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News & opinion

5 MAR 2021

Innovation through crisis: Women in the profession are leading the way

Celebrated on 8 March every year, International Women's Day is dedicated to honouring the achievements of women throughout history and around the globe. In the light of the pandemic, we asked female leaders across our profession to share how they have demonstrated their skills, knowledge and networks to lead COVID-19 response and recovery efforts effectively in a challenging year.

Fatima Balfaqeeh MRICS

Managing Director, RKAH Legal Consultancy; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

As a UAE national who is an entrepreneur, an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practitioner, a chartered facilities management surveyor and MD of my own legal consultancy firm, I have been considerably disrupted by COVID-19. My company was in the middle of the growth phase, when networking was essential for getting clients and presenting the services we can offer; but all those business development avenues came to a complete stop when the UAE imposed a lockdown.

I had to be quick to adapt to stay connected, not only to my existing clients but potential ones and my network of fellow ADR practitioners, while facing the challenge that every working mum has in balancing virtual school and work.

I have adopted new time management techniques and telecommunication technologies, started engaging in virtual events, and hosted and conducted webinars with exciting topics and different languages. I didn’t shy away from foreign markets either, which have presented a new set of possibilities.

Now my practice is more resilient and adaptable than ever, and we will keep incorporating what we learned during the pandemic for our advantage and that of our clients in the years ahead.

Sheila Botting FRICS

Principal and President, Americas Professional Services, Avison Young; Toronto, Canada

Over the past decade, I’ve focused on engaging with real estate as an opportunity to transform an organisation or business. Changing the physical environment often provides a chance to change the way we live, work, shop and play. For example, I have long advocated for real estate to create more human-focused spaces.

As we have navigated the pandemic, it’s become clear that we will not return to offices in the same way as before. At Avison Young, we quickly activated our workplace guidance for clients, X Factor, which is designed for the human experience. This responds to accelerating transformation and addresses our client’s real-estate challenges, extending from workplace strategy through to implementation.

On to the lenses of work, worker and workplace, we layer key analytics from business intelligence and technology to identify the range of potential approaches. In all our discussions, we place human experience at the centre to provide economic, environmental and social value. While some propose that the office is dead, we fundamentally believe that the workplace will transform in the war for talent, to create a hub that embodies culture, innovation and the development of people.

Angela Forbes FRICS

Chief Executive, BuildForce; London, UK

When our country went into lockdown, I felt an instinctive sense of duty and responsibility. In the first instance, it was important to give our team time to think: headspace to resolve their own family situations during these unprecedented times. Then, as we came together, we were focused and united in our responsibility to support former military personnel in construction.

Defining our strategy in response to the constraints of the pandemic gave us a sense of direction and enabled collaboration on the detail. The overwhelming alignment among the team was palpable. The need for our services and our passion to help were running in parallel, which motivated the team for what would be exhausting months ahead and great sacrifice of personal time.

Decisions had to be made to safeguard the company that required the support of the whole team and, because we were honest and transparent, this was forthcoming. Empowerment comes from trust and giving the team the ability to shape decisions that create our future.

Elizabeth Natukunda Mwebesa MRICS

Director, Turner & Townsend; Kampala, Uganda

Uganda began a nationwide lockdown in March 2020 for four months, which involved closing borders, shutting down public transport and limiting movement to essential workers alone. Construction sites could only be kept open under special conditions.

Turner & Townsend East Africa developed a business continuity plan serving as a guide for staff during the pandemic. I had to make sure that my team maintained an uninterrupted, quality service for our clients, which was not easy when there was so much uncertainty in both our professional and personal lives. I decided to establish communication protocols both internally and externally through weekly meetings and WhatsApp groups. We discussed well-being and the challenges my team experienced in project implementation.

Some of our clients considered project closures or suspension of services, while other projects could be serviced remotely. I encouraged the team to engage with clients on a daily basis to understand their specific needs. As a result, we found opportunities to offer new service lines such as contract services and claims, reviewing existing business plans, evaluating tenders and benchmarking costs. I promoted and encouraged the use of new technology to improve efficiency and productivity. My team has been through a very tough and challenging time, and I am proud that together we were there for our clients when they needed us most.

Sangeeta Prasad FRICS

Strategic Adviser and former MD and CEO, Mahindra Lifespaces, and RICS South Asia board member; Mumbai, India

COVID-19 struck us a deep blow, for which we were completely unprepared. The first few days were difficult. In fact, we told our colleagues to work from home before the state imposed a complete lockdown. We galvanised the tech team to ensure we remained regularly connected with our employees, as they were the conduit to our customers and other stakeholders. We ensured that contract workers had safe working environments and regular health check-ups, and we arranged travel back home for our migrant workers.

We sent written communications to all our customers, giving them information on the protocol being followed for health and safety, and provided employee contacts so they could get their queries addressed.

We were also cognisant of financial constraints, and offered flexibility of payments on a case-by-case basis. Transparent two-way communication, timeliness and empathy were the pillars on which we built our strategy, to keep our customers and other stakeholders connected and assured. The most important lesson was that being agile and resilient were more important than just being prepared.

Jenni Wenkel MRICS

Head of corporate real-estate asset management, Erste Group Bank AG, and RICS Austria Advisory board chair; Vienna, Austria

I work in one of the most modern office complexes in Austria, the Erste Campus in Vienna. When the company moved here five years ago, we created a paperless working environment with open space and desk sharing. This was a challenge on many levels, but 5,500 colleagues worked successfully there every day.

Then COVID-19 broke out and suddenly home offices became compulsory. After the first hard lockdown in spring 2020, staff were able to spend half their working time in the office and half at home. In technical terms, this switch was accomplished in less than a week thanks to our excellent IT department.

Microsoft Teams became our new medium, with hardly any noticeable impact on work performance. It was amazing to observe how differently the individual team members reacted to this new situation. Depending on their respective circumstances, some coped very well with the new way of life, while others missed the exchange and social interaction.

We have since found a good mixture. Sometimes, we just call each other to ask how we are. Communication has become clearer, I have noticed. But we are certainly looking forward to sitting together in the office again – or in a beer garden!

Sunny Ping Zhang FRICS

Executive Director, Citic Capital, RICS China advisory board member, and RICS Asia educational standard board member; Beijing, China

With the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, online meetings, online shopping and online learning became key words for most people in China in the first few months of 2020. I led some virtual discussions with many professionals, including MRICS and FRICS, on the impact of the pandemic on China’s real-estate market and what investors, operators and landlords should do. As the pandemic gradually comes under control, economic activities have been recovering step by step.

I planned and chaired a webinar on real-estate investment trusts and asset management for a series that the RICS World Built Environment Forum (WBEF) organised last June. Working with the RICS China team, we invited four popular speakers from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to share professional insights with members online.

Last July, I was also invited to join RICS WBEF in Shanghai and hosted a panel discussion with four chief information officers on the subject of real-estate investment market outlook after the pandemic. Meanwhile, as a professor at the Renmin University of China, I completed eight courses for MBA students, with a few experts to share fresh views on finance and real estate.

Even though the situation remains difficult, I am maintaining a positive attitude and never stop moving forward.