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We Didn’t Start this Fire Either

We Didn’t Start this Fire Either

By Tom Godin

Everything I know about the second half of the 20th century I learned from Billy Joel and his 1989 hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” In the space of four minutes, he chronicled four decades of world events.

With apologies to one of my favorite artists, here is a look back on just one year – 2021. Within Billy Joel’s other lyrics we can also find inspiration for 2022.

The Pandemic

Pfizer and Moderna, variants and mutant strains. Second wave, third wave, booster shots and mask mandates

When this magazine went to press a year ago, a Covid tsunami was breaking. Then case numbers plunged throughout the spring and early summer, helped by vaccines and social measures. By June, it felt like we were approaching a “return to normal”. Cue the Delta variant. Cases spiked again in August and September. As I write this, Omicron is dominating headlines. We’ve been living with a persistent undercurrent of existential dread for almost two years now.

AEC firms have done a remarkable job adapting, and business by and large has been very good. These are still not normal times, however, as tempting as it is to think otherwise.

“I took the good times; I’ll take the bad times; I’ll take you just the way you are” – from “Just The Way You Are,” 1977

Zweig Group surveys AEC employees for its annual Best Firms to Work For Award. 2020 results represented the high-water mark for positive employee sentiment of their firms’ communications efforts. Our 2021 survey results were clear that employers retreated to old habits.

We continue to beat our drum on this topic. Frequent, consistent, insightful communication about the state of affairs may have been “extra necessary” in 2020. It is no less important today than it was a year ago. To the firm leaders reading this: Don’t take your foot off the communication pedal. Keep talking to your company.

The Industry

Return to office, Zoom fatigue, record backlog, steady fees. Talent shortage, rising costs, infrastructure bill proceeds.

AEC firms will record excellent year-end financial results.

Projects moved forward in 2021, across the United States and in all sectors. Backlog figures are breaking records. Merger and acquisition activity is brisk. The industry is experiencing full employment.

Recruiting and retention of staff remains the top priority and concern of AEC managers. The recent passage of the Infrastructure and Investment Act (IIA) will push backlog numbers even higher and put more pressure on staff.

“… You might enjoy some madness for a while” – from “You May Be Right,” 1980

We don’t know how long these good times will roll. Our advice? Keep hustling. Do everything you can to make your firm a best place to work so that you hold on to what you’ve got. Look for innovative ways to make technology work to your benefit.

Our Society

“Social justice, DEI, climate change and cleaner skies”

When we get busy, we stop doing the “important but not urgent” things on our lists. Marketing, training, mentoring, celebrations – these get pushed aside by AEC firms.

“I’d love to stay but there’s bills to pay, So I just don’t have the time” – from “The Entertainer”, 1974

Don’t manifest this lyric. Not as it relates to marketing or employee experience. Not as it relates to the two defining movements of our time.

There is all the work to be done in our industry as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI needs to be on every management team’s agenda in 2022.

ElevateHER is an initiative – started by Zweig Group – to better the future of the AEC industry. It is a commitment to embrace, promote, and ensure equal opportunities for everyone in the AEC industry regardless of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

ElevateHER’s website – has resources that every firm will find useful. The program is also actively recruiting its next cohort. Your energy and effort are necessary. Please engage with this important initiative.

Along with DEI, and in fact closely linked with it – our planet and its environment need to be top of mind for our industry too. Worldwide we are hearing intense conversations around Net Zero. The IIA is full of projects meant to combat climate change.

Sustainable design and building techniques are in most firm’s repertoires now and AEC firms need to continue to stay abreast of leading-edge research and engineering developments. At Zweig Group, we intend to make this an area of emphasis in 2022.

A year ago, Zweig Group Managing Principal Jamie Claire Kiser urged readers of this magazine to “Find your ElevateHER. Respond to your own call to action, whatever it may be. Leave your profession better than you found it.”

I can’t improve on that advice for 2022. The voices aren’t going to pass by. Open the door.

Tom Godin is an advisor of Strategic Planning at Zweig Group. He can be reached at tgodin@zweiggroup.com.