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PA OPINION

Aerospace and defence organisations must use their experience from COVID-19 to change how they work forever

Aerospace and defence organisations have long struggled to keep pace with changing workforce trends and the shift towards more flexible and remote working, particularly in engineering design areas. Tradition, inertia and concerns over security and productivity have typically won out over radical change. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked change at unprecedented speed, with most non-manufacturing activity transitioning to remote working almost overnight.

And while VPNs, individuals and security teams have all been pushed to the limit in the last few weeks, our own team’s experience and feedback from those across the sector is that most have successfully made the transition, with programmes continuing to deliver and special arrangements in place for occasional access to secure facilities for those that need them. Such success creates a huge opportunity, or perhaps a necessity, to treat the current situation not as something to simply get through but as the start of lasting change to the way aerospace and defence works. Indeed, other sectors are already heading this way with the boss of Barclays recently declaring this crisis may see the end of large offices.

Cost cutting will certainly be essential given the impact of the coronavirus on the aerospace sector and likely reductions in defence spending ahead. But industry leaders will also have a chance to address longstanding skills and capacity shortfalls that have been constraining critical programmes. Remote working enables access to a national, rather than local, specialist resource pool and offers a more attractive bet to top candidates, female talent and those with additional workplace requirements who value this flexibility and are underrepresented in the sector. Digital platforms, virtual collaboration and new ways of working will become more normal as people embed new working habits, seek to maintain a better work-life balance and consider the impacts of wellbeing.

So, what should aerospace and defence organisations be doing now?

Challenge barriers, debunk fears and identify value opportunities

The last few weeks have demolished many preconceptions around remote working: that people won’t work as hard, that good relationships can only be made face-to-face, or that security fears are insurmountable. Leaders should develop the evidence to close the debate once and for all, collecting metrics and feedback from teams to understand the real impact on performance. Security policies should be reviewed from a new perspective of necessity. While some activity will need to continue on secure facilities, we’re already seeing work that would traditionally have been done on site being delivered successfully remotely.

In parallel, it’s time to identify benefits that support the business case for remote working. As well as helping to address defence companies’ skills and capacity challenges, remote working brings other opportunities. It can strengthen arrangements with external suppliers, enhancing your capability to outsource and offload work, which may be important in managing a post-COVID increase in demand. Significant cost benefits can also be achieved through a reduction in office requirements and travel and should be captured as part of the case.

Learn fast, evolve, adjust and make it work – for now 

As well as collecting evidence on the impact of remote working, companies should be taking the opportunity to learn fast, evolve, test and adjust the effectiveness of their remote working arrangements. Training and guidance should be provided and leaders should be engaging regularly with managers, teams, customers and their supply chains to understand what’s working and what isn’t. Challenges such as team interaction, collaborative engineering tools, access to secure systems, restrictive processes and the risk of increased separation between design and manufacture teams should be called out and temporary solutions trialled. Throughout this phase unanticipated benefits arising from new ways of working may be discovered, such as an end to the ‘fly-in, fly-out’ approach on international programmes where we travel and engage with customers and suppliers on an infrequent basis, to a new ‘log-in, log-out’ model where we are always just a click away and can speak far more regularly.

Taking the opportunity to understand and listen to the workforce through team sessions, pulse surveys and focus groups during this period can create avenues to unlock tacit knowledge and empower your workforce to ideate and innovate. More than just creating the new normal, this can spur your people to start co-creating the next generation of products, services and business models.

Design the new reality

Just as adding wings to a caterpillar doesn’t make it a butterfly, neither should we accept the working practices that evolve through necessity over the next few months as the de facto new reality. Rather than settling into a recovery mode of working, leaders should now be developing their own view of what long-term approach best meets the needs of a future, technology-driven aerospace and defence business, its workforce, customers and suppliers.

Leaders should set out clear organisational priorities and reshape the operating model to deliver these through a workforce that will increasingly work remotely: adjusting and refining processes to increase agility and flexibility; re-ordering the organisation to facilitate new working practices; exploiting technology and understanding setting the desired future culture. Similarly, defence organisations across the sector should work together to address material security constraints that restrict remote working to enable freedom of operation in similar scenarios in the future – indeed failure to do so could represent a significant threat to national security itself. By taking the lead and designing the new normal, organisations are providing an ambition and vision that will act as a guide to their teams in navigating through the transition.

By building the case for long-term change, learning fast and designing their own ‘new normal’, aerospace and defence organisations can take control of the current situation and emerge stronger as a result.

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