Future Forward: The Use of Technology in Creating a Safe Work Environment


As buildings become greener they are increasingly incorporating advanced IT infrastructure, including fibre optic networks, building-wide Wi-Fi, and Internet of Things connectivity. Because of this, our mandate has evolved beyond construction and facilities management. Today’s smart buildings are complex ecosystems that require the deft touch of technologists to construct and maintain, and EllisDon is leading the way.

EllisDon is a world-leading construction and building services company celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2021. We complete more than $5 billion in projects every year for both the private and public sectors. We have made a name for ourselves in construction, but under the guidance of President and CEO Geoff Smith, we are becoming a technology company. This has become even clearer throughout the pandemic.

A Shift in Technology Use

Over the past year, we saw a shift in how companies and their employees use technology. Remote work went from being a luxury to a necessity. Workers around the world came to rely on the right collaboration tools for video conferencing, remote meetings, file and screen sharing, and digital whiteboarding. People pivoted hard and fast as working from home became the norm. 

Employees returning to the office will find themselves in substantially altered environments as employers scale remote work tools to fit commercial spaces.

Now, companies are planning their back-to-the-office strategies. Some people will permanently become full- or part-time remote workers. Employees returning to the office will find themselves in substantially altered environments as employers scale remote work tools to fit commercial spaces like meeting and conference rooms. 

Companies will also be using various technologies to monitor and limit access to workspaces, thus maintaining safe occupancy rates as the world returns to normal. All this means an increased demand for the implementation and deployment of the tools and technologies that fall within the mandate of our Energy and Digital Services team.

A Team to Deploy and Support Technology

As VP of Energy and Digital Services, I run a team that focuses on the deployment and support of technology in new construction and retrofit projects for our customers. I've been with the company for a decade, having joined in 2011 to develop and run our managed services practice. That team was responsible for the ongoing support of the intelligent infrastructure at projects like Canada's first intelligent building at 18 York Street in Toronto for the then property manager, GWL Realty Advisers.

We built the Managed Services practice as a profit and loss (P&L) centre over seven years. The biggest obstacle was convincing clients that EllisDon understood technology and was the best option to support the intelligent infrastructure within their recently constructed buildings.

EllisDon also had an in-house ICAT (information, communication, and automation technology) team in place. But it mostly outsourced the design, procurement, and implementation of the IT infrastructure work. We started to have conversations with companies like Cisco about harnessing our resources to bring the development, design, deployment, implementation, and procurement of IT infrastructure in-house. In 2017, we made the decision to merge our ICAT and Managed Services divisions and rebranded as the customer-facing Energy and Digital Services team.

Rolling Out EllisDon's Safe Return-to-Work Strategy

We usually have 450 people working at our Mississauga office, but these days, our parking lot is nearly empty. That being said, we’ve made some significant changes to our office environment to make it as safe as possible.

In the early days of the pandemic, we added plexiglass shields at our reception desks, reconfigured open concept workspaces to create safe distances between employees, and built walled offices as needed. We also recognized the importance that physical security would have in supporting safe return to work practices. We started formulating use cases that would rely on the integration of Access Control, CCTV, Duress and Intercom systems. These four technologies are powered by the building networks using Cisco power over ethernet (PoE) functionality and are critical components of safe return-to-work strategies.

During the pandemic, we also increased our number of Webex licenses. We needed enough for all our workers to collaborate with one another and with our customers while they worked from home. We've used this technology for several years in the office, but adoption was minimal because no one felt they needed it. Now, however, Webex has become a daily part of our employees' lives and we had to find a way to maximize that use in our office.

When they return to the offices, our employees will have access to improved Webex videoconferencing devices that use apps and the platform's cameras and sensors to monitor and maintain meeting space occupancy at safe levels. But there's more to this story. After developing and deploying our internal PoE infrastructure and Webex room monitoring capacity, EllisDon's Energy and Digital Services team started to offer these tools to our customers. This alone generated $4 million of new business in the first quarter of 2021. Our partnership with Cisco made all of this possible.

Partnering with Cisco for Our Public-Private Partnerships

Our customers trust us to choose the best infrastructure components for every construction project. Our long-term partnership with Cisco isn’t an exclusive one. To remain technology agnostic, we are not tied to a single vendor. That said, our customers demand best-in-class technology, extended product life cycles, and outstanding long-term support. Cisco excels in all these areas and often emerges as the best solution provider for our customer's needs, so we're proud to recommend their products.

Cisco brings new solutions to market at an incredible pace. We will hear whispers of a great new technology, and Cisco already has a solution that features the technology. The company is constantly innovating, and that is welcome news, as our customers are increasingly asking us to spec IT infrastructure into our construction projects.

We do a lot of P3 (public-private partnership) work, including courthouses, prisons, and light rail transit projects. We also operate a number of hospitals under the DBFM (design, build, finance, maintain) model for customers like Infrastructure Ontario. In these cases, we maintain facilities and provide capital replacement services over concession periods that can run 30 years or more.

Within the scope of these contracts, a hospital may require us to replace equipment when it reaches end-of-life status, even if it’s still running. For this reason, we prefer to enter into agreements with suppliers that have comprehensive lifetime warranties and lifecycle management policies. When we buy from Cisco, we know they'll dispatch an onsite technician to replace a faulty component within a few hours. We pay extra for this level of service, but an equipment failure can mean the difference between life and death in a hospital environment, and our contracts require us to minimize any IT service interruptions. 

We trust Cisco, and the company’s technology is at the heart of our return-to-office preparations as well as our new and existing business strategies. 

Cisco Puts Us Ahead of the Technology Curve

Cisco also puts us ahead of the curve when it comes to updating and replacing equipment. Knowing that a router or other component is reaching end of life, we can sit down ahead of time, discuss the cost and features of new equipment, and map out a comprehensive technology strategy. In fact, we meet with the Cisco team every two weeks to talk about existing and upcoming projects.

In the construction business, we may win a contract today but the project won’t be ready for the technology deployment for another year or two. We'll have our ICAT specs in hand, but the technology will have changed by the time we begin wiring a new structure or retrofitting an existing one. 

When partner companies know where the other is going, you can navigate the future together.

Cisco is a true partner because they constantly update us on their sales strategies and lay out their technology roadmap in advance. Both companies know where the other is going, so we can navigate the future together. When customer or product specs change, we can pivot to adapt to these new realities while respecting our contractual obligations.

Pandemic Recovery and Strategy

Our Cisco partnership is helping to power our post-pandemic recovery. We saw a major downturn in sales activity during the first wave of the pandemic (the spring of 2020), but business has rebounded, and our customers have doubled down on IT infrastructure. Like EllisDon, they are adopting technology to create hybrid office environments that ensure the safe and productive return of people who have adopted new ways of working during the pandemic.

EllisDon is equipping new construction and retrofitting existing facilities with Wi-Fi in common areas, converged onsite networks, and centralized management platforms (CMPs) for real-time visibility into building performance. These upgrades were in the works at our executive offices and customers' premises before the pandemic, but they have taken on increased urgency as part of our post-pandemic preparations. By centralizing infrastructure and site management, we can react quickly and deploy the needed resources to resolve issues as they occur. 

We are witnessing a revolution in the construction and facilities management business. Today's buildings are designed to be smart. Network infrastructure and central management tools are baked into the architecture. Companies like EllisDon are embracing IT and transforming from builders to technology service providers. Our customers have asked us to embrace technology as their construction partner, and with Cisco at our side, EllisDon is happy to oblige.