The future of professional engineers: communication
Meghan Calabro, PE, Assistant Department Manager, Telecom & Network Engineering, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo.
Michael J. Ferreira, PE, Vice President Development, Jensen Hughes, Baltimore
David Harris, Senior Recruiter, Stanley Consultants, Phoenix
William E. Koffel, PE, FSFPE, President, Koffel Associates Inc., Columbia, Md.
Douglas Lacy, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, WSP + ccrd | A WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff Co., Dallas
Paul Meyer, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CEM, CBCP, Senior Vice President, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York City
Christopher O’Connor, Engineering Operations Manager, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Albany, N.Y.
Ron Parsley, PE, LEED AP, NCEES, Electrical Engineer, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.
CSE: Do younger staff members communicate differently, and how has your team adjusted to include these new communication needs?
Harris: Both our young and our seasoned employees tend to use the same standard communication channels. Texting has become a more common method of communication, but it is being embraced by all generations, not just millennials. In fact, we are looking at adding texting as a standard communication channel with employees.
Ferreira: Young staff members/millennials have no problems communicating and telling you their opinions and feelings. Senior staff members must make themselves available to junior staff, as being dismissive is the worst thing you can do to a millennial. Young staff members also love to communicate via email and text rather than face to face. We often have to encourage them to come to our offices to discuss issues to avoid lengthy email back-and-forth and also warn them to be careful with what thoughts they put in writing.
Calabro: The younger staff members certainly rely more on instant messenger and texting, but everyone—regardless of age—has unique communication preferences. I encourage project teams to talk with each other about their communication preferences so that they can be as efficient and effective as possible.
Parsley: Definitely. Younger staff members can be shy due to entering a workplace environment of all ages and levels of experience, which is quite different from their college environment. It also seems that younger staff members often speak and write more bluntly. While that can be useful and to the point, it might not incorporate the nuance of a situation and can easily be misconstrued or taken negatively by the other parties. We provide an extremely user-friendly internal knowledge-sharing platform that can help both younger and senior staff become comfortable with more developed communication habits.
Meyer: Young staff members definitely communicate more through electronics, such as email, instant messaging, and social media. For example, we had a company event touring Manhattan in a boat. I asked one of my staff members what she was doing with her phone as we passed the Statue of Liberty; she was snap chatting! We adjust by giving them the technology they use every day: iPhones, iPads, laptops, portal hot spots.
Lacy: From one generation to the next, there have always been differences in communication expectations. We have found that the key to success is working to understand each other’s communication expectations upfront. While some employees, whether based on age, culture, or personality type, may be more comfortable using text versus verbal communication, it is important to learn about your co-worker’s preferred style so that you can work together most effectively. Communication tends to break down when both parties think that their style of communication is the only correct style.
Koffel: We actually did an activity to address this issue and found that most of the employees all wanted a similar form of communication. What was surprising to many was the desire for face-to-face communication.
CSE: How does senior staff help junior staff learn to communicate with external clients? What types of shadowing or other programs do you have in place?
Parsley: We don’t have a formal program, but younger staff interacts with external clients informally by accompanying senior staff to project meetings, both internally and externally. This way, younger staff members can become comfortable in those situations as well as observe how to interact and communicate effectively with a client. We typically allow younger staff to draft emails to external clients, which senior staff reviews and critiques. This is a great way to refine interaction with clients generally as well as in purely written communication.
Koffel: Young professionals are typically invited to project progress meetings, meetings with clients, and meetings with regulatory officials.
Meyer: We do not do formal shadowing programs, but we do educate junior staff in proper client communication. I require my staff to respond to every client by email or phone within 24 hours, even if to just say "I am working on it." I instill in staff members that clients contact us for a reason, so it is important not to ignore them. I also require that I get copied on client email replies so that I can keep informed on the project, but also to monitor my staff’s timeliness, grammar, and spelling. As an example, one of my staff members sent this email to a client: "WO3—Q690." I calmly explained that the following would be more professional, "Good afternoon Ms. X. Please find attached the report for Project Q690. Thank you."
Ferreira: For face-to-face communication, the best thing we have found is to bring junior staff members to meetings solely to observe, so they can see how communication takes place with our clients and how to handle situations. For written communication, we encourage and in many cases require a senior staff member to review drafts of email communications prior to sending to clients.
Calabro: Most junior staff members start the client communication process by attending client meetings. While they might be just listening at first, I push them to take on action items and track down resolutions for their team. If they are able to document their proposed resolution in writing, they can pass this along to their project manager (PM) for review. Gaining their PM’s trust in their written communications is critical because senior team members would then be more likely to allow a newer staff member to start talking directly to the client (as opposed to funneling all conversations through the senior members).
Lacy: Throughout their first years at WSP + ccrd, we make sure that junior staff members are included in offsite and client meetings with their project’s senior engineers. At first, the junior staff members are observers. As they progress, we assign portions of the client presentation to them so they can participate under the supervision of senior staff that can assist when required. Eventually, junior staff members handle client interactions solo—and are no longer considered junior staff.
