Legal disputes soar as Covid impacts the AEC industry

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Poor email management is exacerbating the pandemic’s impact on the AEC industry’s priorities, according to research by Mail Manager, as legal disputes soar

Companies are facing more legal disputes and shifting their communication and technology priorities as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Mail Manager research from architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms in the US and the UK.

The research finds that remote working has become a sudden requirement for AEC industries. It also uncovers that legal disputes are on the increase while businesses are becoming more reliant on collaboration tools and receiving a higher volume of emails. As a result, AEC employees are increasingly concerned about their ability to find project information, which further increases the risk of legal disputes.

Remote working suddenly dominates tech priorities

The pandemic has resulted in a sudden prioritisation of remote working. This time 12 months ago, remote working barely registered on AEC firms’ key technology objectives. Only 11% of organisations responding to the same study in 2020 said enabling better remote working practices was a priority. However, in 2021, it has now become AEC businesses’ primary technology initiative.

Nearly three-quarters of AEC leaders (71%) revealed that remote working was a key technology initiative they were considering. This was followed by managing data better (49%), cloud adoption (46%), streamlining processes (45%), mobile connectivity (41%) and cyber security (40%).

Email and collaboration tools are increasingly important

AEC firms are increasingly reliant on email. Four-fifths of respondents (80%) said email had become at least ‘somewhat’ more important to their organisation in the last 12 months. This included one-third of respondents (33%) saying email had become ‘considerably’ more important or ‘business-critical.’ As a result, email usage has spiked in the last year, with 80% of respondents saying their email volume had increased at least ‘somewhat.’

In addition, AEC businesses are increasingly relying on collaboration tools. This includes an increased usage of internal collaboration tools and software (55% of respondents), external collaboration tools (30%), BIM tools (6%) and financial software (3%).

Despite the growing importance and usage of email and collaboration tools, employees are still struggling to find the information they need when they need it. The majority of respondents (87%) said they were at least ‘slightly concerned’ about project information not being available or visible when they needed it. Of those, 26% were ‘very concerned’ that they wouldn’t be able to find project information.

These concerns are coupled with AEC workers increasingly having to retrieve emails and documents from legacy projects. Nearly half of respondents (46%) said they ‘often’ have to find emails from old projects while one in five (19%) needs to retrieve them ‘very often,’ which was a 33% increase on this time last year.

Jacob Wardrop, director at Mail Manager, said: “This insight from senior figures in the AEC industry shows the dramatic effect the pandemic has had on the way that businesses work.

“With employees continuing to remain home-based, email remains a vital collaboration tool that businesses still struggle to get the best out of.

“This risks important project information getting locked in individual inboxes, employees spending hours looking for data and documents, or information going missing completely.

“The increasing importance of remote working and the need to quickly discover historical email data means organisations need to invest in tools that simplify the process and help employees be as productive as possible.”

Legal disputes increased during the pandemic

Legal disputes have also increased in volume over the last 12 months. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63%) reported having some form of legal dispute since the start of the pandemic. Of these disputes, the most common cause involved timelines (26%), followed by payment issues (16%) and project scope changes (14%).

The information most commonly required to fight these legal disputes was ‘evidence of correspondence,’ which 80% of respondents advised they would need to evidence their case. That was followed by contracts (65%), historic project information (59%) and drawing approvals (54%).

This evidence businesses need to support legal cases is increasingly stored on email. More than half of the respondents (52%) said information about scope changes resided within email, compared to 50% this time last year. Furthermore, email remains the most-used project correspondence tool, with more than three-quarters of respondents (77%) using the medium for at least 70% of their project communication.

These email struggles are further compounded by historic project information remaining in the inboxes of former employees. Only 52% of respondents said they filed outgoing employees’ emails to make them easily discoverable by current project team members and 17% didn’t know.

‘Take control of your project correspondence’

Wardrop added: “The dramatic changes in the world over the last 12 months are reflected in the AEC industry’s changing priorities. Businesses have significantly shifted their focus onto enabling remote working for their employees, which increases the need for effective collaboration tools.

“However, our research makes it clear that the vast majority of project correspondence continues to remain in users’ individual inboxes. This makes it difficult to quickly discover and retrieve historic project data or information to support a legal case.

“AEC firms need to take control of their project correspondence to ensure it’s easily discoverable by all project members as and when they need it.”

Download the full report on the research here.

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