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Tuesday, Oct 27, 2020

The Response to COVID-19 – A Consultant’s Perspective

As published in the Fall 2020 issue of Western Canada Water Magazine focused on Public Health topics.

by Andy Barr, Emma Sauriol, and Allison Clarke 

Site Safety

Engineering consulting in the water industry is very public health focused. While the consultants’ role is usually to help clients meet public health objectives, the worldwide pandemic due to COVID-19 has now brought immediate health and safety risks into their own workplace and home. Like many other industries, measures to protect people against COVID-19 have impacted work efficiency, mental and physical health, and business continuity.

Challenges of Working Remotely

When provincial public health orders started being issued around the middle of March, many consultants completely shut down their offices or began operating with skeleton staff. Though remote access to networks and servers was common practice in the pre-COVID world, many firms were not prepared for all staff to connect remotely at one time. The first weeks of the crisis were devoted to implementing the necessary hardware and security protocols to make “working from home” the new reality. Hats off to our oft-forgotten IT professionals who pulled this off in record time under very trying circumstances.

Once the initial panic cleared, the focus became working in remote teams. For many, this has been a challenge, as in-person interaction is implicit to effective teamwork. It is also central to keeping the pulse on client satisfaction. Without the informal or intangible touch points that occur in an office environment, keeping connected with teammates and clients has proven to be time consuming. Typically, staff have reported working more hours and having to be flexible to work around constraints like childcare and shared workspace in the home (either their own or others).

Not all individuals have struggled with this new reality, in fact some have thrived in the online, collaborative environment. The way we think of teamwork has needed to change quickly as has the way we manage our client relationships. Our new way of doing business has meant more frequent communication, regular check-ins, and finding creative ways to connect like virtual coffee breaks. The use of collaboration tools with video capabilities has helped maintain “face-to-face” conversations with both clients and staff.

Remote Work

The true impact of reduced in-person encounters cannot be measured in the short term. However, tasks such as onboarding of new staff have proven to be more challenging and firms are already devising new ways of transmitting company culture. Also, as the consulting industry reinvents “client relationship building” in the absence of conferences and networking events, free webinars and online lunch and learn sessions are thriving, albeit often taxing the rare remaining lunch hour breaks.

Working remotely has come with trade-offs. For many the benefits have included skipping the daily commute, more time to focus, and more flexible works hours. But for yet others this has been offset by working more hours to deal with individual constraints and declining job satisfaction because of loss of personal interaction.

Mental and Physical Health Impacts

Fear, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and feelings of isolation are real and common mental health impacts of the pandemic. From the initial panic to adaptation to acceptance, the impacts have varied greatly from one individual to the next. Some were able to achieve a better work-life balance and for others being at home 24/7 was a constant source of stress. Yet others were left isolated and cut-off from the support network provided by an in-person work environment.

Additional health and safety consequences came from the poor ergonomics of home offices which were set up on kitchen tables, in bedrooms, or in a corner of the basement. Common complaints included keyboards at the wrong height, small or insufficient numbers of monitors, uncomfortable chairs, and muscle stress from not getting up or moving for long periods of time. The main cause of the physical inactivity was increased meeting frequency and back-to-back online meetings.

Through it all, communication with staff has been critical.  As many feared for their employment, senior company leadership had to make a paradigm shift, with “people” becoming the priority, before projects and profits. Assuming the best of people, and expressing trust in them, proved to be the key ingredient for transitioning to this new working environment.

Construction Site

Business Continuity

The Association of Consulting Engineering Companies Canada (ACEC Canada) recently surveyed their members regarding the impact of COVID-19. The majority of the close to 50 respondent firms said that their revenue losses were less than 50%. However, half were concerned regarding the long-term sustainability of their business and some had already laid off up to 5% of their total staff.

While ACEC Canada indicated that they continue, “…..to advocate on the need for infrastructure investments …… to be accelerated into 2020 and 2021 to ensure the consulting engineering industry can retain capacity in the coming months to support economic recovery,” the bigger challenge may be public health related, that is integrating staff back into an office environment. When the surveyed firms were asked, “What will be required of your firm to resume regular operations?”, 50% indicated “Obtain personal protective equipment”; 48% indicated “Office re-entry requirements (e.g. office layout re-configuring) to maintain physical separation”; and, 46% indicated “COVID-19 specific training for office and field work.”

Other Considerations

Travel for business has been severely curtailed during the pandemic, but not eliminated.  The necessity to travel for site inspections, field investigations and other hands-on work that can’t be done remotely has required strict travel protocols to be put in place. Senior management approval of travel, preparation of COVID-19 job hazard assessments, and travel in separate vehicles when more than one staff member is required to attend are just some of the measures that have been taken.

Return to work, or more correctly to work in the office, is being discussed at many levels. Realistically, the horizon for this reality keeps pushing out due to uncertainty regarding children returning to school, increased infection numbers from re-opening phases, and the development timeline for a viable vaccine, to mention a few. Indeed, it will probably never be the same. The pandemic has successfully forced many to overcome numerous challenges, or perceptions of, working remotely. This alone may change our workplaces completely. More flexible work arrangements, less hard office space, shared working spaces, and more results-based outcomes rather than hard hour metrics are all portends of the future.

Moving Forward

Engineering consultants have prepared for the worst, expecting the outcomes of COVID-19 on their industry to be more far-reaching and devastating than what has occurred so far. Maybe the worst is yet to come. That said, while there have been numerous negative impacts so far, there have also been many positives. We have generally been able to successfully maintain our commitments to our clients and, among many life-changing insights, the pandemic has proven that our industry is resilient and so are our staff. While we continue to adapt and change in response to the pandemic, we find that our values and goals are still the same and we remain focused on helping our clients achieve their objectives.