The Provincial Health Authority released  Guidance to Construction Site Operation on March 22. There have been some practical challenges as WorkSafeBC do not have jurisdiction to regulate Health Authority directives. In the meantime, Owners like the Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure do require contractors to submit plans to demonstrate sites will be compliant.
  • Permitting: Permitting and inspection were identified as pre-existing schedule risks. The pandemic is expected to further slow these processes. A letter was sent by ACEC-BC to the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development to encourage the Minister to address inefficiencies in application of the Water Sustainability Act.

In support of industry resilience, the advisory group continue to monitor three key risks:

  • Consulting Capacity: Both owners and consultants report that capacity seems to have rebounded following disruption associated with the changeover to remote operations. Members report that all or nearly all team members are working remotely; some offices remain partially open with a skeleton team.
  • Contract Management: Owners and consultants have received force majeure notifications although principally only when the contract includes a defined notification period. Notifications are being received as initiation of discussion regarding schedule; Consultants are encouraged to work closely with clients to manage schedules and to highlight risks as they arise. Clients have committed to manage costs and delay as they become apparent.
  • Liquidity: Ensuring cash continues to flow between parties will be monitored within the advisory owner group on at least a bi-weekly basis. Members who experience systemic payment issues – especially for public sector contracts or when acting as a sub-consultant to another member firm – are encouraged to contact ACEC-BC.
Meeting 4: Caution and Perspective

Adrenaline-fuelled efforts to retain capacity whilst adhering to the Provincial Health Authority guidelines on social distancing produced a rapid shift toward remote operations for both consultants and clients. Thousands of new offices opened across the province as team members set to work from their kitchen counters, basements, and (for a lucky few) pre-existing home offices.

This remarkable transition means that consultants are maintaining momentum on existing projects and actively pursuing new business. Similarly, clients continue to affirm their commitment to open and upcoming procurements, summer construction schedules, and other planned work.

These changes may leave us optimistic, and certainly there is much to support our optimism. Engineering and construction are essential services in BC, which allows us to continue planning, designing, assessing, and building. While much of the economy has shutdown completely, BC consulting engineering companies continue to operate at or near capacity.

As we look forward, the following challenges and opportunities were raised by the group:

  • Adaptation: Engineering and construction projects are adapting to changes such as new safety protocols. Increased communication with team members, installation of hygiene facilities on job sites, and moving to time shifted operations are all being employed to ensure a safe workplace. This mindset will need to be maintained as we learn to navigate the new reality.
  • Bumps in the road: Unanticipated bumps in the road are likely to continue to impact project schedules. Delays may result from governance – like finding space on a Council agenda for approvals – or fundamental issues like access to labour or supply. Regardless, project contracts and schedules will need to be more accommodating and flexible.
  • Technology: While most consulting engineering firms enthusiastically adopt technology tools to support efficiency in practice, many clients did not have access to resources to support such changes. Clients who were not already able accept electronic (engineering) seal or digital proposal submission when this crisis hit are being asked to make significant business practice changes very quickly. These practices may not seem complicated but shifting to accept digital proposals in a system design for paper can be profound. Files are large and digital transmission introduces data security challenges. Patience is required as the necessary processes are developed. ACEC-BC can support these changes if alerted to the challenge. 

The ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Group continues to monitor and act to support the principles health and safety and industry resilience.

  • Permitting: Following a letter to the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development to encourage the Minister to address inefficiencies in application of the Water Sustainability Act, we have received information that the Ministry have new team members in place to manage known bottlenecks in the processes.
  • Contract Management: ACEC-BC is partnering with Singleton Reynolds to offer a webinar on April 29 on legal and insurance mechanisms to help manage delays in construction resulting from the pandemic.
  • Liquidity: The Advisory Group will continue to monitor cash flow between parties, especially as clients publicly share concerns regarding financial health.
  • Consulting Capacity: While capacity remains available to clients, consultants are beginning to consider how best to sustain their workforce over a longer term. Curtailment of hiring is expected to have a significant impact seasonal employment for student practitioners and recruitment of experienced practitioners is not a priority at this time.
Meeting 5: Return to Normal

Last week, government pandemic briefings included discussions on easing restrictions, some of which will support a return to the office. At the same time, we face the reality that some restrictions are likely to remain in place for many months, and possibly years. While we see positive signals from infrastructure owners that projects are proceeding on schedule – including road building, Port, transit and water / wastewater infrastructure – we recognize that normal looks quite different today than it did in the past. How we work is always evolving and this crisis is teaching us a lot about our work practices, like how we can use technology to make collaboration more efficient and what it means to build a resilient workforce.

The ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Group is increasing our focus on longer term planning. At the same time, we are actively reinforcing the value of engaging consultants by facilitating dialogue between clients to share good practice and collaborate on critical issues of health and safety. This week we discussed several issues impacting engineering and construction projects in BC.

  • Municipal Projects: We are aware that municipalities across BC are suspending projects and withdrawing tenders. While there are a variety of reasons for these actions, it remains a significant concern. Outside of the Advisory Group we are actively engaged with our partners in construction to identify opportunities for joint advocacy.
  • Return to Work Planning: Member firms with multi-national presence will have the opportunity to develop and improve their plans as restrictions ease sequentially across the globe. At ACEC-BC, we continue to work with these firms to learn from their success and will share their experience for the betterment of consulting in BC. In turn we will be present to support our clients as they also consider how best to resume central operations over time.
  • Protecting Vulnerable Communities: Across BC there are hundreds of rural and remote communities that are considerably more vulnerable to the risks posed by the pandemic than those of us in urban centres. Our presence in these communities may not be welcome, and those from vulnerable communities may not want to risk bringing the virus back to their community by attending sites or regions outside their home community. This concern is discussed at each Advisory Group meeting and we are sharing resources to support heightened safe work practices to further protect these communities.

When the ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Group meets on Thursday, April 23 we will again be discussing health and safety and industry resilience.

  • Contract Management: ACEC-BC is partnering with Singleton Reynolds to offer a webinar on April 29 on legal and insurance mechanisms to help manage delays in construction resulting from the pandemic.
  • Liquidity: The Advisory Group will continue to monitor cash flow between parties, especially as clients publicly share concerns regarding financial health. This week we will also consider the impact of capital markets including insurance.
  • Shifting to Digital: ACEC-BC is partnering with Notarius, the City of Surrey, and Binnie to support members and clients interested in adopting digital sign / seal for engineering documents.
Meeting 6: Powering up

Last week the government of Saskatchewan released the Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan. The staged plan pre-empted announcements from other provinces and the federal government’s recommended guidelines. Without similar guidance from our provincial government, the plan provides some insight into how other western provinces may phase in services. Importantly, the plan retains strict limits on gatherings through the fourth of five phases.

In BC, our plans to transition back to the office will include similar restrictions. Our existing Provincial Health Order limits gatherings to 50-people, which in many cases is far less than our office capacity. Plans will also need to consider whether we will welcome visitors to our offices including clients, partners, and other consultants. While we can work separately to develop these plans, we do have a great opportunity to coordinate efforts within the industry much like our partners in construction have done to assure site safety. Coordination ensures that each of us knows how to behave and what to expect when entering each other’s facilities and allows us to learn from each others on challenges and successes.

The ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Group identified some barriers to active practice and construction including:

  • Regulation & Certifications: Practitioners who require health and other testing to recertify or retain their qualification are having trouble gaining access to services. In some cases, provincial regulators are looking to federal regulators for direction and will release guidance regarding extension of existing qualifications or suspension of requirements until services become available.
  • Utilities Alignment: Construction sites usually require coordinating relocation or integration of utility connections. This work is scheduled with utility providers and completed by the utility’s crew. While our utility providers determined how to keep their crews safe, they deprioritised some work. We are working with BC Hydro to address scheduling and coordination of construction.

As we look ahead, we will start to address how we can support BC infrastructure owners in developing opportunities to access stimulus funding. ACEC-BC is facilitating early conversations between members and partners to identify an effective framework to assess opportunities.

When the ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Group meets on Thursday, April 30, we will again be discussing health and safety and industry resilience.

  • Contract Management: On April 29, ACEC-BC partnered with Associate Member Singleton Reynolds to offer a webinar on legal and insurance mechanisms to help manage delays in construction resulting from the pandemic.
  • Shifting to Digital: ACEC-BC is partnering with Notarius, the City of Surrey, and Binnie to support members and clients interested in adopting digital sign / seal for engineering documents.
  • Supporting Wellness: Next week ACEC-BC will release a series highlighting resources and practices to promote mental health.
Meeting 7: Don't Call it a Comeback

This afternoon the Premier is set to discuss the restart BC plan. While much of this province has been dormant as a result of the Provincial Health Officer’s orders, the consulting sector has continued to make progress on public and private infrastructure programs across the province and around the world. Our focus therefore is not to restart or come back to work, but to pragmatically consider our transition back to workplaces and practices employed pre-pandemic.

