The future of remote work

Oct 23, 2022

What does the future of remote work look like in the AEC industry and how do managers adapt?

First, let me just say that I am ecstatic that most professionals in the AEC industry, especially on the consulting side, appear to be returning to offices to work in-person. While my experience on the topic is isolated to the small group of 15 in my structural practice, judging by the increased commute times over the last few months, I would say that it appears to be the general trend across the workforce.

That said, there are still employees who work remotely on a permanent basis, while others engage in a hybrid system, including myself. Since the pandemic started in 2020, it has a been a struggle to continuously adjust to various remote work requirements as the rules and restrictions surrounding in-person work have changed. Now that it looks like we have reached what appears to be “the light at the end of the tunnel” (knock on wood), I find myself asking what the future of remote work looks like within my division? What should I, as a manager, be pushing for? What should staff expect?

Back to the office. I do not think there is a substitution for good old fashioned in-person collaboration. The work I do as a structural engineer requires lots of communication, both verbal and written, to complete projects. A structural design for a new building requires communication with architects to understand the design intent, staff so they know what engineering tasks need to be completed, and designers to convert those designs to drawings. We all became proficient at using tools to collaborate remotely during lockdown: virtual meetings, annotating PDFs, screen sharing. Many of these tools existed pre-pandemic, but their use became essential.

However, the last several months of in-person work have shown me that, as useful as these communication tools are, they are no substitute for the clarity, speed, and accuracy of in-person collaboration. Based on my own experience, I found this to be especially important at the beginning of my career. When trying to explain a new concept to a junior engineer, it is difficult to replicate the kind of immediate two-way feedback that occurs when you are sitting right next to each other.

As a result, I’ve been trying to push in-person work as much as possible, especially for younger staff. As a manager and company officer, I feel somewhat conflicted about making a statement like that, because I think it can quickly be viewed as an attempt to push for “better profits” or some draconian attempt to force people back to the office, but the truth is the benefits are mostly for the individual. Yes, my job is easier when in-person. Yes, projects have a better chance of being completed on time and on budget. But I truly believe that to build the next generation of AEC professionals, we need to be face-to-face on occasion.

Virtual meetings cannot fully replicate what can be done in the office. I cannot walk by an employee’s desk and get asked a quick question, explain a complicated topic, or collaborate on a solution in the same manner. In addition, being in the office provides an opportunity for others to see what you are working on, which helps build connections, relationships, and earn recognition – all of which are essential to career advancement.

I’ve noticed that morale has generally increased as more staff return to work. Now, is that because everyone is super excited to sit in their cubes for eight hours a day, grinding away on projects? Probably not, but seeing your peers both in and outside of work seems to make everyone feel more like a team.

Hybrid as a benefit. “OK boomer, but didn’t you just say that you work remotely yourself?”

I did, and I do work remotely, but I see this as a benefit – a privilege that is earned. There is no denying that working from home offers significant personal benefits: time and money saved from commuting, more time with family, even not having to put pants on if you don’t want. As a father of three kids under the age of eight and a spouse who does shift work, being able to work from home to help with the day-to-day job of being a dad has been a godsend with remote work.

To be clear, all my staff work remotely in some form or fashion. I give them all the flexibility to work how and where they want, with the understanding that if they are getting their work done in a manner that isn’t a burden to anyone else, I’m happy to provide hybrid remote work arrangements as a “perk.”

So, what is the future of remote work? I think most professionals would agree that hybrid remote work arrangements are here to stay and will likely become the norm going forward. After a quick, informal survey of other practice leaders at Pennoni, I have found that to be the consensus.

Employers must be flexible with the expectations that have developed within the AEC industry regarding working arrangements. At the same time, employees should appreciate the value of working in an office environment and the opportunities that exist to learn, develop, and be seen.  

Ross Stuart is an associate vice president and the structural practice leader at Pennoni, a multi-disciplined engineering firm based in Philadelphia. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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