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From the Editor: Engineers Seem to Be Adjusting to New Circumstances

Robert Schickel on May 25, 2020 - in Articles, Column

I am a proud Baby Boomer, but I don’t feel like I’m one of those to whom the “OK, Boomer” derogative is directed. Just like every generation, mine has some particular (some might say peculiar) characteristics. But this is a time when all generations should come together, help each other and, maybe even more importantly, learn from each other. This pandemic requires just that, and it gives all of us an opportunity to be better.

Varying Stages of Preparedness

Informed Infrastructure has been operating in a remote-work mode ever since I’ve been involved with the publication. I know, because I’ve never “gone to the office” to write this column. I get a phone call or an email alerting me to the due date. Then sometime after that, I sit in my open-concept office (otherwise known as the dining room) and try to compose something readable.

If this pandemic happened when I was in the early stages of my career, there would have been no remote-working option. We would have stayed home and done no work. Perhaps we could have grabbed a set of plans to check, but all our work was done at drafting tables and with a mainframe computer. There wasn’t a mechanism in place to work remotely. Luckily (in more ways than one), this didn’t happen.

The closest we got was when someone was out for a while, and we would deliver and pick up some work from their home. But that was pretty limited and not very efficient. In addition, work was, by necessity, a little more face-to-face back then. The tools weren’t available to share information as effectively as now.

Checking Around

I recently talked with some business colleagues about this situation and how they’re coping with working remotely. Some said they’ve already been doing this to some extent. When people are on maternity/paternity leave or extended sick leave or—in some cases—on “Friday work from home day,” working remotely has been effective and a benefit for many. But, for the most part, these have been relatively short-term or individual assignments.

I have heard that remote meetings are well-attended, and the communication tools are very good. There are the normal conference calls as well as the “new normal” video meetings that are readily available to everyone. Productivity remains good, with momentary lapses due to uploading or helping a child with their eLearning assignment. One of my colleagues suggested that perhaps the productivity level is staying constant because there’s nothing else to do or people just need to connect, even if it is work related.

Another engineer (with two children) jokingly said that he needs a padlock on his door for two reasons: 1) to keep the kids out and 2) to keep him away from the pantry.

But everyone said they struggled at first until their “home office” was set up. After the two monitors were in place and all the connections to the servers were made, everything seemed to settle in. One colleague was locked out of his office and, in his words, is “stuck with only my laptop,” sensing that he was being less effective.

Some of my colleagues sent photos (some forgot to move the bottle of beer out of the picture frame). But their setup looked a lot like it probably does in their main office. There’s something to be said for a professional work environment. It puts one in a mood that’s different from watching YouTube or ordering something from Bed, Bath and Beyond. Some even brought home their office furniture: chairs, lamps, notepads, etc. One engineer has the photo of his kids on his table that he had at the office.

The engineering community has been working remotely for some time—at least in some instances and for some people. It’s not brand new. But it is new for so many to be working remotely at the same time. So far, the people I have communicated with are OK with it. Work is getting done, and it seems to be mostly efficient.

Where Next?

I wonder if this is one of those “tipping points.” The longer the isolation goes on, more imaginative ways of working together from afar will be tried. Will this affect other industries permanently? Perhaps shopping online will become even more prevalent and stores will have to make adjustments. Maybe the home-delivery industry will flourish.

Hopefully, there will still be a desire for engineers to come together, because that’s how we work best.

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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