IECA President Adam Dibble discusses COVID-19’s impact on the erosion control industry.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns spoke with various industry association leaders about how those associations were responding to COVID-19 and how the industry was being impacted. For more Q&As and to see the results of the SWS Market Impact Survey, check out this digital-exclusive report.
Katie Johns: What kind of industry impact has COVID-19 had on the erosion control side so far?
Adam Dibble: This question probably has a few different answers, and it's such a wide effect. I think the first thing we saw is a big pivot from face-to-face learning conferences to a digital learning platform. I think you see a lot of professionals; engineers, people that need credentials to continue their education, they're immediately pivoting to this online learning platform, which I think a lot of professional settings are probably equipped for. But, you know, the hands-on learning of demos and stuff like that or maybe the installers or some of the inspectors, it’s probably going to be much more difficult for them.
I think we saw an initial slowdown right away, as there is so much uncertainty. And then I think we started to see some, maybe even, sooner-than-anticipated startups. And I think that's just kind of business interruption; pausing to understand what's happening around them, understanding are they essential or are they not essential? Is that the same in each state? And I think you also have different elements of the erosion control industry because you have the private, government funded or superfund sites. I think there's so many different aspects. I don't think we really saw one solid thing that everyone conformed to or was impacted by in the same way. I think what will be interesting to see is what are these new safety procedures and types of BMPs and social distancing and jobsite safety. What will be really critical as new best management practices are established in the industry. I think we've seen a pretty diverse set of responses.
Johns: Has IECA seen an impact or change in policy because of all this?
Dibble: Yeah, you know, we have had some changes. I'll be very honest that we were very fortunate to have a new executive director with Samantha Row who has a lot of nonprofit professional development experience on her resume. She really implemented some things right away, such as getting the staff available to work remotely. Even early on before this happened, everyone had new laptops, we had good services, we had some support that we can work remotely, already. So I think that was really helpful. But I think we're seeing changes to some travel policies and to the ability to work in the office. The headquarters is outside of Denver. They're following the state and local rules as well. Our board of directors has pivoted. At this point, we've already canceled two face-to-face meetings that were coming up, and both of those were scheduled to be out of the country. We're trying to figure out ways to connect differently. We've even enacted monthly video conferencing for board calls, which we've never really had before. So it's kind of forced our hand a little bit, but it's actually provided an opportunity for us to kind of figure out ways to work around and be a little bit more efficient with our spend.
Katie Johns: Yeah, definitely. And that was another question I wanted to ask is: do you think that we will see some innovation coming out of this in the way either we do work or we network or we have those face to face interactions?
Dibble: Yeah, I think the innovations will continue to come. I know personally, in my experience working for Profile Products I've noticed we've immediately adopted video conferencing and online communications, communication boards and just tapping in with our staff and our teams probably even more frequently than we did before. A lot of us work remotely. We travel pretty extensively, so having this kind of forced mechanism for digital connecting has really been helpful. I think that will be something that stays around. I think working remotely, although it might not be ideal, I think that might be something that we see as a trend coming forward. Because we're learning that we can work remotely. I think we're learning that although it wasn't perfect, it's doable. I could see maybe, just speculating a bit, but I could see some offices maybe downsizing office space because they might not have to have every team member in the office forever.
Maybe there's alternate opportunities, for example, coming in together to work on complex team events, but I could see some changes in the future in implementing these new tools and technologies; zoom and Join me and GoToWebinar. I think you see a huge surge of these platforms that maybe weren't used quite as much. I think people were leaning into available education that's on demand, that maybe it's recorded webinars, it's saved content that they're so busy during the day, but there's not these breaks for conferences where you get to connect with people face to face. We're seeing a lot of pretty large uptake in our online and digital learning sessions through our Learning Hub on an IECA standpoint, and I think we're hearing that and I'm hearing that from other association leadership that they have online tools that they're heavily being used a lot more, and they're creating more content for them.
Katie Johns: We have seen a lot of event cancellations and postponements and one of those challenges is not only networking, but also people have lost a way to get PDH credits. We've seen a lot of people doing webinars to still get those PDH credits. But I've also talked to some professionals who think that even once COVID-19 is gone, people will then be either hesitant to travel or companies might realize that, “Oh, well, if you can get all your PDH is through webinars, we don't need to pay for your hotel and your airfare and all these expenses to get to a live show.” But I think there's something beneficial in the live show. So what are your thoughts on that? And what do you think we'll see in the future in that regard?
Dibble: Yeah, that's a really good thought. A good question. And again, I think I've pondered this a bit. From an IECA standpoint, are we positioned to deliver what our members are asking from an online learning platform and stuff like that? I think we certainly have made a lot of strides in that actually, prior to COVID-19. This is the first conference (The IECA Annual Conference in February 2019) where we recorded some live sessions and broadcasted them afterwards. I think that the level of technology, the accessibility and how quality it is has certainly helped to do that. I think there's something that you just can't replace about face-to-face (interaction). Certainly, I think, you can get your education, your PDHs, but what will be always missing from that type of (digital) platform where you're not getting to have face-to-face interaction is the networking and the professional relationship building. It's finding mentors, being able to troubleshoot projects. That type of relationship building doesn't happen digitally. You can't break bread with someone digitally. I think there will be some challenges going forward to replace that. If it did go to just all digital, learning would really be short-handed. If it were to go all digital now, I do think that there will eventually be an opportunity that they can come back. And I don't know what that looks like for conferences. Is that smaller conferences, smaller rooms, social distancing, new types of things that we don't even know about? I think there is a lot of value still in the face to face.
