DURING WHAT MIGHT turn out to have been the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, several engineering firms told Civil Engineering magazine that all, or nearly all, of their employees were working from home, relying on computer screens, internet connections, and other technology to stay in touch with one another and keep servicing their clients.
Added to that anecdotal data are the results of a survey conducted in early April by Industry Insights, of Dublin, Ohio, in which 247 ASCE members responded. In that survey, nearly 73 percent said half or more of their fellow employees were working from home.
These engineers really had no choice, given how infectious COVID-19 has been.
But what about when they do have a choice? What about this summer or fall or whenever the pandemic finally dampens and people can start going back to their offices?
Will all civil engineers return to the office, or will their firms find that teleworking worked so well that it becomes a standard part of how they do business going forward?
The consensus from the engineers Civil Engineering interviewed seems to be that teleworking may never completely replace the traditional office. But it certainly might make some firms reevaluate just how much office space they need.
“We’ve already got our facilities team looking at
new layouts, new ways of working that would reduce the footprint of our real estate and rely more on flexible working.”
—Andy Howard, the Los Angeles-based
chair of Arup’s Americas region
Before the pandemic office closures, Arup had been in the middle of a pilot project related to flexible working—specifically, allowing people to work remotely more often, says Andy Howard, the Los Angeles-based chair of Arup’s Americas region. Arup’s workforce has always been fairly mobile, working from client facilities, project sites, or various Arup offices rather than just a single site, Howard says. At any given time before the pandemic, as many as 10 to 15 percent of Arup’s employees might have been working remotely. Now, he predicts, “we could double or triple that [percentage] in the future.”
This would largely involve individual employees spending more time working remotely rather than any large number of employees working entirely remotely, Howard adds. The collaboration and creativity of Arup’s “culture of learning and curiosity” that results from in-person interactions really can’t be replaced by any remote technology, he stresses. Still, he adds, “We’ve already got our facilities team looking at new layouts, new ways of working that would reduce the footprint of our real estate and rely more on flexible working.”
WSP USA takes a similar view. “Nothing’s ever going to replace the face-to-face component that we have within our teams,” says Rich Driggs, the firm’s Atlanta-based chief operating officer. But the current teleworking efforts have gone so well that the experience “has certainly changed the way we think about working from home,” Driggs says. WSP USA is analyzing its real estate needs, which are the firm’s second-greatest expense, he notes. “You have to really look at it and say, ‘Do we need this much real estate at the end of the day?’”
Still in its infancy, the successful transition to teleworking during the COVID-19
pandemic makes the future of remote collaboration more attractive to
many engineering firms. (Jacob Linford, Thornton Tomasetti)
Pluses and Minuses
New York City-based Thornton Tomasetti has long worked on complex projects requiring collaboration between distant offices or jobsites, notes Jim Dray, the firm’s chief information officer. Today, newer, more powerful computer tools and a supportive culture for teleworking mean “the company is going to be a lot more skilled at taking advantage of remote work environments,” Dray says.
Moreover, clients are also becoming more willing to accept remote services. “We had been seeing only glimmers of it previously, but there’s been a real sea change since the coronavirus began,” Dray says. That will likely continue, to some degree, “after the crisis subsides,” he adds.
Molly Johnson, the chief communications officer for Dewberry, based in Fairfax, Virginia, notes that engineering firms can learn from the experience of technology companies, which have longer histories with teleworking. “We recognize the mutual benefits of telework, especially to enable healthy work–life balance for staff,” Johnson says. At the same time, “in recent years we’ve all seen multiple tech companies pull employees back from full-time telework. And we’ve already heard from our staff that employees miss being with other employees.”
William B. Gorlin, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, the vice president of McLaren Engineering Group’s entertainment division, sees both utility and challenges with permanent telework. “Certainly, there will be more acceptance and opportunities for staff teleworking,” Gorlin says. “Teleconference meetings will replace some business travel, though such virtual meetings often lack the natural flow of in-person conversations. A truly productive in-person meeting can often have the feel of a jazz concert, with each participant taking cues from the others, resulting in a collaborative effort that builds upon one another.” At the same time, teleconferences can suffer from distracting background noise or uncertainties over who should speak when, which can “detract from the spontaneous give-and-take,” Gorlin says. It’s also easy to miss the body language, facial clues, and other factors that make person-to-person interactions more effective, he explains. Remote jobsite inspections and observations are likely to increase, Gorlin adds, though again there are sometimes “tactile and optical clues that can only be perceived hands-on.”
As the pandemic has progressed, Seattle-based Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA) has worked with special inspectors to monitor work sites remotely via video sent from the inspector’s cell phone camera, says Andy Fry, P.E., S.E., LEED AP, the firm’s chief operating officer. Such video monitoring has been rare, Fry adds, because so many projects have been shut down during the crisis. Moreover, he clearly prefers having an MKA engineer on-site; problems are often discovered not just during an official inspection but when engineers just happen to “be there at that moment” and see it amidst all the other activity. “We want to go ourselves, walk around the whole site, and make sure we have ‘eyes on’ as much as possible,” Fry says. “That’s hard with what we’re having to do right now.”
Wayne Swafford, P.E., the president of Houston-based Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN), describes his firm as “moving toward a hybrid of traditional offices and telework employees. The strength of this model is that it allows us to put the best people on a team regardless of their physical location and with as little disruption as possible for the employee. The benefit to the client is that we can provide them with teams tailored specifically to their project or program needs.”
It seems clear that at least some degree of teleworking in the civil engineering field is here to stay—and that some degree of in-person work will be needed too. Lee W. Slade, P.E., M.ASCE, the Boston-based chair of Walter P Moore, headquartered in Houston, concludes: “Teleworking is already here—it is just a matter of how strongly and fully it will take hold in our industry.” Factors unrelated to technology—such as client expectations—will be critical, Slade adds.
And the balancing act may even offer new business opportunities. Walter P Moore’s in-house information technology consulting practice has been helping both the firm’s employees and its clients improve their technology platforms to support teleworking. So regardless of when or how many employees return to their offices, “I do think that our industry will never be the same,” Slade says.
—Robert L. Reid is the senior editor and features manager of Civil Engineering.