Tommy Faulkner, P.E., LEED AP, CCM, is the CEO of the multidisciplinary engineering, inspection, and testing firm JDSfaulkner in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is currently reworking his firm’s hiring and training processes and has advice for civil engineers on how to succeed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Why are civil engineers susceptible to burnout from unexpected events and what does that look like?
The burnout that I’ve noted the most is a change in mindset — or change in hope — which then starts to affect everything in our lives. Naturally, as engineers, we look at a situation and imagine ‘What’s the worst issues that could come out of this?’ and then we work to resolve those issues before they actually crop up.
When you’re facing something like the recession that we dealt with in 2008, where the volume of workload decreased substantially — it felt like overnight — it led a lot of people in our industry to move in the negative mindset direction. And that daily focus on the lack of work affected morale; it led to a lot of the burnout that we saw.
2. How does that compare with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the immediate aftermath of the initial lockdowns when everyone was trying to get up to speed quickly with remote work?
While there were similarities, they are actually very different events. And they affected the engineering profession and engineers very differently. But in both, you just had to adjust to a new normal. Before 2008 things were going really strong, and then the recession hit and we had to quickly adjust and do business a different way, approach projects a different way, and approach obtaining work in a different way.
With the pandemic, we had to approach completing our work, working together, and working remotely in a different way. It called for the innovation that we’re known for as engineers to come into play so we could work those issues out.
3. How did your company’s experiences and decisions post-2008 inform your approach in 2020?
I think there is a trap there: If you just apply what you learned in 2008 to what is happening in 2020, you’re likely to make the wrong decisions. They are both crises, and you have to think through as a leader and as an organization how to resolve the concerns for your clients and for your staff. But there are dramatic differences.
With the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of firms in our industry start to really tighten their belts, especially as far back as April and May, because they expected the volume of work to go down, and they expected wages to go down. So, in my opinion, some of them applied cost-cutting measures too early.
This time, the work needs and volume are still there. In fact, it may be becoming even greater with some of the pent-up demand that has happened over the last six months. And so the approach to that work has to be different, the decisions have to be different, and the solutions have to be different than in 2008.
4. What have been your top three ways to avoid burnout for yourself and your staff during this pandemic?
We are doing our best to provide organizational clarity. The pandemic has required this to help people understand how their role is effective, how it is continuing forward, how it is helping our clients, and how it fits into the overall strategy of where we’re moving as a company.
I also think that doing more targeted business development with new and existing clients to make sure that the pipeline of work stays strong, and sharing that information with our staff, helps them to feel comfortable about the direction the company is heading and therefore where their security is heading.
And then I think we’ve actually been given an opportunity with all of our staff working remotely. We’ve asked them to take a small percentage of the commute time (that they aren’t using anymore) and use it to really focus on client satisfaction and engage with clients, either via Zoom or telephone calls or otherwise — to hear their voices and see their faces. That has helped us keep morale up too. Both for our clients and for our staff.
5. How do company structures and expectations need to be adapted to prevent burnout, if at all?
That is something that we talk about all the time. This is not just a new issue to be resolved because of the pandemic.
There is a great book that I read many years ago by Patrick Lencioni called The Three Signs of a Miserable Job (Jossey-Bass, 2007). One is anonymity, one is irrelevance, and the last is ‘immeasurement.’ And we’ve used those ideas to really look at how to improve morale in our company. We’ve focused on helping people see the relevance of what they are doing, how it fits into the overall building process, and how it affects people’s lives. And we measure our efficiencies and effectiveness — how well we do what we do. Everyone wants to feel like they are contributing and to be recognized for that, and we take great steps toward allowing all of our staff to be recognized for their efforts and the impacts that they make within our company and within the projects that they are working on with us.
When you are in an environment where these things are absent, the job is not measurable. You don’t know if you are doing a great job or not. You don’t know if the client is satisfied; you don’t know if it was OK to go through three rounds of review. You don’t know if what you’re doing is relevant. That all contributes to reduced morale because there is no target or goal to move toward. Looking at each of these things creates goals that are effective for the company itself to be stable and profitable and helps our staff recognize how they can be the best that they can be in their particular positions.
6. How do project timelines and deliverables need to be adapted to avoid burnout, if at all?
I don’t know that there needs to be a lot of changes to a reasonable timeline and deliverable. We as designers are challenged often with unrealistic expectations of the time it takes to complete an accurate design, and so we continue to manage expectations to balance the staff hours that we can provide and get that design set accurately completed to our standards.
We have a measured (workflow at our company), and we haven’t seen any reduced efficiency in working remotely. In fact, we’ve seen some additional efficiencies in our design staff working remotely. We’ve been able to complete more than we have than when we were all in the office together, which is something that as a leadership team, we’re talking about and trying to really understand so that we can make better-informed decisions as we move forward once we’re completely out of this pandemic.
7. Where do you see the line between ‘survived’ and ‘thrived?’ Why is it so important to focus on thriving?
To thrive in this means to have the right mindset, to not simply wish and want things to be the way that they’ve always been, but to recognize the reality of the way it is at the moment and not let it impede you in providing great service and a great product.
Engineers are among the most resilient people, the ones who can really come up with these crazy out-of-the-box solutions that can, in some cases, push our society forward to make us better in spite of anything that we’re dealing with. I have a lot of faith in my fellow engineers and a lot of optimism about where we’re going as a profession, where we’re going as a country, and how we’re going to continue to support the critical building interests of our country.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as “Avoid Burnout by Sharing Wisdom and Relevancy.”