5 June 2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic has tested business continuity plans and leadership resolve, but it has also triggered new ideas about the way we work and connect with clients.


A crisis demands quick and creative solutions to problems, but can also act as a catalyst for lasting change. If you can absorb the short-term shocks, it can point your business towards unexpected opportunities.

At Aurecon, an international engineering, design and advisory company and one of Australia’s leading engineering consultancy firms, 95 per cent of staff had to quickly adjust to working from home. That sparked an experimental mindset to solve issues.

“Engineers may have a tendency to be conservative and technical, but the last 120 days has shown we can also be creative and respond quickly to challenges,” Aurecon Chief Executive for Australia and New Zealand  Louise Adams says.

According to Adams, the sense of urgency drove significant innovation.

“We achieved things people would have thought impossible six months ago, in terms of the way we work, keep our people safe and how we collaborate. We’re also seeing that the crisis has provided a foundation for greater collaboration between government and industry. We are currently focussing  on quickly packaging up work to be ‘shovel-ready’ for when restrictions are eased, in order to help quickly stimulate employment growth.”

At PICA, Australia’s largest strata management company, Group Managing Director Wayne Walker says he was also, “amazed by our ability to influence change at speed. When you have a sense of urgency, and you don’t have a choice, it’s incredible what you can do.”

He sees the sector’s COVID-19-related legislative loosening as a, “golden opportunity to push for more permanent changes. Convening virtual meetings and using electronic signatures has proven more flexible and efficient.”

Leaps forward in efficiency

Change doesn’t need to be transformational to be effective. At Aurecon, one simple solution involved little more than an iPad.

“Usually, we’d send 12 people to a major site visit,” Adams explains. Social distancing and travel restrictions made that impossible, so they sent two people with an iPad and connected with 15 others via Microsoft Teams. Using the camera, the meeting participants could view every aspect of the site.

“This is certainly the safest way to conduct a site visit in a COVID-19 world, but it’s also more efficient and will reduce travel budgets,” says Adams. “Where we may have previously flown people in to do a progress meeting and look at drawings, we’ve upskilled ourselves to run workshops virtually much more regularly and efficiently.”

Another example is re-thinking the need for hard copy signatures on documents. “We now use Diligent, a virtual platform, to scan documents like board papers, contracts and bids, and accept an electronic signature,” explains Aurecon’s Group CFO Francoise Merit. It’s a lot more efficient and helps her team keep digital records.

Walker says legislative changes across states and territories have enabled significant improvements for strata. Between March and May, when COVID-19 lockdowns rolled out, his teams convened more than 4,000 strata committee meetings and annual general meetings – virtually.

“We had already rolled out Strata Vote, to automate meeting agendas and enable online voting on decisions. The meetings have been more focused and effective, and they’re no longer always late at night.” He believes smaller owners corporations will continue to meet virtually, as it’s more flexible and convenient.

When you have a sense of urgency and you don’t have a choice, it’s incredible what you can do.

Wayne Walker, PICA

Strengthening the bonds within teams

At its core, every professional service firm depends on its people. More flexible approaches to everyday work can also have a positive impact on recruitment and resource management. At Aurecon, getting people with the right skills onto a project used to involve relocating engineers interstate. Now, they have proven it can be handled remotely.

“I’m very confident we have set ourselves a new benchmark in flexible working. Now, the challenge is to embed this practice into business as usual, and set ongoing expectations for the business,” says Adams. 

Walker says he was also impressed by the, “solidarity and common purpose,” within his teams. By communicating more to help people adapt to work from home, and providing the technology and support to do so, he says staff rose to a level he’d never seen.

PICA is also providing tools that focus on wellbeing. “Now we’ve gone beyond the workplace. We run mental health webinars to support staff,” Walker says.

Accelerating value for customers

Walker admits, “strata has long been a cottage industry, but we’ll now see a big wave of digital-led improvements for clients.” PICA had already been planning to roll out a new cloud-based contact centre, Genesys Cloud. “Pre-COVID, we thought it would take us six months. But when the crisis hit, we accelerated implementation across all 30 offices in just two to three weeks.”

Along with an expanded customer self-service portal, this allows everyday queries to be handled by a wider range of people remotely.

“Our clients were hungry for information at the start of the crisis. They wanted guidance on how to manage their buildings safely,” explains Walker.

PICA is now in a good position to expand into ‘behind the door’ services for owner-occupiers and tenants – such as apartment repairs and maintenance, and energy services.

Preparing for what’s next

As rapid change normalises, leaders also need to be able to adapt their skills. Aurecon’s Merit says a good leader is a “light in the fog. They are calm and reflective, guiding the organisation not only through a crisis but also through the exit.”

Leaders also need to upskill themselves to be ready for the new challenges that will inevitably come their way. “For me, it’s a mindset. We can’t predict anything in great detail any more. But we can channel our energy to our common goals,” she explains.

As Australia enters a business resumption phase, Adams says it is a good time to be more deliberate by reflecting on what worked well, and making sure it’s part of the business moving forward. Like Walker, she is keen to sustain the ability to move quickly – without the usual roadblocks to change. “We need to consciously build a culture that can respond quickly to challenges,” she says.

“Although we cannot guess what the next disruption will be, thinking about how we responded this time can help us better prepare for the future,” Adams concludes. 

Hear from Macquarie Group’s CEO Shemara Wikramanayake on how Australia’s entrepreneurial spirit looks for opportunity in disruption.

Additional information

The information on this page has been prepared by Macquarie Business Banking, a division of Macquarie Bank Limited AFSL & Australian Credit Licence 237502 ("Macquarie") for general information purposes only, without taking into account your personal objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this general information, you must consider its appropriateness having regard to your own objectives, financial situation and needs. The information provided is not intended to replace or serve as a substitute for any accounting, tax or other professional advice, consultation or service.