The Not-So-Simple Return to the Civil Engineering Office

May 14, 2020

Joe DiPompeo starts work these days with a new morning routine.

“I walk into the office every single morning with a disinfectant wipe in my hand,” said DiPompeo, P.E., F.SEI, F.ASCE, president-elect of ASCE’s Structural Engineering Institute, and founder and president of Structural Workshop LLC, a structural engineering and building firm in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

“I wipe the doorknob and then work my way through the office and wipe down the copier, the touch screens, the water cooler, the coffee maker, the bathrooms. That’s how I start my day every day.”

DiPompeo is like many civil engineers right now, trying to navigate what feels like a strange time of transition as the United States endures its third month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the initial wave in March and early April, widespread stay-at-home orders across the country sent many civil engineers into remote-work setups. But now, with large parts of the country attempting to resume something akin to normalcy and with economic pressures only growing, there is a palpable feeling that it’s time to return to the office setting.

“We’ve been talking this week about the roadmap to getting fully operational,” DiPompeo said, “because our workload and our client expectations and basically everything except for the production side of the equation almost seems to have returned to normal.

“When everyone’s expectations are back to normal but my production’s got one arm tied behind its back, it’s becoming a big problem. So, we’re trying to figure out how to get through that.”

The limitations of remote work

Much has been made about the power of working from home. And with good reason. The rapid transition to remote-work technology has helped keep U.S. society functional this spring. But there are limitations – especially when it comes to something as tactile and physical as civil engineering often is.

Maryam Takla, A.M.ASCE, a field engineer for Turner Construction in Los Angeles, began an assignment doing interior work on SoFi Stadium, the massive new football stadium in the works that will house both the NFL’s L.A. Rams and Chargers, just as the pandemic forced people to work from home.

The logistics weren’t a problem, but for Takla, a young engineer just beginning her career, she missed the opportunities to interact and learn in person.

The team at Structural Workshop LLC maintains appropriate social distancing. PHOTO: Joe DiPompeo

“I really wanted to go back,” Takla said. “I was getting frustrated working from home.”

She returned to the office and job site two weeks ago and is much happier for it.

“So far so good. I definitely enjoy being able to go to a coworker’s desk and just ask them a question rather than sending a Skype message or calling them,” Takla said. “It’s a lot quicker. They can show me the markup they just have conveniently in their hand.

“Or, like just today – we were discussing some stairs in the project. The pictures weren’t really cutting it. And my coworker said let’s just go walk the site and see. And then I totally understood what was going on.”

In New Jersey at Structural Workshop, DiPompeo sees similar matters of efficiency.

“Working remotely is wonderful. The technology is there. And we’ve been doing a lot of this stuff for years with these remote meetings and collaboration tools,” DiPompeo said.

“But things just take longer. Things that would take an hour to deal with if everyone were in the office, it’s taking a day to do now with everyone in different places. There are physical things you can’t really do remotely.”

Maryam Takla wears a mask every time she goes to the office or jobsite. PHOTO: Maryam Takla

Staying safe

There is no way around it – the coronavirus is scary, scary stuff. So, one of the most challenging aspects of returning to in-person work is the management of different employees’ different levels of fear and keeping everyone safe.

“We’ve got a very wide range,” said DiPompeo, whose company has two offices and about 10 employees. “I’ve got young guys who could care less and are going about their business like nothing’s going on. And I’ve got older people that are high-risk who are terrified to even leave the house.”

As for himself, DiPompeo has been going to the office every day through the pandemic – with the entire second level of the building to himself. But recognizing that some of his employees aren’t comfortable with a total return to the office yet, he’s tried to model expectations on a case-by-case basis.

“The people who can do everything remotely, that’s fine – they’re still 100 percent remote,” DiPompeo said. “But the others, we’ve been trying to very slowly and carefully shift back to the office.”

He limits the number of people in the office at the same time, enforces social distancing measures and, of course, runs through his morning sanitizing routine.

“We’re small enough that I can tailor what I’m doing person by person,” DiPompeo said.

When Takla returned to regular office hours in Los Angeles, it was by choice. Her team members were assured that new safety measures were in place and they could resume working onsite – but only if they wanted.

Many have continued to work from home. Takla decided to get back to the face-to-face collaboration she had missed.

It’s different, though.

The U-shaped shared desks now have partitions separating employees. Everyone has to wear a mask and PPE. Workspaces are sanitized multiples times a day. And every morning before parking your car, you get an air-scan temperature check.

“It was a little weird at first, but now it’s normal,” Takla said.

“They’ve done so many things. They’ve really upped the safety standards. It’s made me so much more comfortable going back to work.”

When Joe DiPompeo goes into work at Structural Workshop, he has the entire second level to himself. PHOTO: Joe DiPompeo

Threading the needle

The experiences of DiPompeo and Takla are telling, as civil engineers continue to grapple with what these days feel like competing interests of business and safety.

DiPompeo is trying to keep his firm’s lights on.

Takla is trying to learn and grow at the outset of an ambitious new career journey.

None of it is simple.

“It’s a very tough situation. And I’ve said it’s nowhere near as bad as the situations these governors are in, but it’s similar,” DiPompeo said. “They’re choosing between potentially having body bags in the street and potentially bankrupting hundreds of thousands of people and killing their livelihoods.

“How do you thread that needle? Obviously, what we’re doing is on a much smaller scale, but it’s the same conflict.”

DiPompeo continued, “How do I keep my business going? I could very easily shut the whole thing down and go out of business, and then all my employees are out of a job and not able to provide for their families. That’s not a good option.

“I could very easily just keep everything as is, normal. We are allowed to be open in New Jersey. The design industry is not violating any order or anything. So I could just tell everyone they have to come in no matter what. But then someone gets sick and dies, or maybe spreads it to the rest of the office and we’re all out for three weeks and we go out of business anyway.

“There’s no easy answer. There’s no playbook. I’m just trying to do the best I can with the guidance we’re getting; we’ll be as safe as we possibly can while still staying open.

“And what that means day to day, minute to minute changes. We’re just going to continue being very pragmatic about it.”

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