Mobilising water infrastructure programme during a global pandemic.

Thinking

A story of mobilising an AUD 1-billion water infrastructure programme during a global pandemic

When the team engaged to work on securing the future water supply for New South Wales was told to work from home, a profound change was sparked in how major programmes mobilise. While it was back in March 2020, this is an enduring start-up story that provides a lesson learned for any major infrastructure programme in the future. It’s a story of people: collaboration, doing the job that needs to be done, and supporting the health and well-being of colleagues.

This historic partnership between WaterNSW, Aurecon and KBR to build new dams throughout the state had just begun and instead of three separate entities co-locating in one office, staff had to onboard and mobilise remotely.

There was nothing traditional about this mobilisation. Ways of working on a major and very complex programme were challenged like never before.

While nobody would choose to go through this crisis again, there was a lot of growth in creativity and innovation as people realised their inner strength. A deep sense of commitment was fostered to ensure the programme was set up to succeed, even though people were working remotely.

“At the time, the project team was moving in the opposite direction to the economy. As workplaces, retail outlets and streets were closing, we were opening a new opportunity for the workforce, and New South Wales.”

– Dr Robert Holmes, Director, People and Culture, Aurecon and WaterNSW.

In this thinking paper, we explore the benefits and lessons learned from mobilising an AUD 1-billion water infrastructure programme during a global pandemic.

The “why” for a partnering approach

Government agencies and water utilities have the responsibility to invest in innovative projects to deliver services which contribute to the health and well-being of citizens.

The collaboration between WaterNSW and joint venture partners, Aurecon and KBR, is delivering three major dam projects, and potentially more projects in the future.

The first tranche, of more than AUD 1-billion, includes dam projects at Dungowan near Tamworth and Wyangala near Cowra, plus a final business case for a new dam on the Mole River near Tenterfield. The new and upgraded dams will increase water security and drought resilience in these regions.

Other projects in the programme include new pipelines and weirs, and improved water supply infrastructure across the State.

This major infrastructure commitment is in response to severe droughts over the past two decades across vast geographical areas of New South Wales.

The partnership model that was adopted to deliver this programme improves how the major projects will be managed and how risks associated with the investment are mitigated. The plan, build and run phase of this partnership approach is key to reaching this goal (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Benefits in the plan, build and run phase with a partnership approach

Benefits in the plan, build and run phase with a partnership approach –  Aurecon.

The curveball of COVID-19

As COVID-19 spread across the globe, remote working became the reality. Close to 60 people were mobilised on this programme in a digital and remote way over a three-week period.

The pandemic forced the partnership to reimagine what staff mobilisation on a major infrastructure programme looked like. Each person had to embrace a new way of working and communicating. In many ways, this unthinkable scenario had positive outcomes as people understood the urgency to onboard and were motivated, as a collegiate group, to see the process succeed. It required the team to transition away from using traditional onboarding and mobilisation tools, to using digital platforms and ways of working (Figure 2).

“Digital platforms were used to collaborate and brainstorm ideas together, to establish formal and informal relationships. We were able to hold any size of engagement online, from a small weekly team meeting to discuss tasks, to town hall gatherings of 200 people, to informal team building and networking gatherings.
This was the power of working digitally.”

– Vanessa Neser, Design and Engineering Director, Aurecon and WaterNSW.

The digital platforms overcame the barriers of remote working and kept people connected. They made remote working more convenient by allowing colleagues to keep working together on tasks.

Figure 2: Embracing digital platforms and new ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Embracing digital platforms and new ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic – Aurecon.

Forced to reshape ways of working and communicating, digital platforms became programme enablers. Electronic whiteboarding, not traditionally used on this type of programme, provided an ideal tool to sketch ideas in virtual meetings. The connectiveness of the interactive canvas made interaction much simpler. It fostered real-time collaboration and idea-sharing in a digital environment.

The digital tools helped to make regular meetings quick and agile. Each person also played their part in making these meetings dynamic and engaging, bringing an element of fun into people’s homes with regular online themed social occasions.

This way of working can be a template base for other major infrastructure programmes, even when the pandemic stops requiring people to mobilise while working remotely. This is because it isn’t just about the technology. Technology will always be there. This success story is also about how people collaborated with emotional intelligence, honesty, and transparency to support each other to balance work and life, and how they were committed to working towards achieving common goals.

“This process actually opened up opportunities to reimagine how we could get people together and working together, while not physically located together. We created an environment that reinforced that geography was not a barrier.”

– Dr Ryan Signor, Director – Program Advisory at Aurecon.

Remote working shone a light on how valuable contributions from other geographic areas can contribute to a programme of works, even in circumstances when those people are not co-located with the rest of the team. Aurecon specialists from 10 different cities contributed their skills for ‘best-for-project’ collective outcomes.

