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Markets & Geopolitics

How built environment professionals are preparing for a future world of work

Working in the built environment offers the opportunity to grapple with some of society's biggest challenges, from housing and urbanisation to access to services and mobility. But the malady of underinvestment has meant little improvement in outcomes or productivity in the sector for many years.

Lara Potter, Director, Workforce for the Future, Arcadis
28 October 2019

Working in the built environment offers the opportunity to grapple with some of society's biggest challenges, from housing and urbanisation to access to services and mobility. But the malady of underinvestment has meant little improvement in outcomes or productivity in the sector for many years.

There is a clear consensus that the prospect for technology and digital capability to deliver improved results is huge and transformational. The recent announcement from Goldman Sachs about its investment in the construction finance platform Rabbet, as well as news that Sidewalk Labs, a Google subsidiary, will be leading a project for the development of the waterfront in Toronto, all points towards a fast-growing ecosystem of technology-focussed new entrants who are challenging the status quo.

Engaging in the change

A 2019 poll of over 200 built environment professionals asked how engaged they were about the future world of work. Over 80% of those polled agreed they were excited or moderately excited, with only 2% expressing disinterest. The same poll asked how these built environment professionals felt about the future of work for themselves and their teams. 58% said they are confident or somewhat confident, with only 26% neutral and 15% somewhat worried or worried about the future of work.

These results are revealing. Technology is a tool, and to get the most from it, built environment professionals will need to challenge some of the most established ways of working. It's encouraging to see how much appetite there is for change, but organisations will need to think differently, collaborate in new ways, and be more focused about the way they develop and retain talent if they are to remain relevant and competitive.


Although technical skills will continue to provide the foundation, soft skills will play an increasingly important part in realising this value. Digital transformation will cause a massive cultural and behavioural shift. Fortunately, the built environment can learn from industries like banking and accountancy, which are already being reshaped by their own digital transformation.

There are four key areas where built environment professionals are preparing for the future.

1. Developing existing and building new technical skills

Upskilling and reskilling will be critical. Already specific tasks are being automated and disrupted. As standard design or measurement processes become automated through modularisation or more sophisticated BIM systems, these are no longer tasks for the engineer or commercial manager.

New skills will be required. Data science will be key to unlock the value of significant quantities of data – and to support routinisation, knowledge share and ultimately automation. While deep data analytics skills may be the domain of computer science, this is an area where built environment professionals are already upskilling – in data capture through digital platforms, and data visualisation. Many organisations are accelerating development through specific learning interventions and building on hidden skills.

The focus in the built environment has traditionally been on specialists. Although specialists will continue to be important, the built environment professional of the future may exhibit complementary skill sets and a much less linear and more diverse career path. There is an emergence of professionals with a T-shaped skills profile – with a depth of skills and expertise in a single field (the vertical of the T), AND the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one's own (the horizonal bar).

2. Encourage the development of soft skills

As we navigate an increasingly complex environment with multiple stakeholders and a need to 'connect the dots' between technical skills, so soft skills become more important than ever. 80% of those surveyed by a recent LinkedIn poll say that soft skills are growing in importance to business success, while 89% highlighted a lack of soft skills among bad hires at their organization. The World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2018 describes the importance of "non-cognitive soft skills that enable people to leverage their uniquely human capabilities."

But soft skills are hard to identify and hard to manage. There has been much written about the culture of an organisation being critical to its success. Soft skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy, creativity, the ability to manage ambiguity and the ability to collaborate all play a key part in success.

Critical to this journey will be to encourage a broader continued learning experience. In the short term, built environment professionals should be open to rotations and redeployment – providing opportunities to apply transferable skills, and their learning.

3. Collaboration between the generations

The technology is already available. Unlocking the skills for change may require a shift in the traditional career hierarchy, with value in experience and technical knowledge coming from the Baby Boomers and Gen X, and the value from digitally enabled unrestrained thinking from the millennial generation. The built environment sector needs both – and for these skills to work side by side.

Organisations need to set the tone by empowering new and early career professionals as well as helping contextualise the changes for those later in their career.

Career paths of the future won't look like career paths of the past. Early career professionals must have confidence that the built environment sector will be a good career choice. The employee experience is key - recruitment processes, inductions, and early experiences must reflect the digital transformation.

4. Leadership

Leadership in this world of ambiguity and change may call for something different. The built environment has been founded on a 'get stuff done' culture – repeating what went before and relying on long term relationships. In this new world, leadership will need to take a number of different guises. Vlerick Business School recognise four leadership styles needed for digital transformation – visionary, vested, voyager and vigilant.

Leaders in the built environment sector are required to be more courageous than ever. They will need to make key decisions on where to invest their time, money and energy -and at the same time, build a culture which can bring about these changes.

Leaders of the future may be less reliant on years of experience. Instead, it may be more important to be able to bring together a diverse mix of people and skills in pursuit of a common goal. Building an inclusive culture will be key.

Delivering ultimate value

The outcome of this evolution is a move from siloed services into an offering which can bring renewed value to society, the environment and to the economy. The winners will be a mix of new entrants and firms which have embraced digital transformation.

The biggest challenge to making these changes at any realistic pace may be the way the UK built environment sector sees itself – with its complexity of networks and professions. The aspiration for the built environment sector should be to become a sector of choice for a new generation of digitally enabled, agile professionals.