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Global Construction Race Heats Up

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Dealing with sudden emergencies when working in politically risky markets also can challenge even the best advance planning. Gregory Sauter, AECOM executive vice president and chief corporate officer, said the firm had plans in place for crisis management and staff evacuation for its 1,500 expatriates working in Libya prior to the 2011 insurgency that ousted President Muammar Gaddafi.

"As things started to unravel, we had to move fast," he told attendees. "The costs of accounting for security are heavy." Workforce risk planning also includes strategies for impacts on local nationals employed by firms, not just expats, he observed.

But Belilos noted that, in her previous role at Shell, "we waited too long" to evacuate expats from Egypt last year. "The leaders locally didn't see the risk for expats," she said.

Sauter said AECOM "takes decision-making away from locals if we think the risk is too high. Our intelligence is not just from the local embassy." The firm does what he termed "strength deployment" tests to study and measure how employees "act under stress."

Further, panelists said fine cultural differences can affect workforce management even within geographic regions, such as Asia. "You can't bundle Asia into one big heap," said Belilos.

Ted Lower, a senior consultant for industry management consultant EFCG and a former top executive at Union Carbide and ICF Kaiser, noted key strengths and weaknesses among global cultures. While Asian nations may dominate Western nations in managing finance, logistics and technology, "they can't catch us in marketing," he said.

But Belilos questioned whether global cultural differences "will fade out" with the worldwide growth of social media. "We're not yet good at pushing the flow of information up the chain," she said. "But we can't afford not to be anymore."

Belilos said such efforts "promote connectivity" in the company. Belilos said, "We stimulate that [at ARCADIS], but millennials can find each other better than those in previous generations. We are trying to tap into that."

Sauter emphasized that millennials are "committed" to corporate social responsibility "and want it to be part of a company's fabric."

Firms are watching how the push to improve quality-of-life issues in global societies will affect market opportunities and business patterns, panelists said. Belilos said those trends, such as extended Asian families living together, will affect design and construction in future urban development in the region.

Panelists pointed to issues related to competition for talent, as well. While Sauter related advantages in offering employees global opportunities, saying, "Sometimes you get handcuffed in some countries by local laws. You have to be careful how to set up the workforce." He said firms need to have in place more flexible staffing arrangements, such as use of temporary workers or contract employees.

Lower said the use of partnerships in some countries can be "an enabler" in setting up a firm for a permanent role through an acquisition, while Belilos emphasized that employees based in many developing countries want more authority to lead local company operations. "You have to develop staff from the bottom up," she said. "They have to lead instead of follow."

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