Working remotely benefited the blending of three individual entities with a one-team approach. Traditionally, getting to know each other was in meeting rooms and behind desks. Instead, with each person behind a screen at home, it wasn’t about which organisation they’d joined from, but what role they were fulfilling. The natural hierarchical feel of an individual entity was flattened as people were streamed from home (their personal spaces), which generated more real and empathetic conversations.

Capturing lessons learned and managing risks

For many people, working from home full-time was a new experience. In the past, people might have opted to work from home sporadically, however, with the upheaval caused by the pandemic, it was a sudden transition to doing it indefinitely. There were many adjustments made to ensure that mobilisation was as equally productive and engaging as being co-located in an office, and to ensure that project risks were effectively managed.

Meeting organisers intentionally set aside time for general relationship building conversations that would have traditionally occurred in an office setting.

Teams did, however, miss unintentional learning and knowledge transfer moments, typically a part of casual conversations in the hallway, at the morning coffee bench, or arriving for work at the same time.

To bring these unintentional learning and knowledge transfer moments back during remote working and ensure that those risks that are often identified in a workshop situation are still brought forward, teams dedicated time in meetings for brainstorming, and used digital brainstorming tools that allowed multiple users to contribute at the same time.

A resilient structure is one that can resist, adapt and recover from environmental, social and economic shocks in a timely and efficient manner. The structure created by the partnership had everything thrown at it in the first few weeks and proved that it was able to not only recover but thrive.

Risk management was always part of the agenda and front of mind in any conversation, knowing that those incidental conversations, where important knowledge can often be transferred, were not always taking place in a remote virtual environment.

Longer work hours did initially became a by-product of this new way or working as staff were inclined to check work messages or continue to complete tasks because the technology was close by. To manage this, part of the mobilisation process was making it acceptable, and expected, that people disconnect from work at the end of the day.

Daily check-ins enabled social connection and provided an opportunity for feedback, or the sharing of concerns. It was important to connect, align communications and nurture relationships between team members to maintain creativity and innovation (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Developing ways of remote working that still generated efficiency, creativity and innovation

Developing ways of remote working that still generated efficiency, creativity and innovation – Aurecon.

Creating a legacy for the future

This programme of projects is leaving an intergenerational legacy for water security in New South Wales. The comprehensive portfolio of critical water security projects responds to the current drought and future-proofs the state against future droughts.

The systems, processes and ways of working developed during mobilisation and onboarding are also a legacy. While the pandemic forced each person to work remotely, it actually reinforced the specific elements of any enduring partnership. That is empathy, understanding, embracing differences, and collaborating to generate innovation. On top of that was a clear and unified purpose to the programme, with people able to be agile and cope with uncertainty.

Whilst the programme project planning and development is still underway, this onboarding and mobilisation provides a poignant lesson learned for other infrastructure programmes, with the adopting of an achievement mindset, a focus on flexibility and adaptability, and laying the foundation for relational capital to flourish.


About the authors

Dr Ryan Signor is Aurecon’s Program Advisory Leader for the water sector. Sitting at the nexus of science, engineering, policy and project delivery, he creates diverse teams to tackle the industry’s most pressing needs. He focuses on designing programmes for sustainably delivering and operating critical infrastructure, managing organisational risk, and improving urban and natural environments.

Dr Robert Holmes is Aurecon’s People and Change Leader. He is a trusted advisor, keynote speaker, researcher and performance coach who integrates the latest in neuroscience to teams in partnerships and projects. Think culture change, high performing teams and organisational transformation. His focus is helping people to work at full potential, achieving high performance, restoring balance and building resilience.

Vanessa Neser is the Design and Engineering Director for Aurecon within the WaterNSW partnership. Her foundation of experience spans across construction and consulting firms in Australia with specialist skills in low energy and sustainable wastewater treatment plants. Vanessa has a real focus on bringing innovative environmental and sustainable solutions to clients and brings together design teams to enable this to happen. Her design of innovative procurement approaches enables clients to transition new construction projects into functional and operational applications for the benefit of their businesses and customers.

Marianne Cullen was the Portfolio Director for Aurecon with the WaterNSW Partnership and is Aurecon’s Managing Principal, Stakeholder Engagement and Communications. Marianne was previously a senior Federal Government First Assistant Secretary with 24 years’ experience in the Commonwealth Government. She has held leadership positions in the Australian Government Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Communications, the Digital Transformation Office and the Department of Finance.

Alex Fisher is Manager – Government Projects Interface, Assets Division at WaterNSW and Deputy Chair of Dams Safety NSW. She is a skilled organisational leader and senior executive with more than 25 years of experience in a range of industries, including the military, academia, utilities, government and consulting.

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