CSE: Do younger team members obtain information differently? Do they use digital products (such as search engines, YouTube, smartphone cameras, etc.) more so than senior team members?
O’Connor: We have noticed that our young professionals quickly form their own resource networks within the firm and lean on each other to navigate both technical and interpersonal challenges they are facing. They are quick to bounce ideas off of each other and often are adept at building upon concepts discovered through online searches or social media tags. Technology, specifically BIM, has transformed how we do business over the last decade, and that revolution was driven internally by our young engineers and architects. They picked apart the software like forensic experts, jumped one hurdle after the next together, and had to find and form their own support networks to overcome the constant challenges thrown their way. As they found solutions to complex problems, they had to become masters at informing and educating the rest of the team, so it became a great opportunity to strengthen their communication and leadership skills. As our firm continues to grow, this cycle repeats itself to a degree, which creates new opportunities for the next generation to do the same.
Ferreira: While our senior engineers don’t lag too far behind young engineers on the use of digital devices, we are still finding our way regarding the best ways to use social media. This applies to both obtaining and disseminating information.
Lacy: The majority of the information we use today has become digital for all of our staff, regardless of age. While staff is expected to be fluent in retrieving information from a digital resource, the key training that must occur with younger staff is the decision-making ability necessary to evaluate the information for its validity and applicability to the project goals. While in the past we could "curate" which information we allowed into our office on our library shelves, there is now an abundance of information at our fingertips. Getting to the information is no longer the problem; rather, deciding which pieces of information are appropriate for our use is the skill we must cultivate.
Calabro: I think most team members rely heavily on digital information at this point, but the younger team members seem to be more adept at newer, lesser-known resources. I love it when a new team member shows a senior colleague a new/faster/better resource for their job!
Parsley: I would say that most of the younger staff members almost always use digital products to access information. Senior staff members have the benefit of experience, networks of peers, and a foundation of analog resources that they supplement with search engines and other digital sources. But I believe digital products are often the starting point for younger staff. Search engines can be a terrific efficiency, bringing information quickly and in large quantities, but issues can arise from the sometimes unqualified or unverified nature of information from the Internet.
Harris: No, I think this gap is closed. It’s possible that younger employees are quicker to embrace new technology used to obtain information, but all ages make use of the various channels available.
Meyer: Twenty-five years ago, my office walls were completely covered in books and manufacturers’ catalogs. Today, we throw out bookshelves full of catalogs to make room for more desks. Everything revolves around Google searches and YouTube videos, which is a great improvement because the online data should be the most current, versus a dusty catalog. So it is not just junior staff, but even us old folks using only digital information. Smartphone cameras have had a huge impact on report writing. Our reports now contain many high-resolution photos that add value due to iPhones.
CSE: Do you encourage younger team members to present at national conferences and seminars? If so, how do you prepare them for this broad exposure?
Calabro: Absolutely! Presenting at conferences is an excellent way for newer employees to get industry exposure and to practice delivering technical messages to varying audiences. It also allows them to meet current and potential clients and to increase their technical knowledge through attendance at conference sessions. To prepare employees for this opportunity, we have them participate in a class about giving external presentations. Additionally, we typically help them review and practice their content and we run through potential questions and answers with them.
Parsley: When a younger team member expresses an interest in presenting at a conference, that person is teamed with a seasoned team member to conduct joint presentations. In doing so, they can develop skills that cannot be learned any other way.
Ferreira: We encourage young engineers to prepare technical papers and presentations and we support attendance at a wide range of conferences. When an engineer submits a paper, it has to go through review—often by multiple senior staff members. We also encourage engineers to give a dry-run of their presentation at an in-house lunch-and-learn session so they can get feedback on style/content prior to presenting at the conference.
Meyer: Absolutely. The first step is to ease the butterflies in their stomachs and then mentor them on presentation skills—I never miss an opportunity to help them hone these skills. At an internal meeting just this week, I told a junior engineer to stand up when he spoke. Later that day, I met him in the cafeteria and explained that he could command the room better when standing and it was good to practice before giving a presentation in public or to a client.
Koffel: So far in 2016, we expect that more than 40% of our younger team members will present at national and international conferences. Preparation begins with the presentations they are required to make to their peers. Also, many of the presentations involve one senior team member as a co-presenter.
Lacy: WSP + ccrd encourages and financially supports our staff members who have the initiative to attend a national conference. All those who plan to present at national conferences, regardless of tenure or rank, are encouraged and expected to first review their presentations internally to a peer-review group for constructive comments.
Harris: We have a well-established program that encourages all employees to be published and present at conferences, regardless of age. Younger employees do tend to co-author or co-present with more experienced members when sharing information about a project, primarily due to their subordinate role in the project.