The civil engineering profession looks a lot different today than it did a month ago or even a week ago.
With government agencies and state and local officials across the nation recommending extreme social distancing measures because of the coronavirus pandemic, many civil engineers are working from home.
But how does that work?
Amid unprecedented circumstances, civil engineering firms and civil engineers are creating the playbook for this new reality as they go.
Innovations on the fly
For Larkin Myers, the brainstorm started with a headache.
Myers, P.E., M.ASCE, is the president of Tioga Environmental Consultants Inc., a small firm of 12 in Memphis, Tennessee. As coronavirus concerns ramped up last Thursday, her head started to hurt.
“I went to take some Advil, but I thought, ‘Wait, what if I’m actually sick? If I took Advil, I wouldn’t even know if I had a fever,’ and it just got my head spinning,” Myers said. “I’m a mom, and I feel responsible for all the people who work for us. I’m trying to figure out how to take care of everybody in my little circle.
“So having that headache made me think, ‘What if I actually came down with coronavirus? We’ve all been in this office together. Would we then ask everybody to quarantine themselves to make sure they didn’t have it?’
“We can’t take a closure of 12 weeks. If a bunch of us got sick and literally closed the doors, you know, that can end a business.
“So I had the idea to split the team along resources.”
Myers created two employee teams, allowing engineers to work from home every other day. Each team includes engineers with different skillsets – wetland investigations, asbestos air monitoring, whatever it might be – to allow for continuity of services. She instructed employees to practice social distancing when they are in the office, and everyone is extra-cognizant of wiping down and cleaning everything from workspaces to light switches.
The Friday morning team meeting was unlike any she’d led before but ultimately a good thing.
“There was a lot of nodding of heads, like yes, we think this is a good approach,” Myers said. “And part of meeting as a team is, I wanted everybody to understand how serious we think this is.
“And we did reassure our team too – we’re a pretty fiscally conservative firm, so we’re going to take care of everybody, don’t worry. We have some of our staff as hourly employees, who might not get all their hours in working from home but we’re going to pay you. We don’t want that to be an incentive for people to come out when they’re not feeling well. We want to assure them that doing the right thing is the most important thing. We’re going to keep moving as a company all together.”
Business as usual (sort of)
The good news is that technology, in many cases, has made the mechanics of working from home easier than ever.
Jameelah Ingram, P.E., M.ASCE, a lead structural engineer for WSP USA, started teleworking from her home in Washington, D.C., this week.
“First of all, I feel fortunate to be able to do this,” Ingram said. “Not everybody has the opportunity to do that. It’s not being taken for granted by me, the fact that I can take my laptop home and work and get paid for it. But I do miss some small things – chatting with colleagues face-to-face over some tea.”
Her project work regularly involves communicating with professionals across offices, often across cities, so she’s accustomed to this kind of setup. She has a Wednesday conference call this week like she’s had every Wednesday for years.
In Seattle, one of the first U.S. epicenters of coronavirus outbreak, Daniel Dovey, P.E., M.ASCE, is in his third week of working remotely.
So far, much of Dovey’s work as a longtime traffic design engineer for the King County Department of Transportation has been manageable from his home office. He logs in through a virtual private network and his computer emulates his work laptop.
“It’s been pretty much seamless,” Dovey said. “I can work on AutoCAD at home. Design work, coordinating with GIS and doing asset management – I can do that all remotely. That’s working really well.”
Managing onsite work
It’s the site visits that present some complication.
And that’s the thing about civil engineers working from home. At a certain point, civil engineering happens in society, in person.
“We’re a service industry in a way, we really are,” Myers said. “To do our work, we have to go to a manufacturing facility and see where their oil storage is and then we write the document up that goes with it. If somebody’s buying a property, we go to the property, and we write up the assessment. If we don’t leave our homes at all for a couple of weeks, we’re out of work to do.
“As long as construction is happening in Memphis, we’ve got to try to cover our shifts that we’ve already told our clients we would.”
Dovey keeps an official county car with his guardrail asset inventory work gear and measuring equipment at the office. He’s had to go to work a couple of times this month, and this week had to use the car for a site visit. The key thing is to take all possible health precautions.
“Downtown Seattle is really a ghost town,” Dovey said. “There’s not a lot of people around, not a lot of cars. When the light-rail train lets out, there’s just a few people walking from it instead of the usual throng. That’s the weird thing. It’s eerie.”
The importance of self-care
Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of keeping business moving when your business moves home is the importance of maintaining mental health.
That can mean something simple like keeping your work life separate from your home life, at least as best you can.
“I’ve tried to have a dedicated work area, but I am a city dweller, so space is not ample for me,” Ingram said. “I at least try to say that this is the space I will plan on doing the majority of my work.
“I also allow for a change of scenery, because I find myself getting closed in.”
There’s no way around it – these are scary times.
“It comes down to uncertainty. Information is still rolling out about this grave situation, and I think that fear can grow from uncertainty in some cases. So the more information we have, the more prepared we become, and those things I think will quell fear.
“I think preparedness is the key. And that’s something we as engineers are trained to do. If we just concentrate on preparedness and being knowledgeable about the situation, we can help keep fear from growing.
“Try to be safe and stay well.”