Lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic

Engineering consulting sector adapts to the biggest challenge of a generation

Every aspect of society and our everyday lives has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the unthinkable happened – whole countries shut down and everyone, apart from frontline and essential workers, hunkered down at home. As an essential service, we in the consulting engineering sector also took our work home to keep our portfolio of infrastructure, mining, energy and other projects moving ahead.

Over the past several months, following a crash course in adaptability, we’ve learned some key lessons about our industry. Two lessons stand out.

The New Duty of Care

Our industry’s new duty of care extends to preventing the spread of infection to others while serving our clients. Our initial reaction was for everyone to work from home, but we soon realized it wasn’t always practical or efficient. Some employees adapted to their home situation with ease, but many didn’t have enough space or connectivity to work from home effectively. It was also difficult for new employees to make new acquaintances, and for many of our projects, we still had to travel and work in the field.

Almost immediately, we started to plan for the safe return to our workplaces. We carefully assessed our offices and field sites, and had to re-think project delivery to our clients, starting with do we absolutely need to travel and how can we do this differently? We prepared plans for travelling safely, supplied new PPE, developed new communication protocols, and planned emergency response measures if someone became infected.

We dedicated lots of time to develop and communicate safety plans with our employees and clients. During the pandemic, we must not underestimate how long it takes to meet our new duty of care.

The New Workplace

Returning to our workplaces was the first (and perhaps easier) step. Once back, we realized that our collective daily habits had to change, and that it could potentially last for years rather than months. The new workplace is one of physical distancing and sanitization, and continual reinforcement of the rules. We now speak a new language – one that describes testing methods, infection rates and the difference between quarantine and self-isolation. And as we move differently around the office, we’ve learned a new dance of maneuvers around the water cooler!

Although the engineering consulting industry has always had a strong culture of safety, we have never faced a pandemic such as this. Post-pandemic safety cultures must now include new levels of communication, hygiene and health monitoring; and the post-pandemic C-suite must be bolstered by corporate medical professionals or a healthcare team.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the notion that our industry is founded on people. It may seem obvious, but we often focus too hard on the projects and lose sight of the clients, contractors, engineers and geoscientists that make the projects work. Our reputation for integrity and passion for our craft, will serve us well as we adapt to these new challenges.

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