The ATC Williams Hunter Valley office opened in Singleton in February 2020, a month before the COVID-19 pandemic forced state borders to close across Australia. We speak to John Milsom, Office Manager and Principal Environmental Engineer, about the lockdown and how the company adapted to service clients.
How did the Hunter Valley office respond to the lockdown?
Compared to most of the metropolitan centres, regional NSW was much less restricted during the COVID-19 lockdown. What we did work out very quickly was that proximity to clients was a key factor. The mining industry is constantly dealing with fatal risks, so our clients were quick to adapt and find ways to deal with yet another class of hazard. They were very focused on operating in the safest way possible, and they needed their service providers to respond accordingly.
Having just opened an office in the Hunter Valley was a bit of a Godsend. We were able to support our NSW clients within the constraints of the ever-changing travel restrictions. Without the Singleton base, we would have been forced to relocate someone from another office and ask them to go through quarantine.
How were you able to meet deliverables?
There was lots of adaptation, but with more than 100 engineers spread out over nine or so offices, we used our breadth and depth to respond to the various constraints brought on by COVID-19. Good IT systems and disciplined processes meant our teams could work from home quite effectively, particularly in places like the Melbourne office that spent many days in lockdown. We communicated remotely to form and reform project teams without as many ‘same room’ interactions. Friday afternoon drinks and games on MSTeams was fun as well.
The offices that could travel, such as Brisbane and here in the Hunter Valley, did a lot more client-facing work. We got so busy here that we recruited Mitch Connor in May, and not long after that, we relocated Asanka Don Peerislage up from Melbourne to assist with Hunter Valley projects.
What were the main challenges during the lockdown?
Without a doubt, it was restrictions on travel. Every week there were strategies hatched between the various offices depending on who could travel where and when. Site Engineers from Singleton or Perth were collaborating and doing work with Design Engineers in Brisbane and Melbourne. Many new working relationships formed, so there was a silver lining.
A few of the young guys spent two weeks in quarantine before starting an assignment. That wasn’t much fun for them, but we needed to be agile to get the job done. Big shoutouts to Steve, Travis, Asanka, Mitch, Yuqi and Pete, who all spent time bouncing off the walls in hotel quarantine at some point.
Here in the Hunter Valley, I had to dust my old boots off and do some construction supervision – stuff that I haven’t done for almost 20 years! Using heaps of photos and a few live crosses with FaceTime, we were able to deliver good outcomes for all of our clients. Lucky I had Mitch Connor on staff by then to give me a hand.
One aspect that impressed me was the lengths that some of our mining clients took to keep the show going safely. Limited people in vehicles meant that you couldn’t get a hire car here or in the Pilbara for love or money. Many FIFO clients were working extended rosters so that they could limit passengers on flights. Just about all of the Hunter Valley operations implemented temperature checking stations and additional site access requirements.
As a company, we’ve got better at working from a distance and working from home. I think adaptions like using videoconferencing for meetings are going to be normal from now on. Video links for social interaction have become very important too. Our business relies on project teams working well together, both internally and across offices, so it’s essential we find ways to keep building relationships however we can.
What’s next on your agenda?
Right now, we are actively recruiting at the Senior Engineer level to support multiple projects here in the Hunter Valley, NSW and beyond. We have several TSF capping jobs in addition to the usual construction supervision and site investigation assignments. We are also committed to completing more technical analysis work out of this office. Beyond that, we need to get out and inform NSW about our deep skills in landfill engineering.
I would also like to spend more time in my specialty areas of facility closure and mine site water management. In the last 12 months, we have completed a number of closure projects in NSW and Queensland for mining clients with tailings dams and waste rock dumps that are approaching the end of their operating phases. We have also been engaged by clients needing help with the new PRCP requirements in Queensland continuing for the rest of the year and into 2022.
If you would like to discuss your project or chat about how we can assist, please contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org or 02 9269 2900. Or find us at Suite 1, 172-174 John Street Singleton NSW 2330.