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Is the Structural Engineering Profession ready for Work from Home if there is a crisis?

The coronavirus is putting remote work to a gigantic test, and at a totally unprecedented scale. Throughout China, Japan, South Korea and Europe, workers have been on lockdown. Last week, the same happened in Seattle and Bay Area. Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and many more companies worldwide have told all their employees to remain home. Also, human resource departments everywhere are making contingency plans that include keeping workers home.

Prior to the current unfortunate outbreak of COVID-19, have you ever given a thought on what would happen if we were in a situation where we had no choice but to stay and work from home for a month or even a longer period?

Most of the Structural Engineering design firms around the world have seldom tried out the work from home culture, or adopted it into their daily routine or policy, apart from managers having some remote access to work from home or on the go during business trips, client or team meetings, or site visits; because we as a profession benefit from in-person communication between the project team members for sharing ideas, design solutions, collaboration, confirming assumptions, asking questions, bouncing concepts off of peers and managers. Furthermore, few would argue the importance of flipping through hard copies of structural drawings at any stage in the design or construction process. But what would happen to our offices if a lockdown of our offices were necessary due to an unfortunate crisis? Are we as a community fully prepared for this?

With some of the major companies in other sectors already giving their employees guidelines to work from home to safeguard them from the potential spread of the virus, I was forced to think about why our profession has not yet been accustomed to having a work from home culture.

I believe that it is a difficult step in our profession, BUT IS IT REALLY THAT DIFFICULT in the age of the technologies that we are currently living in?

Would there be a straight lockdown of our companies and would many employees have to use unpaid leave if a crisis were to arise? Will ill staff come to work, risking the health of their peers to avoid debt or going unpaid? Have we made our office resources ready for a mandatory work from home scenario? Is this a question that our profession needs to answer?

Basic Resources Required to set-up work from home for your employees
  1. Personal laptop or computer that an individual already owns at home.

  2. Screen sharing platform (Team viewer) or VPN network connection so that they could access the project files and commercial softwares from home.

  3. Have a well-defined collection of digital copies of Codes and Manuals on the server required for working on the projects.

  4. Earphones, basic stationary (pen, pencil & eraser), cell phone/telephone to connect with peers to discuss, calculation sheets, scientific calculator.

  5. Make sure the CAD drafters or modelers also have their basic tools (particularly the mouse that they are comfortable with) at their homes to work from home for a few days.

With the help of the above resources, I believe that we as engineers will be able to effectively manage our work at home if the need arises. We expect there will be some reductions in efficiency when adapting to new practices and work environments, but in the case of such a crisis, it is always best to prepare ourselves to be able to work from home. Even if we are not 100% efficient, I am sure we will at least be able to achieve 70% efficiency, which is still better than not being able to work at all. The potential to attain 100% efficiency will grow as we make ourselves more accustomed to this culture. I believe it is not that of a big challenge to break down the barriers. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you can work from home at least some of the time, but you may need to have some discussions with the management team to convince them to provide guidelines on flexibility policies.

I believe every office needs to have an all-staff meeting to openly discuss the conditions and any group or individual concerns, on how the company plans to operate if a shutdown were necessary for precautionary reasons. We need to make ourselves prepared for such a scenario and any potential crisis if it were to arise. Our profession has a major impact on the economic and infrastructural development of each community and the nation as a whole. Therefore we need to be fully prepared and on our toes well before the first incidence of contraction is reported in each firm.

Future Recommendations

Without a comprehensive emergency plan, it may be a challenge for each employer to provide all staff with regular compensation through such a difficult situation, such as a mandatory office shutdown or losses due to illnesses or accommodations for working parents who lack childcare options due to school closures.

Let’s work together to incorporate the work from home culture into our professional community slowly and steadily so that we are well prepared for any future unexpected emergencies, whether they involve health risks or disasters due to earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc.

Try to prepare your employees for work from home for 2 days in a month. This should be a small change and would not affect the productivity of the project team. But, eventually, we will all be accustomed to this culture and bring more flexibility in our profession. Though there might be a few disadvantages of working from home, there are many advantages as well. It's an experiment that will build resilience by training people to learn to function even when team members are not all present or available.

Let’s Be Prepared!

Do share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.


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