Christopher Hillis, CMT Division Manager, Hillis-Carnes Engineering Associates; Kat Sabo, President, Budova Engineering and Joe Ucciferro, Associate, Bohler participated in an virtual discussion to exchange ideas regarding how the engineering discipline has been impacted during the ongoing pandemic, ways the industry plays a role in making employees feel more comfortable when returning to the workplace and personal survival and professional growth tactics each has engaged in during this challenging year.
2020 CHANGES IN THE ENGINEERING DISCIPLINE
KAT SABO (KS): The focus on and belief in the mechanical engineering discipline has changed as landlords, property managers and businesses continue to grapple with the impact of the pandemic. We have seen a whole new level of interest emerge in understanding HVAC systems, specifically how equipment and processes can improve air quality and make employees feel more at ease in the workplace. There is more validation about our industry as it pertains to contributing to a person’s well-being and safety.
JOE UCCIFERRO (JU): Tangible changes have occurred within the entitlement and civil engineering sector over the past eight months, as most meetings for planning and public input have transitioned to a virtual setting. In addition, many of the engineering plan reviews have moved from paper to electronic which, in turn, has sped up the reviews in some instances and enabled projects to proceed faster.
CHRISTOPHER HILLS (CH): The biggest change is communication. With the switch to a virtual work place, it was a big adjustment going from weekly staff and client meetings to all virtual meetings. Even inter-company, collaboration efforts and small-team meetings which previously happened organically now needed to be planned and coordinated. In a field that is traditionally very hands-on, it’s been amazing to see everyone adjust to the new normal.
NEW REALITIES FROM THE SHUTDOWN
KS: When owners and developers see value in what we are doing and understand and appreciate the money, time and headaches a service like commissioning can save them on a project, it makes it much easier for us to do our job. That support is going to be even more crucial as we collectively search for solutions during this public health crisis. Developers and owners recognize this is about the safety and well-being of everyone who works or lives in their buildings.
JU: Bohler was among the first in the industry to transition our team to a fully remote operation when the lockdown occurred. Our employees came together and adapted without missing a beat, and developers and owners appreciated our ability to keep projects moving forward. We continue to communicate regularly with jurisdictions to understand their current status and operating procedures, and help owners and developers find unexpected opportunities like quicker review times and smoother approvals.
CH: When the slowdown first started, the entitlement process was experiencing significant delays, which provided clients the opportunity to take a fresh perspective on engineering concepts. As geotechnical engineers, we stress that the biggest unknown cost in construction is the site and the existing subgrade conditions. With additional time, developers and owners have placed more emphasis on subgrade exploration, especially with the feeling that costs, now more than ever, need to be contained in whatever manner possible.
INCREASING THE COMFORT LEVEL AMONG EMPLOYEES
KS: We rely on guidance from ASHRAE and pass relevant data along to our clients. This is information with proven evidence, and it makes people feel more comfortable as they are returning to the workplace. Air is an unseen commodity and there exists a great deal of anxiety about the HVAC space. The general public now has a desire to be educated about this, and it’s important they know what questions they should be asking before going back to the office.
JU: Each of our 27 offices have implemented a phased return to office plan that prioritizes the health and wellbeing of our employees. We fully recognize the challenges employees face with childcare and other family situations and continue to find ways to better support them. Our weekly virtual town hall has generated creative communication and engagement ideas that we have passed along to our clients.
CH: Our field staff has continued to work on construction sites since the start of the pandemic and we were on the forefront in discovering safe return to work practices. We have navigated all the guidelines to insure employee and client safety while maintaining a quality product. We have switched to regular virtual staff meetings and stress the importance of constant communication with our field staff.
ENSURING CONNECTIVITY AND PERSONAL GROWTH
KS: My family hiked every week, planted a small garden and played a lot of pickleball and tennis together. One silver lining from the pandemic that I am hopeful about is employers recognizing their employees’ humanness. In addition to doing their jobs, they are parenting, teaching, cleaning and possibly even dealing with a family member who has a health issue. Professionally, I have benefitted from reading the NAIOP-MD 360 newsletter and have appreciated its timely and relevant articles.
JU: My family and I planted a garden in our backyard and we have derived enormous pleasure and hope from harvesting vegetables and flowers. I have also invited clients and staff over to walk trails and chase chickens! Creatively connecting with others throughout all of this has been an unexpected benefit in an otherwise challenging time.
CH: My wife and I have two young daughters and we regularly enjoy walks and outdoor time in order to keep ourselves sane. We also partake in virtual hangouts with our family friends in order to stay connected. On a business front, we have seen companies gravitating towards businesses they can trust and know will get the job done. We have realized the importance of the existing relationships we have fostered throughout our participation in NAIOP organized functions and events.