Despite stoppages in current projects, and a downturn in the economy that has restricted the pipeline of incoming projects, consulting engineering company SRK Consulting MD Vis Reddy says the company and its project teams have adapted well to working remotely.
Cloud-based data storage systems, which make project data more accessible remotely, help the company’s project teams operate seamlessly. This includes using online conferencing with one another, and clients, for work continuity.
All employees have mainly been working from home, with vital resources, such as technology and mobile data, provided.
“Our modus operandi under Level 3 remains similar to Level 4, where our people work at home and come into the office and conduct sites only if necessary. We also have a weekly rotation of who can come in, with no more than a third of the staff in the office at any time. Once in the office, we work in isolation in our own offices.”
During the lockdown, as well as going forward, Reddy emphasises many measures which have been taken. This includes sharing with staff information about mental health, as well as staff support services such as counselling and coaching.
Additionally, with the ongoing health threat, he states that the company will be deploying its senior staff more judiciously, given their greater susceptibility. This will however give younger professionals the chance to gain experience, and require less travel of more experienced professionals, allowing more efficiency and time for mentoring.
Travelling to sites will also be done only when necessary. Where visual input is required on aspects of SRK’s projects, the company has been requesting photographs and videos where possible. This helps to avoid unnecessary site visits.
“We have been able to continue working on most projects involving desktop work, such as due diligence studies, where clients provide us with data. We also have projects in the petrochemicals and energy sectors, for example, with field data continuing to come in and provide us with material to work with.”
While the company has remained fairly active, Reddy emphasises that, like most consultancies, SRK had to find ways to reduce costs.
“This is vital, as the sustainability of the local consulting engineering sector has been placed under more strain, owing to Covid-19. Many companies have not been able to keep staff at full salary or the full complement, while others have laid off staff,” says Reddy.
Reducing costs is crucial, as many clients’ procurement processes have been disrupted by the lockdown, which, in turn, brings considerable uncertainty to the flow of work in the immediate future.
“Many of our projects could continue during the lockdown, with the data already gathered, but for some, we will need to get back to site. If we cannot get to site soon, our business will be affected in later months, despite lockdown conditions relaxing,” he stresses.
Reddy expects the possibility of Covid-19 “cluster outbreaks” at mines or industrial sites to be a significant challenge once lockdown conditions are relaxed.
As much of the work SRK conducts is deadline-driven, time delays from mine or site closures will negatively affect the company.
SRK’s site-based work, such as construction supervision and monitoring, was negatively affected by the lockdown. Earlier this month, the company was allowed to resume construction work only at power stations and in the mining sector, as most mines and power have resumed production.
Additionally, Reddy states that, with local air travel reopened for business purposes, essential site visits will be possible, and more practical.
“Our international work will benefit when travel outside South Africa is allowed, but initially, we will be fairly circumspect about travelling to other countries. This will also depend on the regulations of those countries.”
Restrictions on cross-border travel and lockdowns in other countries have stalled international projects in which SRK has been involved. The company was able to continue work on some projects for a period once the local lockdown started using previously gathered data.
Further, the company’s leveraging the capacity of local offices in certain countries is an advantage.
The company has a presence in Ghana, and SRK’s office in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been in operation for a decade.
Once normal business activity resumes, colleagues in other countries will be able to collect and share data.
Reddy states that there have also been opportunities in the water supply sector in support of government’s Covid-19 relief efforts to provide communities with water.
The company has collaborated with the Covid-19 support initiative of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) and is providing pro-bono advisory and review support for Busa’s focus on water supply.
“Most of our work in the mining sector is slowly resuming. The economy has seen a slowdown in non-mining projects, however, as clients take a cautious approach and hold back on commitments. In the longer term, we expect the impact of the lockdown to continue to at least September based on current projections on the infection rate. However the new normal will have a greater influence on our business for many years to come.”