By Raymond Wetherholt, F-IIBEC, RBEC, PE; and Johnathan Bain, PEng
This article is also available in audio format as a podcast. Search your favorite podcast app for “IIBEC,” visit https://anchor.fm/iibec, or listen right here in your browser.
The COVID-19 pandemic shifted many of us out of our schools and offices to work and study in a virtual world based in our homes. Though many building enclosure consultants may already have toiled from a residence-based office, there is a significant difference between working from a home office on occasion and using it exclusively along with the rest of the world. While we have considerable technological tools and options available today to stay connected and to work remotely, being out of the office can lead to challenges in meeting commitments to our cohorts and clients. In this article, we will discuss these challenges and our experience in overcoming them.
With health recommendations of physical distancing and government-mandated limits to how many people should gather in groups, conducting in-person meetings has no longer been practical during the pandemic. Putting all the “This meeting could have been an email” jokes aside, there is still a desire for face-to-face contact, especially when engaging clients, planning works, solving design/construction issues, etc. There are various virtual meeting applications available, such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Skype, etc., which allow us to collaborate as if we were meeting in person. Depending on the virtual meeting platform, they may not only allow for face-to-face engagement, but also help address a myriad of needs, including file transfers, instant messages, and sharing of screens.
Several organizations, including IIBEC and various building product manufacturers, have taken advantage of the physical distancing and group size restrictions by developing and launching interactive online classes and courses using these platforms. While these were historically available before the pandemic, what is different in 2020 is the quantity and quality, and that these courses have been specifically tailored to a remote customer base that traditionally has not been nearly so remote. For example, with the help of virtual meeting platforms, we can join workshops and plenary sessions with keynote speakers. We have the capability to interact with attendees—either in virtual networking groups or in chat rooms—and can even post questions for the speakers in real time. In addition, many of these virtual meeting platforms offer a recording option that allows the meeting host to record the event and offer the attendees the option of listening in and watching when it best works with their own schedules. This has provided many with the ability to observe a session that they may have missed or to replay one they were a part of, yet wanted to revisit nuances they may have missed the first time around. (Make sure to inform participants that meetings may be recorded.)
Within our industry, as access to construction projects during the pandemic diminished in the name of public health, the advancements on the technological side still allowed us to still provide our expertise, albeit remotely. The proliferation of smartphones and tablets, along with the reduction in mobile data costs and increase in mobility and connectivity, allows us to function—regardless of where we are located or what public health restrictions we are facing. Although having a junior consultant text a photo of a particular construction issue to a senior consultant in the office has been common for some time, the advent of real-time video review of a site has occurred during this pandemic. While conducting a video review of a construction project is not a replacement for a field review (with some anecdotal comments that it is the “new-age ‘drive-by’ site visit”), it is a powerful tool that can be used to allow for field review of remote projects, even when the consultant is required to be self-isolated during the pandemic. Given the limitations placed on jobsite access during a pandemic, consultants, manufacturers’ representatives/inspectors, and even contracting firm owners have had to adapt and acquire technical proficiency in technology that can allow them to meet the needs of a construction project and satisfy their clients.
While the software and hardware advance, the increased use of data transfer required for video meetings and virtual offices, however, impacts the current infrastructure. This includes putting a significant strain on home wireless networks, especially if the kids are having a video conference with their class, your partner is downloading large files, and you are attempting to chair a construction meeting. In addition, the speed of the internet connection to your home, the type of internet connection, and any data caps can be significant challenges.
There are downsides or challenges to working remotely, including the social aspect of our work. Back to those virtual meetings. They are just that: virtual. Using them, we can lose the fundamental in-person human interaction which allows us to build quality relationships that are essential in an industry where one’s expertise is one’s business. Texting “lol” or a smile emoji isn’t the same as having a cup of coffee with your client, business partner, or coworker. Human interaction is necessary in developing and growing business relationships. It is also fundamental in growing one’s knowledge in technical and soft skills as a professional. Working in a virtual world created by the 2020 pandemic is, to an extent, very confining. It also seems to result in a demand for a more rapid response to inquiries from customers, which has resulted in an increasing demand on time—even before so many were forced into working from a virtual office.
However, in the authors’ experience, it has also created a deep desire among people for interaction outside of their homes. This has led to “Friday afternoon drinks” within offices occurring via virtual meeting platforms. Not only has this included the “usual suspects” within the office, but it has extended regionally to encompass offices in other geographic areas. Further, it has opened the door to conversation-starved clients. While traditional lunches and coffees are curtailed during the pandemic, using the virtual platforms has allowed for business development to continue.