Many design firms in the Southwest saw their revenue decline in 2020, the expected result of a pandemic year in which numerous regional projects were delayed or canceled. But some firms found a way to increase revenue and productivity last year, even with employees working remotely.

Multidisciplinary firms like Stantec that already had sophisticated IT infrastructure in place before the pandemic were able to transition more quickly to a mobile workforce. “In the Southwest, we saw a 19% revenue increase during 2020 as compared against 2019, a testament to the hard work and planning of our IT teams, pandemic committee, local leadership and individual team members,” says Sheina Hughes, Stantec vice president.

AECOM, whose regional revenue dipped by nearly $7 million year over year, says it also “has supported its employees with more flexible ways of working” and has shifted much of its business to a virtual environment, including online plan reviews for clients, according to Tyler Besch, the firm’s transit-rail deputy division manager, based in Phoenix. The firm’s corporate strategy of “creating a global organization has really benefited our entire business,” he says.

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“We don’t really believe we are post-pandemic just yet,” says Benjamin Gardner, principal and CEO at Dekker/Perich/Sabatini in Albuquerque. “We remain concerned about our staff’s health and a safe return to our offices.” Despite adhering to strict health and safety protocols, DPS increased its 2020 regional revenue to $35.1 million from $31 million the previous year.

The forecast for future design work is mixed, with AIA’s Architecture Billings Index score of 53.3 in February marking the first time that design contracts have reached into positive territory since the pandemic began. However, some design leaders are optimistic. “We are seeing a lot of industrial and multifamily project interest in our key market areas,” Gardner says.

Some hard-hit sectors like health care seem to be recovering more rapidly than anticipated. “Health care was poised for significant capital expansion immediately prior to the March 2020 shutdown,” says Sidney Bowen, managing principal at Shepley Bulfinch. “Now we are seeing a renewed focus on projects that were in the pipeline.”

More firms also are relying on technology to drive productivity and profit. “It’s easy to say that technology is changing our industry, but it really is the primary catalyst of change,” says Stantec principal Aaditya Raman. “Improved access to data is changing how we work and which projects our clients are deciding to move forward.”