By Dave Martin, Tyler Voegele, and Derek White
Nobody needs to tell engineers the importance of collaboration. In addition to working with architects, contractors, consultants, and owners, you need to collaborate effectively with colleagues in other offices of your firm.
And now that as many as half of us are working from home, the pressure is on information technology managers to facilitate productivity however people are working.
To this end, engineering companies are turning to collaboration platforms from a number of companies—Zoom, Autodesk, and Microsoft among them.
We are engineers and IT managers at three different firms. In each of our companies, we’re making strong use of Microsoft Teams collaboration software in concert with other software applications. Our colleagues are asking us a lot of questions about the new ways we’re asking them to work:
“Why do we need to change?”
“What are the best ways to share files and notes?”
“How should we teleconference?”
“How can we collaboratively plan and track everyday tasks, and keep the team in the loop on project communications?”
“How can we create a searchable project record of our decisions?”
“What makes Teams special? And how does it pair with other software?”
Below, we share our experiences answering these questions:
More than phones
We’ve changed the way we collaborate because new technologies enable us to do it better.
When it comes to collaboration technologies, the telephone came first and remains a favorite. Yet Teams has replaced conventional phone systems.
A handful of colleagues said we’d have to pry their handsets from their “cold, dead hands,” but they came around when they became able to seamlessly make and receive office calls on a smartphone.
When the pandemic forced people to work at home, they were happy to have a softphone alternative to their office phones.
And Teams, like most collaboration platforms, also offers messaging (chats) and videoconferencing, and does so on mobile as well as desktop computers. These capabilities are especially useful when discussing site conditions or working in the field.
Single-pane access to multiple workflows
Collaboration means much more than communication. In Teams, for example, “collaboration” also covers the group editing of a Word, excel or PowerPoint document. No more emailing attachments and wondering which version is current. This is a game-changing workflow, especially for large teams.
Teams doesn’t just facilitate collaboration among people. It also provides a platform for different software applications to work together, inside it. Naturally, it accommodates Microsoft applications:
- Office365 (Collaborative multi-user access to Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, etc.)
- OneNote (Collaborative meeting minutes and notes, accessible to the entire team)
- Planner (Simple task assignments and tracking to team members)
- Microsoft Stream (for training videos)
Engineers tend to be visual thinkers, so they like Power BI business intelligence software, which graphs data useful in managing projects. Because this data can be both internal- and external-facing, it’s a good way to update clients on their projects.
A very cool integration with Teams is the HoloLens 2 with Remote Assist. It’s an augmented reality headset to wear at the jobsite. People meeting with you on Teams can not only see what you’re seeing, but can see the model superimposed over the structure. Because all these applications work inside Teams, you’re able to do many tasks in one software pane. No more jumping back and forth.
Channel apps and the challenge of integrated software
Teams accepts non-Microsoft applications, too. Using such “channel apps,” Teams becomes a single pane in which you can brainstorm ideas using a whiteboard software; or manage emails, file transfers, and construction administration using project information management software.
All in all, single-pane collaboration has been a hit with engineers. Colleagues have told us, “I just want one platform to use for communication.”
Single-pane collaboration platforms are one way to reconcile the perennial question of whether to do as much work as possible using one, big, complicated software application or to combine many easier-to-use, best-in-class applications.
“Desire path” adoption versus telling people what to do and how to do it
Desire paths are the trails pedestrians make themselves, as opposed to the paved sidewalks planners provide for them. They are an excellent metaphor for software adoption.
Software often offers multiple ways to do a given task. For example, some may choose to share a file by attaching it to an email, while others will email a link to the file. Some may send it as an attachment in a text, or in the public message section of Teams, which is a chat to the group.
Still others will use project information management software to send files and log record transmittals.
All those different ways of doing a task are examples of users blazing their own paths.
Some people insist on working their own ways, and IT managers like to respect different working styles. But many engineers ask, “I don’t need to know four ways. Just tell me the best way so that’s all I have to remember.”
