CAN STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS WORK FROM HOME

The COVID pandemic has forced a world-wide experiment. This experiment revolves around whether or not meaningful work can be proceed from home. Do we need an office? Has office life as we know it changed forever? In this article, I take a specific look at the question, “can Structural Engineers work form home”.

If the pandemic has taught me anything it’s that Structural Engineers can in fact work from home successfully. However there is a bit of a catch to this and the long answer to this question may not be so cut and dry.

The History of Working from Home as a Structural Engineer

In the pre-COVID world, working from home as a Structural Engineer was extremely uncommon. Flexibility was awarded from time to time to allow people to run errands and look after sick loved-ones and little else…

Working from home was by far the exception to the rule…

In my 15+ year career leading up to the pandemic, I could count on two hands the amount of times I was able to successfully perform my Structural Engineering duties from home.

Working from home as a Structural Engineer was reserved for the very fortunate few. Usually these fortunate ones were extremely experienced (read, old) engineers whose main role was to review projects. That is, they were not required to be client facing or attend site. Their value is held in their shear experience which allows them to run a critical eye over major projects. Organisations would see the value they could bring to a project and were happy to allow flexibility to these individuals to perform this role… It was a win-win.

But my have times changed. I have worked over the last one and a half years in the most locked-down city on the planet through COVID and experienced these changes first hand. Being a practicing Structural Engineer in Melbourne, Australia has opened up my eyes to the possibility of working remotely…

Working Remotely as a Structural Engineer during COVID

Working from home as a Structural Engineer in Melbourne has clearly shown that it is indeed possible. We have tolerated six lockdowns and more than 260 days under restrictions due to the pandemic (source: BBC)

In the lead up to the pandemic, the technology has gradually been put into place to facilitate this shift (fortuitously enough).

Pre COVID, Skype for business was a very popular form of communication (now superseded by Microsoft Teams… ugh!!). This allowed quick and easy chat communication between colleagues without leaving your desk or picking up the phone. Even when working in the same office it was common to send a “chat” message instead of wandering over to someone’s desk for a real proper chat.

Cloud storage has also taken full effect. Many large organisations have now done away with their bricks and mortar local server rooms and moved totally to the cloud. The days of the IT team taking a hammer to the local server in frustration are now long gone. This has allowed quick and efficient document sharing between colleagues. This is especially important for Structural Engineering as we often deal in analysis files which are heavy on the gigabytes.

We now also predominantly have laptops and tablets. Formal “Desktop” computers are a thing of the past. We can perform our Structural Engineering tasks at a café, on the beach or in bed!

So the stage had been long set for remote working before COVID graced us with its presence. There was a way… all that we needed was a will…

Two hundred and sixty days later I can report that I have personally been involved in over 4 major multi-million dollar projects which have successfully been delivered during 100% remote working… but at what cost?

The Downside of Structural Engineers Working from Home

Anyone the world over who has experienced the lockdowns through COVID will appreciate that it is a long, arduous existence.

One day blurs in to the next, just like groundhog day. Your very being is consumed by Zooms, Teams, Emails and getting stung by that pesky mute button (again!).

Working from home as a Structural Engineer during the pandemic lockdowns can have you feeling like Bill Murray from the movie Groundhog Day
Working from home as a Structural Engineer during the pandemic lockdowns can have you feeling like Bill Murray from the movie Groundhog Day

There is no doubt that the recent period of working from home has taken a significant tole on the mental wellbeing of many. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Changing ones routine can have a negative effect on your wellbeing (source: Verywell Mind)
  • Having your office in your home blurs the lines between work and play. It can be very difficult to totally switch off.
  • Having all the tools for work set-up 24/7 is a facilitator for working longer hours.
  • Some have over-compensated their work output through fear that their managers think they aren’t working hard enough if they can’t be seen.

On the delivery front, it can also be tricky at times to collaborate, coordinate and deliver remotely. Sometimes nothing beats thrashing out a design problem in person with a trusty pen and butter paper.

You also miss the non-verbal cues of communication, which after all makes up for over 50% of what we communicate (source: University of Texas).

Perhaps the most effected through this working from home experiment are the graduate Structural Engineers. Working in a living breathing office environment exposes you to background noise, communication, lingo and nuggets of knowledge gold, all by osmosis. Sadly, for those fresh out of university, this critical part of learning has temporarily been taken away.

But it hasn’t been all bad. Indeed, there has been some upside. After all we have managed to get by out the other end, lockdowns are over and we are fully vaccinated. So what have been the benefits of this working from home experiment?

The Upside of Structural Engineers Working from Home

There has definitely been some silver lining for some through working from home. On a personal level, we have welcomed the introduction of a new family member through the pandemic. After the birth of our daughter, I have been able to spend significantly more time bonding with her and helping out my wife with the home family duties. I would never have had this opportunity in a COVID free world.

Sure its been stressful and difficult juggling work and family (under the one roof), but overall its been a very good outcome for us as a family. I know of other friends and colleagues who are in a similar situation and count COVID as a blessing in some regards.

Working from home has also allowed people to get back in-touch with their local community and neighbourhood. Often we have been under restriction which have seen us unable to travel 5 or 10 kilometres away from our homes. This has meant that people have re-acquainted themselves with their local walking tracks and parks. We have never seen it so busy around our neighbourhood pre-COVID.

And our family pets have never been happier. All their Christmases have come at once having their playmates and human family home all day.

So with the mix of good and bad in the question of “can Structural Engineers work from home”, where are we headed?…

The Future of Structural Engineers Working from Home

The jury is still out as to what the “new normal” may be. At least for my home town of Melbourne…

In the lead up to Christmas 2021, we are tentatively enjoying our new/old found freedoms again. We enter 2022 with a much brighter outlook and things are now gradually returning back to “normal” (whatever that may be).

As for what that new normal may look like, that is still evolving and organically morphing as I type this article.

As restrictions lifted and the prospect of returning back to the office became more and more real, I’ve heard mixed feedback from Structural Engineers. Some have audibly groaned at the thought of commuting again, wearing grown-up clothes again and spending less time with family. Others have revelled in the prospect of returning back to their old routines.

If you take away all the negatives of COVID, does working from home become preferable?

One things for sure, working life as a Structural Engineer in an office will never be the same again. In the brave new post-COVID era, working from home is bound to make up some percentage of our working week… but how much of a percentage?

(Featured Image Source: Latrobe University)

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Quentin Suckling is our founding director.  Prior to starting Sheer Force Engineering, he spent almost 2 decades working as a practicing Structural Engineer at Tier 1 engineering consulting firms delivering multiple billions of dollars worth of projects and managing large multi-disciplinary engineering teams. View More Posts

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