Pandemic Makes Virtual World Endemic

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July 1, 2020
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.

Technology

Spring Virtual Meeting
Programs allow participants to share their screens.

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.)

IIBEC staff meeting via GoToMeeting.

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.

Social Side

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.

Thanks to backgrounds available on some meeting platforms, one’s coworker may appear to be out in the galaxy or in an exotic downtown location, when in fact he’s in his kitchen. Pictured here are Don Davis and Bob Card of Wetherholt & Associates.

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.

Virtual Work Hours

When we work in a virtual office, there is an additional sense of responsibility that comes from working remotely that is not typically seen in an office setting. When in an office, it is evident that one is working. When consistently working remotely, as most of us are during the pandemic, there is pressure to show one is productive. This pressure is further intensified with those who must also care for (and home-school, where schools have closed) children, elders, and those who are sick. This can lead to extended and blended work hours that seem to bleed into our personal lives, and personal lives that impact work. Even more, when the job we are responsible for involves colleagues, clients, and partners in different time zones, an additional layer of complexity and responsibility is added. It’s especially hard to pull oneself away from the office without a dedicated office space and if we are working from a makeshift part of our home. In addition, at the end of the day, we can’t “walk away” as we do when we leave a physical office location. It should surprise few that work/home separation is difficult to achieve when working from a virtual office.

Side Benefits

While many struggle with remote working arrangements and technology frustrations, the evolution of technology that allows much work to be done remotely does have a number of great side benefits. Many positions posted on job boards today (e.g., sales jobs and a growing number of other positions) actually require candidates with remote working experience. Being able to successfully work remotely is a valued skill on a candidate’s résumé and is proving to be an extremely important part of more and more jobs. In addition, with significant numbers of professionals working remotely, it has increased collaboration among professionals not only locally, but also internationally. Further, there has been much written about how staying home/working remotely has reduced air pollution, which in turn has significantly improved air quality globally. This reduction in pollution is healthy not only for our planet, but also for our local communities where we live and breathe every day.

IIBEC Members’ “Virtual Experiences” During the Pandemic

Helene Hardy Pierce:
We were in the middle of a wind testing program at a third-party lab, and instead of having one of our own engineers present, they “attended” by having the lab’s engineer FaceTime with them so they could witness testing in real time. This allowed our engineer to “participate”—not only asking questions while testing was underway, but directing the video feed while taking apart the test sample at the completion of the test. Believe it or not, all were very happy with how well it worked.

David Rash:
The Seattle office of Morrison Hershfield began an optional thrice-weekly virtual staff meeting to provide an opportunity for office interaction. While helpful for keeping in touch with others, it doesn’t replicate the informal interaction available with a real-world office environment.

Kris Ammerman:
I think the IIBEC staff used GotoMeeting more in the first month of the pandemic than we have in our entire history. It’s nice to see everyone’s faces, and it’s fun to see whose kids or dogs try to get in the camera’s view, leading to light moments we all need.

Marcus Dell:
The use of “fun” backgrounds can add some humor to intracompany meetings.

Johnathon Bain:
I started with a new firm a week before the remote working and physical distancing measures were instituted. One thing that I noticed straightaway is how useful video applications were to allow me to get to know the team better. Allowing the sharing of desktops and being able to see my new coworkers helped a great deal in starting to feel comfortable with the team.

Ray Wetherholt:
We started having virtual staff meetings using Microsoft Teams, where we can share screens, see and interact with each other, and discuss issues. Now Teams has backgrounds you can use to hide the kitchen behind you.

Successful Skill Set

Thinking about all the challenges that have been faced as we all have learned to work in a virtual world, perhaps it is best summed up with the following considerations and/or suggestions:

  • Working in a virtual world places a significant increase on the importance of communication, both within and between teams. Ensure you reach out rather than waiting to be reached out to.
  • Consider upgrading the home internet plan or infrastructure.
  • Ensure a quality camera is present on your laptop, or procure a separate camera.
  • Typically, at your office workspace you will have multiple or large monitors. If your office allows it, take them home to use when working remotely.
  • Lighting and background are critical when on a video conference. Ensure that your workspace is well lit, and the background isn’t distracting or offensive.
  • TV bad, radio good! For most, a television will be a distraction, while the radio (or streaming audio service) will provide some ambient background noise.
  • Depending on your preference, invest in a good set of headphones or earbuds. This will minimize any feedback from your speakers and microphone that will distract from meetings.
  • Learn to use the “mute” button.
  • Set office hours and stick to them. While sometimes we are required to work more to meet a deadline, keeping to office hours will ensure that work does not excessively spill over into personal lives.
  • Get up and move! While not traveling to the office, you are moving significantly less. Get some exercise and allow yourself breaks to refresh.
  • Understand that during this pandemic, you are not alone. Nearly everyone you interact with has experienced similar issues with working remotely or with anxiety over the situation.
Raymond Wetherholt

 

Raymond Wetherholt, F-IIBEC, RBEC, PE, started Wetherholt and Associates in Redmond, WA, in 1984. Prior to that he worked for a commercial construction inspection and testing company as their inspection supervisor and special projects troubleshooter. He has consulted on wide-ranging projects throughout the Pacific Northwest, ranging from commercial projects to residential green roofs, manufacturing buildings, and the Experience Music Project. In 2013, he received IIBEC’s Outstanding Educator Award, and he was named a Fellow of IIBEC the same year.

Johnathon Bain

 

Johnathon C. Bain, PEng, is a father, husband, engineer, mentor, mentee, pianist in training, youth rugby coach, cyclist, baker, and volunteer, amongst other talents. He focuses his professional practice working on the frontier of assessing, designing, and restoring environmental separations, particularly for existing buildings in Western Canada for Morrison Hershfield. He has executed and managed many projects, including cladding, waterproofing, fenestration, historical, and roofing projects, as well as in-situ testing of building enclosures for water penetration and air leakage.