(It’s great when people seek suggestions, because we can encourage the method that captures a project history, as with transmittal logs.)
Tips for engineers and IT managers when implementing new software
If you’re an engineer in a firm where new software is coming into use, let your IT and training teams know your preference—whether you want to work things out for yourself or learn the recommended method. (There may be processes we all have to follow, but hopefully they reflect the users desired workflows.)
If you’re an IT manager implementing collaboration software, establish guardrails that consider user input. It avoids colleagues being unable to remember how they sent a file, for example.
Native and organic growth is really important, but giving people good recommendations reduces many process and data sprawl problems.
Different sharing methods for different tasks
If you’re pointing a fellow engineer to a file to work on jointly, it makes sense to simply text the link or share in a Teams channel. The file does not move and you do not have to document the action.
But if you’re sharing a file with a consultant or contractor outside your firm, you want to document their reception of it. For that, you’ll want to use PIM software.
For example, regarding file transfers, Degenkolb and Ulteig encourage people to use TonicDM for project-based file sharing, because the software logs and tracks transfers. (TonicDM works as a channel app within Teams, making it easier to work from that single Teams pane.)
Different services for internal and external messaging
Degenkolb Engineers separates messaging between two services:
- Teams is better for internal personal and project communication, and in some cases, messaging with external clients.
- Yammer serves well for ask-and-answer questions that extend to the entire firm’s expertise, versus smaller pools in teams.
Using Yammer this way creates a knowledge base that makes today’s learnings available to future employees.
A note about collaboration and knowledge management
An interesting phenomenon regarding chat collaboration is that we’re seeing general staff answering software questions. It’s a return to asking the person at the next desk for help before escalating the question to an expert. And because the answers are out in the open, your help desk can monitor them to make sure bad advice doesn’t spread.
We are seeing far fewer office-wide emails these days. Instead, they go into chat forums and ask questions there.
Design firms have so much knowledge contained in the minds and hearts of the people. It’s cool to see that knowledge surface as people collaborate.
In closing: situations are reversed
In the old days, employees were in one place—the office—and information was in many places, such as servers, Outlook Exchange, Office documents, PIM software, and more.
Today, those situations are reversed. Information is more frequently consolidated in one place—the cloud—and it’s the workers who are distributed.
As luck would have it, cloud computing makes it easier for distributed offices and team members to collaborate. Now you can manage cloud-hosted data in a single pane, and can do so wherever you’re working.
The firms who embrace and master these technologies are better poised to deliver better designs on schedule and within budget. And because it’s fun to use cool tools, work is more rewarding, too.
Could a model viewer come to Teams?
SmithGroup is working with Autodesk to develop a model viewer to use within Teams. Imagine opening a model inside Teams! Project managers would be able to view some aspect of a model without risking changes or using Revit tokens.
Two recommendations for IT managers: scripts and sync
Because Teams is so open-ended, we recommend employing scripted, automated processes to open and close projects, move data, and more.
Consider the Power App suite, Power Automate in particular, to automate business or project processes. One example: tagging people at the creation of a project that includes them.
In addition to ensuring consistent process, saving time, and eliminating human error, scripting makes it easier to change platforms in the future.
For example, if BIM 360 replaces Teams and you have processes scripted, it’s practical to switch one repository for another, because you understand the pathways between them.
Show people how to put cloud-hosted files on their local computers using the sync function. The file stays current because, in the background, changes synchronize with the cloud-based original. It really saves time, and engineers like it.
Dave Martin is a project engineer and tech implementation manager at Degenkolb Engineers, a multi-office, mid-size structural engineering firm headquartered in San Francisco.
Tyler Voegele is the enterprise applications and systems lead at Ulteig Engineers, a firm delivering comprehensive engineering solutions across the Lifeline Sectors® of power, renewables, transportation and water in North America.
Derek White is the chief information officer of SmithGroup, a 1,200-person integrated design firm with 15 officers in the United States and China.