Are we missing out?

Feb 12, 2023

As we continue improving work-life balance, we need to keep asking how we can foster those growth opportunities that come through listening and proximity. 

When I walked into the office nearly 25 years ago for my first day on the job, I was excited, a little nervous, and anxious to start “engineering” everything I could get my hands on. Although I had interned for a public agency during college, and had a summer job throughout high school, I had no idea what to expect from a professional corporate setting. Turns out it was a bustling workspace, full of life, and much less sterile than I imagined. The reception area was relatively calm, but that quiet was punctuated by the sounds of phone calls, colleagues brainstorming in office doorways, and the copier cranking out specifications. I recall being introduced to at least a couple dozen folks, shown where to find staples and where to gather in case of an emergency, and eventually led to my cubicle to get settled.

I could only spend so much time fiddling with the computer, organizing pads of graph paper, trying to decipher the phone system, before I found myself sitting and wondering what I would do here for eight hours a day. The answer came a few minutes later when one of the senior engineers (no doubt tasked with keeping the new guy busy) popped by to say hello and invite me to his office to go over some assignments. He patiently explained how I was going to hand-color some maps for a crop survey, listened to my questions, and even took a little extra time to explain how my work would fit into the big picture for that key client. I imagine he was amused by the copious notes I took before heading back to my desk to get started.

Later that morning as I was up to my elbows in colored pencils (I remember thinking – am I getting paid to color?), one of the team’s CAD designers checked in on me. He reintroduced himself, asked what I was up to, listened to me trying to explain my assignment, offered some tips on how I could expedite the work, and then headed off with a friendly, “Let me know if I can help.” Hours later, when I was deep in thought, I was startled by a squishy stress ball flying over the cubicle wall accompanied by a voice saying, “Hey – it’s break time, come along.” When I stood, I found one of the newly licensed engineers beckoning me to follow. Even without my earlier orientation, I would have easily been able to find the breakroom solely by following the sounds of laughter and corny engineering jokes (which are a step below embarrassing dad jokes) floating down the hall.

When I think back to my first day, month, and even year on the job, I have so many fond memories. That is no doubt due to the efforts of the entire team that took me in, invested in my professional growth, shared about their lives, and inquired about mine. Those times were characterized by high expectations, hard work, and a steep uphill learning curve, but all of that was balanced with growth of new friendships, laughter, card games, Friday barbecues, and countless stories. Although those early years were filled with active learning, it was coupled with immense passive learning that occurred by simply listening and observing in proximity to a group of diverse professionals. I distinctly recall learning how to handle professional phone calls by eavesdropping on a colleague over my cubicle wall. I remember learning how to diffuse potential disagreements between technical experts by watching a PM invite the team to poke holes in his thinking. I also recall learning about marriage, friendship, hiking, hunting, and how to barbecue through the endless examples and storytelling in the breakroom.

I credit those early years for forming my love of brainstorming, helping me discern my technical strengths, and with ingraining in me the importance of having an open-door policy for my office. My colleagues always had their doors open and to a person would pause and listen and brainstorm with me when I needed it. I learned that I often had a solution forming in my mind but the process of talking it out at a colleague’s whiteboard solidified the right solution for the client. Sometimes, when I didn’t like the feedback I received, I would wander down the hallway and try my brainstorming again with someone with a different technical background. Hearing input from various technical experts helped me discern where my technical strengths existed and where my technical interest lay.

Over the last few years, as I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to contribute to the building of our team here at MKN, I’ve often reflected on those early years in my career and wondered how those of us who have been around a few years (or decades) can foster a work environment that our younger professionals will someday look back on with fondness. I’ve mulled over how we can craft an environment that is both professional and familial and one in which we don’t miss out on the passive learning that comes from day-to-day interactions. In an increasingly digital world, our teams have spread out, remote work for many staff is a daily reality, and online meetings are the norm. In this environment, opportunities for passive learning have become scarce. It is difficult for me to imagine what it must be like to be a new graduate being interviewed online, being hired without ever visiting an office, going through digital onboarding, and starting work with a remote team from the silence of my couch.

As we work to continue improving work-life balance for our teams, it would benefit us all to keep asking how we can foster those intangible growth opportunities that come through listening and proximity. We should consider how we can create not only actual open doors in our offices but also the digital equivalent. We should work to mitigate the potential stifling of collaboration that happens when our “status” shows as busy on the teaming platform. We should plan to bring our teams together for workshops while not neglecting the amazing collaboration support that exists in the teaming platforms we use. We should try out unusual ideas like rotating our staff around the office to put them within earshot of a variety of skilled professionals to maximize their passive learning opportunities.

I trust that as an industry we will see a rebound from focusing on the one-size-fits-all remote work approach (that gained popularity in the last few years) and move toward a hybrid approach where we can be flexible enough to accommodate remote work but not at the expense of spending time together as a team. It has been fun to see the creativity of our teams in supplementing remote work with digital team-building activities such as cross office games and virtual happy hours as well as maximizing the benefits of in-person activities like workshops coupled with lunch in the breakroom or walking down the street to grab coffee together. I believe we will see our entire teams (and particularly our younger professionals) thrive as we continue to balance the perks of online collaboration with the benefits of spending time together in the real world.  

Josh Nord, PE, is a principal at MKN. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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