And I think that there's a lot of value in conferences in general beyond just getting education or PDH. I do think that a lot of companies, especially the more progressive ones, will understand that there's professional development being built within your team as they're going to conferences and they're representing your organization. And I think there's a return in that in your brand being out there and your work and your company being in these conferences because it provides backend opportunities as well. Maybe there's a job opportunity for your company or a lead or a project that you can consult on and that stuff doesn't become uncovered through just webinars. I think you have to have that face-to-face interaction. I certainly believe there'll be more digital platforms, more e-learning, more digital webinar and conferences, but I don't think that they're ever going to get to a point where they're so effective, that they're going to replace face-to-face just because I don't think you can actually replicate the value of relationship building and mentors.
Katie Johns: What do you think are some of the lessons the industry can learn from this and having to overcome this pandemic?
Dibble: I probably hit on this a few different ways, but I think the ability to work remotely is really showing some opportunities. I think people or companies might not have had that perspective in the past. And of course, it's been forced. But, you know, I think the erosion control industry kind of lags behind other types of industries on the technological side, just because I think we're a little bit more brick and mortar.I think we're a lot of independent groups that might not have the opportunity to learn and leverage best management practices from others in the industry. So I think one thing we're really going to see or a lesson that we've learned is that the ability to work remotely, the ability to make these digital connections is still possible. I think we're also learning that they can't replace true face-to-face. Being able to troubleshoot from a camera on a project site or from your home office is beneficial, but what it doesn't provide is the opportunity to see all the resources around you or being able to look at projects from a different perspective. So, although I think we're learning how to use technology differently, and to our advantage and to expedite things. I don't know if it's just going to be a short-term lift, and everyone's going to try to go back to that face-to-face and travel and do all those things as they always have or is that going to be taboo and the ability to connect in large groups or face-to-face is just going to be diminished? It's so soon into this pandemic to really understand that, but I think a lot of industry professionals have really been nimble and have really tried to implement some of these new technologies.
Right away, I've seen from contractors on the erosion control side, shooting video and asking for troubleshooting; I've seen live streaming and a lot of Facebook live sessions and stuff where people are getting feedback and just embracing different types of technology, so I think that's good for the industry. What sticks around I think is yet to be seen. I don't think most of the companies that are embodying these new technologies and appreciating them had thought in the beginning of the year that “hey, 2020 is going to be a year to go digital, right?” I just don't think that was their plan, but they've responded, and they've implemented the tools to kind of get over this hump, and we'll see which of these new best management practices stay in place.
It's a bit of a crystal ball question there, right?
Johns: Speaking of digitally, whether it's for municipalities to talk with residents or contractors, manufacturers to talk to customers, what are some of the best outreach practices that people can use right now?
Dibble: I think you would see at these trade shows and conferences a lot of manufacturers and maybe even engineering firms showcasing their new products, new technologies or successful uses of those. But I think what we're seeing is maybe some best management practices or maybe just outreach that some other industries use. I'm now seeing the erosion control industry using social media. I think that before it was almost taboo to use social media quite so much for business use in our industry, although it's pretty generally accepted in most industries.
I'm seeing a lot of activity whether it's hosting new content or project successes or even inviting people to a webinar or a shared community discussion or fireside chats and those types of things. We're seeing just a lot of activity outside of just the email blast and enewsletters that used to go out. The social media presence, I said, is really increased and that's everything from TikTok videos and Google Plus and Hangouts to the tried-and-true method of LinkedIn and Facebook. We're seeing quite a bit of increase in all of those. I participated in a webinar last week about pivoting to being a nimble marketing team, and a lot of the content that they shared about was how to engage your network and your potential customers on a digital platform, where they may be looking to get away from work, so how to balance that. So it'll be a new norm, I think, of balancing the professional and engagement of networking opportunities. We're going to be facing a lot of digital fatigue, and when you're not getting an opportunity to travel to be face-to-face, you're trying to use all these tools. It’s just a lot to take in, being stimulated all the time.
Johns: Well, Adam, those were my questions for you, but is there anything you want to add that we didn't touch on?
Dibble: I would say there's so many different aspects to the situation of COVID-19 whether it's a small, Mom and Pop kind of business to large corporations and their impact on manufacturers with workforces in factories. And then every state, even counties, have different standards that it's just going to be a lot of learning. I don't think there's going to really be a true standard or process for a while just because there's so many different aspects. Each state having their own requirements, each county kind of having their essential workers versus not essential workers. So I think just in general there's just so much uncertainty and really it's unprecedented. There's no checklist to do things properly right now. I think there's a lot of people doing things, and a lot of companies, doing things out of forecasting and trying to predict as best they can. But the reality is you're really guessing at something that's an unknown right now. We don't know what these new BMPs are going to be in the future.
Maybe it makes our industry safer and more resilient to these types of things in the future, but for now, I think we're just going to see a lot of responses, a lot of reaction and trying to continue to do erosion control, provide clean, safe water from our project sites as best as we can with a lot of new constraints and learnings. So, I would end by just saying I think that there's so much more to learn and so much more to understand and absorb, and we're going to see that play out here in the coming months.