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ReEngineering the Engineer: Have We Learned Anything Yet?

Douglas Fitzpatrick on June 8, 2020 - in Articles, Column

One of the qualities of a good learner is being able to take in information, process it and use it to your advantage. Failure often is just as helpful as success. Having an example of “what not to do” can be just as beneficial as having a great “what to do” example. A learner always is on the lookout for both types of information and willing to take action with each.

As I write, we’re now in week seven of working from home in North Carolina. Although the “move” to home was relatively easy for our office, the last seven weeks have clearly shown there are plenty of challenges in making the “transition.” The painfully obvious one for most of us was leaving the creature comforts of the office.

Creatures of Habit

Engineers spend a lot of time during the day at our desks. Through the years, each of us has discovered where we like a layout space as well as defined spaces dedicated to number crunching, reference guides, Codes, manuals, etc., all to become efficient with our space, however large or small. And because we’re engineers, we can do a great job optimizing all of that.

The pandemic and stay-at-home orders turned our comfortable little worlds upside down. We have to leave our beautifully optimized space at the office and trade it for a not-so-user-friendly space at home. I know all of us had to sacrifice something when setting up shop at home. Most of us didn’t have nearly the same amount of space. Some of us couldn’t arrange things to match what we had at the office—being forced to work left-to-right instead of right-to-left.

It was awkward and frustratingly not productive at first, particularly when we’re busy. But even us engineers are malleable; within a few short days, we had engineered an alternate temporary setup that allowed us to pick up right where we left off—a testament to our problem-solving skills.

What About the Children?

One thing none of us saw coming was the impact of having schools closed. It might not have been as difficult if the kids were just home, but when the remote learning kicked in, the challenge took on a whole new dimension. About half of our employees have relatively young families, and half of those have working spouses. It was culture shock for everyone.

Most resorted to job sharing through the course of the day. One played third-grade teacher while the other worked, then somewhere during the day, they would switch roles. They all put their engineering skills to work and found a solution that worked for their families and them. I’m proud of them all; I know it wasn’t easy … and still isn’t.

What About Large Documents?

Starting in February, a lot of our work moved into construction administration, bringing the inevitable bombardment of shop drawings. Everyone in the office had something in construction, including me.

My usual “M.O.” for checking shop drawings is to print out the E sheets on regular large paper so I can see everything in context and then print out most of the piece drawings on 11×17 or smaller; just big enough so they’re legible. But when your plotter is a commute away, and you’re supposed to be staying home, you have to invent a new way of doing things.

I quickly realized I had become very accustomed to being able to see the whole plan at once, then focus in on the individual pieces when needed. That’s not really possible working electronically from home, unless you have gigantic monitors, which I/we don’t have. I struggled with this for quite a while, hoping I’d discover some magic that would make it easier for me, but it never came.

As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. Even our younger engineers, who are very accustomed to working things out electronically, struggled with exactly the same problem (and I thought it was the “old man” in me). Right or wrong, we all gravitated to the same solution: print out what we need, drive to the office, pick it up, wipe everything down before we leave, then go home.

Most of us will be staying at home for our Phase 1 start back to normal. Through all of this, however, have we learned something?

We’ve learned that despite our engineer stereotype, we’re an adaptable bunch. We’re problem solvers, and dealing with our temporary stay-at-home orders was just another problem that needed to be solved. We also learned that some processes—such as shop-drawing review—are difficult to change. I suspect if shop-drawing review occupied the majority of our time, we’d adapt to an electronic process, but for now, we’ll leave that to another day.

I’m sure everyone has run into similar issues transitioning to home—some that can be easily adapted, and some that can’t. Use those problem-solving skills to make the best of a tough situation: adapt the things you can, don’t get frustrated and know that sooner or later we’ll be back in our comfort zone at the office.

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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