It didn’t take long in this time of social separation for one of our clients to face the challenge of how to manage the procurement interviews. Our client remained bullish on keeping public sector projects moving forward and shifted to hosting the interviews online. In the end, the same interview elements that win awards from an in-person setting proved to be the same for the online format. It was gratifying to witness all of the teams rise to the occasion and represent their firms professionally.

Whether you are an owner or a member of the AEC community, you are likely going to face setting up an interview or presentation soon. Having worked within a virtual office setting for over sixteen years, we have seen what helps and what hinders the effectiveness of online meetings.

    • There is a myriad of technologies you can use for online meetings, as the interviewee, whichever you select, make sure you have someone in the room familiar with how to operate the technology. I know this seems obvious, but as a host, it is imperative in the mission of making participants feel welcome and accomplish the goals of the meeting. Send the meeting invitation as soon as possible, so they have enough time to become familiar with the selected meeting platform and prepare by conducting training before the interview or presentation.
    • In our sixteen years of experience, we have learned that cameras are more of a distraction than a value-add when used on a daily basis. But, interviews are different. They require a personal connection, so turn on your cameras and get comfortable.
    • During the recent procurement interviews that we lead on behalf of our client, two of the groups gathered in person while respecting the rules of social distancing –the ownership selection committee and a construction company. The general contractor team delivered a smoother presentation and higher energy level than those not gathered in the same room. The selection committee’s decision was spot on, as well. The owner reflected that if every committee member had been in a separate location, the collective decision-making process would have felt like more of a voting exercise. The in-person dialogue, albeit six-feet apart, allowed for a truly collaborative process and consensus-lead decision making. Additionally, the selection committee was comprised of City leaders who were being bombarded with requests and had to excuse themselves occasionally. As they entered and left the room, it would have felt a bit Houdini to others; by providing a camera shot of the committee members gathered in one large room, the architecture firms and general contractors gained perspective of the situation.
    • The ownership team should designate a host to lead the meeting flow and address issues. This person is responsible for starting the meeting early to test each guest’s microphone and sound system. They should also discuss the interview format, confirm that the presentation is visible, and help troubleshoot technical problems stemming from the presenters. During one interview, there was one audio hiccup. The interviewing firm did not have the proper speaker set up so they could not hear the selection committee’s questions; we paused, shifted to the phones for audio, kept the video on, and moved forward.
    • A critical component of an online meeting is to set up the scene for success. The audience needs the ability to focus on you and your presentation, not on a distracting background or a surprise guest. During our recent procurement interviews, we experienced a home office, living room, and drop sheet backgrounds. Many software programs offer an option to blur your background, which is a valuable feature. I advise against using the more fun background options, like a beach scene or a 30-story corner office view. Even if you find one that is appropriate, the technology is somewhat of a distraction because it tends to warp the outline of the presenter’s body, especially along the hairline. It’s difficult to focus on the message presented when you are preoccupied with distracting video elements. If you are responsible for representing your company’s brand, we would strongly advise that you view your team member’s physical set up and advise them on how to improve.
    • Become a master of the mute button. When participants are not speaking, it is always a good idea to go into mute mode. Eliminating the potential of background noises from family, dogs, and other dings, allows your audience to focus on the message of the presentation. Be ready to hit un-mute quickly. If your client or team member makes a joke, and nobody hears the laugh, it can create an awkward silence. Personal connection and feedback are essential to telling your story. Make sure you have a do-not-disturb location and turn off your alerts on your electronic devices. We found it novel that during one interview, a general contractor superintendent kept getting interrupted by his subs. It demonstrated his dedication to his subcontractors, who, in turn, had no idea he was on an important video call. In the end, that was not a detriment as the selection committee felt it was genuine.
    • These interviews are critically important to everyone involved, and your marketing team wants to be of value. If your team is not comfortable with running an online meeting, bring in the expert, but do your best to keep them in the background and as invisible as possible. Just like in-person interviews, potential clients want to hear from the people with which they will work.
    • Once the interview starts, don’t waste time talking about Covid, how this new set up is weird, backgrounds, and any other topics that are not directly related to winning the work.
    • Nobody loves the idea of being on camera, especially when you are not talking. Just watch professional newscasters and their discomfort as they sit in silence, listening to their colleagues. Try to stay engaged and listening to your team.
    • If you are presenting, this is an excellent opportunity to cheat and go teleprompter-style, but make sure you are skilled at the art of working from queue cards and not reading them verbatim. It may feel more professional than looking down at your notes, but from what we experienced recently, it wasn’t genuine, nor did it create a personal connection. A relaxed conversation delivers better results than reading prescribed talking points.
    • Virtual meetings simply have a more casual atmosphere, and the mood of the interviewees is amplified. If your team is serious, it comes across as really serious; those that bring laughter fill the room with more lively energy.
    • During our recent procurement interviews, the selection committee members were amazingly astute at looking past the technology and focused on what mattered. The myriad of hiccups did not throw them off and forgave technical issues that paused the presentations. The question and answer portion was a bit of a challenge. Because we were together in a large room, some of the committee members were not as voluminous as others. We shifted to having the moderator sit near the single camera to relay and confirm that questions were clearly understood.
    • If you have prepared a handout for the interview or presentation, send it to attendees well in advance. While we are accustomed to instant access to information, an email sent shortly before the start of the meeting can go unnoticed until it is too late. Selection committee members tend to be very busy professionals occupied with other responsibilities. The screen is already crowded with faces and the presentation. Showing a marketing piece on top of everything else is cumbersome. Consider delivering or mailing the printed piece before the day of the interview.

For the interviewees, like any interview, be prepared, be personable, and work extra hard to express enthusiasm. If you are part of the selection committee, be a gracious host and prepare questions that extract the information you need to make an informed decision on who to award work.

Everyone is adjusting to this new way of business. Go easy on yourself and others as well all adjust to the discomfort of being on camera. Quirky mistakes can happen. If your kid runs into the room, don’t yell at them, a quick introduction and pat on the head will suffice. If your background comes up when you close your presentation and it’s a picture of you on the beach in your swimsuit, embrace it.

Paul Wember, Owner’s Representative

If you and your team are looking for guidance on the cultural and technological shift, our team has the advice and insight to offer. Don’t hesitate to reach out.  We are happy to exchange our guidance for a donation to the Food Bank of the Rockies.