By Austin Duehr, PE, ENV SP

After working through the COVID-19 pandemic for more than two years, every company should be an expert by now, right?  Well, maybe. It can be a juggling act keeping employees safe while still hiring staff and remaining profitable. 

A quick look back: The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) determined when the pandemic started, the U.S. was in its highest economic trajectory in a decade. As the economy sputtered, there was concern in our industry. Engineering firms understand lulls in workloads, but this was different. Supply chains were disrupted, prices of materials rose, and some employees were laid off, or refused to work. Companies were wondering, how do we get back to normal? 

Pre-Pandemic Hiring: Prior to the pandemic, companies had processes for acquiring new talent. Recruiters went to college career fairs or institutions that provided broad hiring pools.  Prospects were invited to the office and interviewed in person. Employers had face-to-face interactions that allowed them to read body language and better understand the potential employee’s demeanor.  Candidates could get an office tour and get a glimpse of their future work environment, colleagues, and amenities. They could gauge their commute and see if it was something they wanted to tackle five days a week. According to Inc. Magazine, 91 percent of employees surveyed said commute time is important to having a good workday.  The first commute to the office lets candidates survey the work area for attractions, hobbies, and areas of interest, especially for young professionals.  In-person interviews did mean more cost in overhead like travel and schedule coordination. 

Pre-Pandemic Onboarding and Training:  Once hired, new employees participated in onboarding and training.  According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), before February 2020, only 6 percent of the employees worked from home and about 75 percent had never worked outside the office. Onboarding was in person and new employees were engaged and connected with colleagues. They developed relationships, had in-depth communication, and built trust within their new teams.  New hires could ask managers, “What do I need to know on Day One?”  They could see work examples in real time and have over-the-shoulder assistance.  Equipment was available, reliable, and typically provided by the firm. Employees could visit job sites and receive field training to see designs first-hand and be exposed to real world scenarios. New hires could attend educational programs and seminars at various facilities.  These in-person trainings allowed for instant feedback and information.  They could collaborate with other professionals and get a deeper understanding of the material.  They could also develop communication skills beneficial for networking and working with clients. Like the interview process, outside training could add up and be costly.

Switch to the Pandemic

At the start of the pandemic, travel bans were initiated, and offices shut down over public safety concerns and fears of transmitting/contracting COVID 19. Firms had never experienced anything like this. The question arose: “How do we hire, onboard, and train our new staff in an effective manner?”

Pandemic Hiring: The pandemic shifted most communications to virtual modules, so “connecting” with potential employees became problematic. NCCI reports more than one third of U.S. employees worked from home in May 2020 due to the pandemic. Firms switched from career fairs and in-person interviews to cold calling candidates and researching online profiles. This required polished email correspondence and heightened etiquette to make firms look attractive to potential employees. Interviews switched to phone calls or virtual meetings over skype, Teams, or Zoom.  Firms had to be respectful if a candidate didn’t want to meet in person. Candidates also had a new worry: “Do I align with their COVID 19 policy?”

The switch to virtual had candidates asking new questions during interviews:

How often do I get to work from home?
What equipment will be provided?
Am I expected to work different hours?
How much privacy am I required to have at home?
Will I ever need to commute to the office?

According to Forbes, 40 percent of people surveyed said they’d rather clean their toilets than commute to their pre-pandemic workplace.  

For some candidates, depending on the mode of communication, making a first impression during interviews could be harder behind a computer screen.  Not hearing back soon enough from hiring managers was also more stressful with the everyday weight of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in November 2021 that the pandemic caused at least 40 percent of adults in the United States to struggle with anxiety, depression, trauma, and substance use.

Pandemic Onboarding/Training: During the height of the pandemic, people were hired without ever setting foot in the office. Equipment was shipped to them and their first day on the new job was at home. Onboarding consisted of online sessions and prerecorded webinars.  Employees had to schedule meetings or virtual calls with teammates simply to introduce themselves.  New hires were introduced to flexible schedules to align with coworkers who shifted their work hours during the pandemic. While large, group training sessions were used to educate staff members all at once, they were deemed less effective for engagement. According to Small Business Trends, almost 90 percent of employees identified remote learning as a success, but more than half thought in-person training was more satisfactory. Employees might not have grasped skills during online training sessions.

Lessons Learned Throughout the Pandemic

Effective Training: One thing is clear – effective training is not dependent on the state of the pandemic. Harvard Business Professor David Maister says the key question employers must ask is: What are people not doing that we need them to do? In our industry, we need to provide employees training that is formatted around these four areas: 

  1. Systems
  2. Attitude
  3. Knowledge
  4. Skills

Systems: Firms need to have a system in place that is constantly and consistently being reviewed for effectiveness. If people are sleeping during training or skipping it all together, it probably isn’t a good fit for a company.  Maister says that training should not only be encouraged, but also rewarded or incentivized. Firms can award employees bigger tasks, responsibilities, and assignments based on successfully completed training.

Attitude:  One reason training isn’t completed is because people don’t see its relevance.  Employees must be willing to learn and have the mindset that it will benefit them and their careers.  Training should also give employees a sense of fulfillment and advancement. 

Knowledge:  Learning the content is one thing, but understanding it is another. Knowing how to do things and understanding the why is important.  The training should encourage problem solving and critical thinking.

Skills:  Effective training means an employee can execute the skill that they just learned.  I’ll give a personal example. I’ve watched enough golf to know how to hit a straight drive off the tee, but my drives veer to the right. I have the understanding and the knowledge, but that doesn’t mean I have the skills to do it.

Monitoring Effectiveness

Training programs need to be monitored to ensure their effectiveness. Goals and objectives should be clearly stated, and the material customized for the learner. Training should include additional reading or testing to survey participants’ understanding of the material. Participants should be rewarded after showing the can execute the skills just learned. 

Where to go from here

Whether virtual or in the office, firms need to evaluate their current work conditions.  Firms must develop and maintain a level of trust with employees through connectivity and personal communication. Author and business consultant Patrick Lencioni says trust is the foundation for team building.  Project managers especially need to trust their employees to perform at optimal levels. Accountability is key. Successful firms and their employees must avoid artificial harmony. 

Virtual meeting options can be beneficial for staff not yet comfortable working in the office.  If working from home, equipment needs to complement the employee’s existing office space.  Cyber communication platforms like Microsoft Teams and Virtual Private Network (VPN) are vital to keeping a company running smoothly.  Investing in proficient IT systems might be necessary. Whether virtual, in person, or a combination of both – a cohesive team is essential.  The authors of Crucial Conversations say a supportive foundation builds successful teams. Companies must be intentional in their actions, clearly state facts and objectives, and listen to all points of views. These building blocks garner engagement and commitment. Ultimately, that means success for a company.


Austin Duehr, PE, ENV SP is Project Engineer at Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc.

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