I’m fine, thanks.

This week the Canadian Mental Health Association is building awareness through their Mental Health Awareness Week campaign. The focus – what I say and what I really mean – deals with the challenges many of us face in balancing our personal mental wellness and the pressures of our work, family and life commitments. I encourage you to explore the resources on our ACEC-BC Mental Health Resources page, including Effective Leadership: A Series for Supporting and Dealing with Issues Related to Mental Well-Being in the Workplace During a Time of Crisis.

ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Group:

Our meeting last week had a focus on our work in the field and how we work in the office:

  • Utilities Integration: in response to the pandemic, BC Hydro put their attention to supporting the health & safety of their team members and to ensuring provision of electricity to the province was uninterrupted. Their attention to essential service meant that field crews were not able to attend to integration and relocation work necessary for roadworks, water and sewer and other infrastructure construction projects. In the last few weeks BC Hydro deployed a team to triage this backlog and address work in sequence.
  • System Recovery: reduced ridership in the lower mainland led to a curtailment of transit service. TransLink is now turning their focus to system recovery. Beginning June 1 transit riders will be able to access buses using the front door. Capacity will be added in July and again in September in anticipation of increased traffic.
  • Public Consultation: all public sector agencies are required in one form or another to consult with the public. A temporary suspension of this requirement allowed projects to move forward with limited consultation; agencies are now turning their focus to honour consultation requirements using virtual tools.   
  • Remote communalities and vulnerable colleagues: rural, remote and indigenous communities are expressing concern regarding their vulnerability to infection from non-residents entering their community for work or travel. The Advisory Group is sharing information to support individuals and communities to stay safe and well; we hope to share this information in future practice guidance on our COVID-19 Resource Centre.

Our team continues to work hard to support members through our advocacy and offering opportunities for members to engage virtually through our new Wednesday Lunch & Learn webinar series:

  • May 13: Progressive Design Build with Partnerships BC
  • May 20: Leading Remote Teams with Equity Diversity and Inclusion (Part 1)
  • May 27: Leading Remote Teams with Equity Diversity and Inclusion (Part 2)
  • June 3: Managing Scope Creep with Metrix & AXA XL
Meeting 8: Hitting the restart button

Last Wednesday the Premier and Provincial Health Officer presented BC’s Restart Plan, a four-phase approach to slowly reengage our broader economy. The plan focusses on three areas of action:

  1. Personal Care
  2. Social Interaction
  3. Economic activity

Beginning next week, when we enter phase 2 of the restart plan, we are being asked to base our actions on five principles:

  1. Personal Hygiene – hand washing, use of personal protective equipment
  2. Stay Home if You Are Sick – self-isolation for travellers and anyone with symptoms
  3. Environmental Hygiene – touchless technology and increased efficacy and frequency of cleaning
  4. Safe Social Interactions – limited in-person contact, outdoor over indoor and physical distancing
  5. Physical Modifications – barriers, movement within shared spaces and room design

For essential services – like consulting engineering firms – many of the measures discussed in the plan are already in place. We are operating with increased levels of hygiene, physical distancing, and making use of technology to keep our teams safe and productive. As a result of the work we’ve already done we know that sending everyone home 8-weeks ago was a lot easier than trying to bring everyone back to the office.

As the province relaxes measures introduced in the Provincial Health Officer orders, the hard work of understanding who, if, how, and when we will begin transitioning back to the office is already in progress. Many firms have already developed return to office (RTO) plans including physical modification such as increased spacing between desks, closure of shared spaces, and the introduction of hygiene stations.

We are working together

Member firms met this week to talk about how we can support each other to develop consistent RTO plans. In the coming days we will release a member survey that considers common controls, work practices, and industry challenges. The survey results will be published along with select content from other agencies to support you to develop and benchmark individual plans.

Changing market

Focussing outward, we are learning about how the market is evolving to meet the challenges of the pandemic and the need for innovative thinking to address these challenges.

