Keeping up in the new normal

Jun 20, 2021

Whether it be remote flexibility considerations, how firms make strategic growth decisions, or hiring tactics in general, engineering workplace culture is changed forever.

In early 2020, we quickly transitioned from the longest NYSE bull market in history to what the International Monetary Fund describes as, “the worst since the Great Depression in the 1930s.” With these huge economic changes, engineering firms and leaders are required to evolve their team management and culture dynamics forever.

Even though we may be crawling out of the pandemic as the CDC lifts mask mandates across the nation, the engineering manager’s “Running Your Team 101” playbook is just now being re-written during the new normal. Because of this, we are seeing an unprecedented shift in engineering firm culture.

As we enter the shift, there are several questions on your mind right now if you work for an engineering firm. The flagship question is often, “Will my remote work and COVID-19 flexibility remain the same forever?”

If we dial back to early-pandemic, tech companies responded to the crisis immediately. Many announced they would allow their employees to work from home permanently. This adaptive list includes brands like Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Square, Facebook, Dropbox, Shopify, and many more. Are you surprised by this though?

However, emulating Silicon Valley thinking is generally impossible for the engineering sector. Then in July of 2020, Siemens, “a technology company focused on industry, infrastructure, mobility, and healthcare” which employs thousands of engineers, made a big announcement.

They decided to allow 140,000 employees (of 385,000 total staff) to work wherever they want for two or three days a week. If a company the size of Siemens can do this, one that employs tens of thousands of engineers, there is no reason why some of the largest U.S. based AEC firms cannot be adaptive as well.

A second way that culture must shift within engineering is removing our “but this is how we do it” mindset.

Imagine how firms historically expanded into a new market.

First you would have to find a snowball opportunity – a big enough project that guarantees revenue and enables an engineering company to pull the trigger on larger expenditures. Things like signing a four- or five-year lease on a new office, hiring admin staff for that office, buying lots of furniture, and relocating or recruiting senior leadership to the region. But does this model work during COVID-19?

Absolutely not.

What if all of this was switched? That is exactly what Pennoni and Alan Lloyd did when expanding into the New England market. Last year, Alan met a young professional named Nic Vasquez whose life was already in the process of relocating him to the Northeast where he was looking for an industrial hygienist/hazardous materials opportunity. Alan was excited to meet Nic – but Nic’s destination city was Boston – a city where Pennoni, at the time, housed zero of our 33 offices.

Normally this scenario would have been a simple and hard no: “Sorry, no opportunities here.” But times are different now. Alan and fellow decision makers at Pennoni flipped the script. They strategized with Nic about how he could start a satellite office, keep operations super lean, and work out of a co-working space with zero staff. He could then hit the scene with boots on the ground, and from day one, start developing business.

So we went for it. And within 60 days, Nic won his first six-figure contract for Pennoni and is well on his way to establishing a Bostonian future for our company.

This type of flexibility and nimble corporate thinking is mandatory when finding opportunities in 2021 and beyond.

When it comes to engineering culture, this agility is not only required within strategic decision making as seen with Lloyd et al. It also must be experienced within the hiring process for civil engineering firms across the board.

The American Council for Engineering Companies (ACEC) conducts surveys in order to gauge hiring difficulty within our sector. In May 2020, Katharine Mottley, the vice president of Tax and Regulatory Affairs at ACEC National Headquarters said, “There is an overall talent shortage in the engineering industry that makes it challenging for firms to serve their clients as fully as they would like. Firms are having trouble finding enough professionally licensed engineers, architects, and surveyors, especially those with 10 to 15 years of experience. There is a pronounced lack of experienced mechanical and electrical engineers due in part to the NSF data point above. Engineering firms also face a shortage of skilled individuals who have or can earn technical certifications for lab and field work. In addition, engineering firms report significant challenges in recruiting individuals with project management experience, as well as mid-level and senior-level leaders. Finally, smaller engineering firms state that it is particularly difficult for them to recruit experienced engineers, especially if relocation would be required. Three-quarters of ACEC member firms have 100 employees or fewer.”

Jess Bishop and Don Morgan who lead our recruiting arm at Pennoni have had to step outside the box while searching for talent. Standard job postings and recruiter strategies are not enough today. Recruitment tactics today could mean expanding the talent avatar for a specific role to three or four versions of what the potential hire “could be” and searching within that lens. It could mean establishing a more refined referral system internally, or amplifying university engagement to drum up more new hires.

Whether it be remote flexibility considerations, how firms make strategic growth decisions, or hiring tactics in general, engineering workplace culture is changed forever.

What is your firm doing to keep up in the new normal?

Jake Voorhees is marketing manager at Pennoni. Contact him at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.