Virtual engineering: The new way of work

COVID-19 has affected everyone’s work methods, including engineers

By Amara Rozgus April 15, 2020

One of the first jokes I heard about engineers goes like this:

How do you know if an engineer is an introvert or an extrovert?

Punchline: An introvert will look at his shoes while talking to you. An extrovert will look at your shoes while talking to you.

Bad jokes aside, I think the coronavirus affecting the world’s population has made a lot of introverts crave external communication. Engineers are accustomed to working in teams. According to data from a 2019 Consulting-Specifying Engineer research study, 59% of respondents people typically work on a project team of one to five people, and 25% work on a team of six to 10 people. The same study showed that 25% of respondents regularly worked externally with architects, building owners, contractors and other professionals.

Engineers are really social animals, even though they might not want to admit it.

Take, for instance, an engineer who typically works in an office, goes to client meetings and collaborates with coworkers on teams and as a mentor. Everyday interactions are commonplace, and now COVID-19 has caused these interactions to shift dramatically. Working from home has eliminated live team meetings. Brainstorming sessions about how to design a building system take place via video conference or email. Commissioning takes place virtually, with tests run from afar. Paying clients still need the design completed, even if physical construction is delayed.

How are engineers coping? How will this change the business of engineering in the future? Will project designs be delayed or curtailed? Have jobsites completely shut down due to shelter-in-place orders? What technologies are blossoming from this uncertain work environment? What codes and standards will change based on the virus?

No one really has the answers just yet, though we all know that the world has changed. Morrissey Goodale, for example, reported in late March (with regular weekly updates) that some engineering firms had seen little to no change in their business, while others were affected dramatically. Though the federal government will be funneling funds into the economy to bolster it, it won’t change the fact that business owners will react differently, and be more cautious about spending.

In an online poll conducted in March of Consulting-Specifying Engineer audience members, 96% immediately began limiting travel for their employees due to coronavirus issues, and 82% encouraged employees to work from home. And 83% had begun virtual meetings to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Technical tools, video and screen sharing, modeling software and virtual design options will likely see a boost over the next few months. Engineering firms that don’t have work from home plans in place will now add the option to their workflow.

And engineers will be delighted to return to their team environment, seeking out collaboration in a conference room or restaurant meeting. I’m buying new shoes — online, of course — in preparation.

Author Bio: Amara Rozgus is the Editor-in-Chief/Content Strategy Leader