By T.R. Witcher

When the leaders of the almost 200-person strong, Seattle-based engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates saw the approaching reality of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year, they planned a trial work from home day for March 17. But by March 16, they realized the situation called for more. While the firm had gotten the IT backbone ready for a single day’s use on March 17, it turned out that the majority of the workers actually didn’t return to the office until July. It took until October for everyone to return.

It’s just one example of the topsy-turvy year all businesses, including engineering firms, faced as they sent workers home and, in fits and starts, have welcomed them back. Maintaining productivity during these challenges required engineering firms to create strong digital backbones, keep up morale, and be flexible when it came to family and life demands.

Civil Engineering talked to or received written responses from a variety of blue chip firms — including MKA, Thornton Tomasetti, Bechtel, WSP USA, and Arup — about the adjustments staff and managers have made to facilitate remote work and the biggest challenges engineering firms have faced in having employees work from home. In the first of a two-part series, we’ll consider some of the challenges engineering firms have faced in having employees work remotely. In part two, we’ll explore how firms are managing vaccine requirements and delve more deeply into the pros and cons of a possible future in which hybrid work split between in-office and at-home becomes the new normal.

Strong digital backbone

All the firms we spoke with had to contend with sending workers home for all or parts of 2020 while maintaining productivity and morale. One of the main challenges was technological. MKA, for one, had a lot of employees on the road, and while it had a strong virtual private network system, it had never had its nearly 200 employees use it simultaneously. Since not everyone had company laptops, one of the biggest challenges was facilitating remote work from employees’ personal computers. A bigger challenge was stress testing and increasing the size of MKA’s VPN network, which up to that point had never had more than 150 people trying to access it at the same time.

Our digital technology team has done an amazing job setting up all our members for success in this new working environment,” says Leo Argiris, P.E., LEED AP, the chief operating officer in the Americas Region for Arup. (Arup is headquartered in London but has 11 offices and more than 1,000 employees based in the U.S.) “This involved implementing remote workstations and providing support as individuals adapted to new platforms and set up a comfortable home office,” Argiris says.

Michael Squarzini, P.E., LEED AP, the co-CEO of Thornton Tomasetti, said the New York City-based firm had already fortuitously upgraded its IT network capability prior to the pandemic. The firm has 1,300 employees in nearly 50 offices, and the upgrades “allowed virtually all employees to simulate their in-office online experience anywhere they were located,” Squarzini says. “We rapidly transitioned all those employees who still required desktop machines to laptops. We had also recently installed conferencing software, which greatly enhanced our ability to conduct virtual meetings.”

Reston, Virginia-based Bechtel, which has about 34,000 employees globally, provided remote equipment and secure remote access for employees. “Our (information systems and technology) team supported colleagues in adopting new collaboration tools,” says Brian Hartman, P.E., the manager of corporate engineering and technology for Bechtel. He adds that it was critical “that we make sure that we are creating an even and equal experience for remote workers.” As part of this, conference rooms had to be designed to support meetings with a mix of in-person and virtual attendees. “Also, tools like digital whiteboards can really enhance these hybrid collaborations by allowing all members to participate in discussions. These small but important technology adaptations are what will enable real productivity in this new working environment,” Hartman says.

For WSP USA, which has more than 12,000 employees at more than 200 offices across the U.S., “the challenges of enabling everyone to work from home were eased somewhat by an existing telework policy and previous investments in the technology and software to make such work possible, such as a virtual private network, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Zoom,” says Richard Driggs, the chief operating officer for WSP USA. “Having that infrastructure in place before the pandemic was certainly helpful during the transition."

Keeping up morale

It took time for staff to get used to working remotely. “As people became more comfortable with this working arrangement, we have seen positive outcomes from virtual collaboration,” Driggs says. “However, even with the best virtual tools, we saw the need for people to be more intentional about how they work together. Where people were used to just walking over to a teammate’s desk, they now need to be more organized and structured in how they collaborate.”

Arup’s Argiris notes that the firm provided an employee assistance program to help take care of its workers’ mental health during the pandemic.      

MKA tried a variety of strategies to keep everyone connected. Some teams scheduled non-work-related conversations — chit-chat, basically. Andy Fry, P.E., S.E., LEED AP, the chief operating officer, got in the habit of calling 15 colleagues over the course of an hour or so first thing in the morning to check in with them. “You don't always have a spot in your calendar for a 15-minute Zoom,” he says. “We just got in the habit of a quick check-in every day.”

Fry adds, “We really believe at MKA that engineering is a team sport. And to try to have everybody doing tasks in their homes gets tasks done, but it doesn't result in great work.”

Kids and cars

Two specific challenges firms discussed were child care and transportation.

"The demand on parents of young children … was amplified exponentially during the pandemic,” says Thornton Tomasetti’s Squarzini. “With schools closed, we saw many employees with young children exhausted while trying to balance the demands at home with the responsibilities of work.”

Fry echoed this sentiment, noting that as staff began returning to work this past summer child care, due to school being out, was hit or miss. The firm was flexible with time in the office and hours as child care plans were firmed up. Now that it is mid-November, Fry says the challenges of child care have lessened, “but there are still shortages of available day care options and additional days where the kids must be home because they have COVID-like symptoms."

Fry mentions another issue as well: He says that workers coming back to work in downtown Seattle have had to face greatly reduced mass transit options. The firm has provided a $10-a-day parking stipend to help employees manage new costs of commuting by driving. The firm has encouraged staffers to explore their transportation options, including commuting during daylight hours or just grabbing an Uber if any part of their traditional transit commute feels unsafe. The firm is trying to balance between supporting its employees and promoting sustainable transit. “We're trying to be compassionate with our team but also trying not to say, ‘I don't care what it costs; everybody drive and park.’”

Squarzini notes another challenge with commuting in Thornton’s urban offices. “We have all gotten hours back of our day that were spent commuting, and that has improved work-life balance,” he says. “How do we square that with the value of being together in the office? We are working on it.”

Hidden benefits

Still, there have been benefits — employees have gained more proficiency in using telecommunications and conferencing software, for one. “We have seen major benefits, particularly being able to host large meetings virtually,” says Arup’s Argiris. “Prior to the pandemic, any big meeting, workshop, or forum required getting people physically together, but now larger-scale events can be pulled off successfully while maintaining direct communication with participants regardless of geographies.”

Despite this, isolation through remote work can, Squarzini says, “disconnect people from their firm’s culture, their friends at work, and the joy of being together. We know that we need to replace that isolation with being together whenever possible. For me, that is the pull back to the office — pushing people back into the office in other ways will not be effective.”

Fry says remote work “did open our eyes to the difference between successfully completing a task and really being part of a team.” The pandemic, he added, helps remind people of the joy of being together with a highly communicative and collaborative team, Fry says. “When that was taken away, many people realized the value."

Read part two of the series, "Is the future of engineering at home and in the office?"