  • General Conditions: We are aware that many public sector owners have or will introduce new terms to address schedule and cost challenges. The Master Municipal Construction Documents Association MMCD and Canadian Construction Documents Committee have been approached to offer opinion and are actively developing their response.
  • Rethinking Design: As we consider the longer-term implications of the pandemic, many of the assumptions used in design with respect to behaviours may need to change. Innovative design approaches will be needed to adapt and ensure infrastructure is resilient.
  • Workforce: For many firms now is the time of year when new graduates and summer students are on-boarded. The shift to work-from-home and uncertainty about the market have resulted in fewer opportunities for both new graduates and students. We are receiving a high number of requests from individuals and academies looking for placements. As restrictions ease and with additional support through the Canada Summer Jobs program some firms may find capacity to recommit to investment in the talent pipeline. Please reach out to us if we can help.

Our team continues to work hard to support members through our advocacy and offering opportunities for members to engage virtually through our Wednesday Lunch & Learn webinar series:

  • May 20: Leading Remote Teams with Equity Diversity and Inclusion (Part 1)
  • May 27: Leading Remote Teams with Equity Diversity and Inclusion (Part 2)
  • June 3: Managing Scope Creep with Metrix & AXA XL
Meeting 9: Level setting on the phased restart

We took a break from weekly communications over the last few weeks in order to assess how we can continue to support the industry as the province restarts. As we make progress on the shift from crisis to recovery, ACEC-BC is making some adjustments to our engagement with stakeholders. Our weekly member and client advisory group have shifted to biweekly meetings, there is significantly more focus on how and when to return to the office and we are refocussing on our longer-term advocacy campaigns including qualification based selection.

Last week we supported our partners in infrastructure across the country by posting two opportunities to shape how we develop infrastructure in the future:

  • Survey: Promoting efficiency in project delivery: The Ryerson Institute for Infrastructure Innovation is seeking input from project delivery teams and owners on pre-planning and upfront investment. 
  • Reimagining infrastructure – Indigenous equity ownership: ACEC Canada’s partner, the First Nations Major Projects Coalition released a new paper promoting Indigenous equity partnerships for infrastructure in BC.

Returning to the office

While BC’s Restart Plan provides guidance for everyone, much of the focus has understandably been on those disproportionately affected by stay at home orders. So, while the media are focused on changes that impact both service industry workers and customers, businesses fortunate enough to remain largely productive during the past 11-weeks are instead focussing on how, when and if they will return to the office.

  • ACEC-BC Member Survey: A return-to-office (RTO) working group of members have developed a survey to support consistency in planning within the industry and between the industry and our clients. The survey will be issued directly to voting members on Tuesday; a general link will be added to the website to capture non-members and other partners interested in participating.
  • Regulatory Compliance: The Provincial Health Officer and WorkSafeBC released RTO guidance including a requirement to make public COVID-19 safety plans.

Support for businesses

As a result of both on-going opportunities to remain productive and the normal industry billing cycle, most consulting engineering companies have not qualified for emergency support offered by the Federal government. Instead, where needed companies have employed temporary lay-offs, reduced hours and other furlough strategies. Additional funding announced in the last two weeks includes:

  • WorkSafeBC Premiums: Last week, WorkSafeBC announced that in addition to the premium deferral program announced in March they would waive premiums for businesses that furloughed employees. This benefit is available only for firms that qualified for the Federal CEWS program.
  • NEW Funding for employers who hire summer students: The Association for Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning have provided an update on new funding programs available to all businesses who hire post-secondary students this summer.

We are working together

We continue to work with member firms, clients, contractors and the government to identify opportunities to support each other and advance the business of consulting engineering in BC. In the coming weeks we are hosting several events and will continue to post information to support the industry and our partners through our newsfeed and COVID-19 resource centre.

Our team continues to work hard to support members through our advocacy and offering opportunities for members to engage virtually through our Wednesday Lunch & Learn webinar series:

  • June 3: Managing Scope Creep with Metrix & AXA XL
  • June 10: To be confirmed – stimulus funding
  • June 11: ACEC-BC Annual General Meeting
  • June 24: NEW Metro Vancouver Virtual Mixer

Related News & Resources

Save the date for #TConf2023

Save the date for #TConf2023

The Conference will be hosted on January 31 – February 1, 2023. Mark your calendar and stay tuned to hear about early bird registration, speakers, sponsorship…

read more
Share This