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Focus, Trust, and the New Normal: Engineering and Leadership During a Global Crisis

The world has changed, and so has the way professional services firms operate. Mike Oler, PE recounts the team’s experience and discusses why it’s important to adapt – or get left behind.
Focus Trust and the New Normal

by Mike Oler, P.E.

As we start to entertain the possibilities of reengaging in social activities, we should take the lessons learned from a life in quarantine and apply them to the future ahead. How do we assess these events, understand the challenges we faced, and properly dissect their value? We cannot expend blanket platitudes like, “it is only a failure if you did not learn from the experience” without the follow-through. By no means are we of the mindset this is over, but you must crawl to walk, and walk to run. As John Maxwell would say, “prepare today so you do not repair tomorrow”. Here is a brief exposé into the lessons our structural team learned while navigating a life in quarantine.

Separate from the crisis and focus on the task

Recently we embarked on an exploratory mission with our partners at Guide Architecture to determine a solution to the growing COVID-19 crisis relative to hospital care and capacity. As usual when we solved one problem, we found two more. The crux was a paradoxical perspective – how do you design for a pandemic in a pandemic? The needs, the information, the opinions, the protocols change hourly.

Container Hospital
WGI collaborated with Guide Architecture and others in the Dallas AEC community to study and develop a prototype for a shipping container hospitals to provide additional capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn’t until we removed ourselves from the crisis to see how the short-term could improve the long-term and vice-versa. From here, our focus shifted to attacking the need first, and then adjusting based on important life-of-service elements later. Guide designed a system that was flexible depending end-user needs and funding.

The New Normal

Leadership thrives in a crisis. In these times, people look to leadership to provide clarity and direction. They need someone to collect the broken pieces, look through the calamity, and find opportunity. With our newfound perspective of operating in a global pandemic, we understand that life afterwards will be a new normal. Here are our team’s clear takeaways of our new normal:

  • Over communication is normal communication.
  • Regular, short, daily, group meet-ups are not just good for the project, they are good for the team.
  • Work in dedicated, uninterrupted windows or blocks of time and decompress in a short burst immediately after.
  • Care more about the person and less about the task.
  • Offer continual hope, because otherwise, what is the point?
  • Think critically about everything and everyone.
  • Above all, people first.

Trust is key outside of a crisis, critical during one

When it comes to your people, a crisis will test the boundaries of your trust. If you have cultivated an environment of mutual trust, commitment to excellence, diligent communication, and delivering a quality product, you don’t have to worry about where your team works or how they work. We were pleased, though not surprised, to see that our work carried on largely uninterrupted. If anything, we have greater camaraderie than before, especially with our team members in different offices.

Structural Team Zoom Meeting

Daily video calls have helped to keep us focused while giving personal connection and comic relief to our cohorts. They always started with the same question, “how are you and how is your family today?” If we develop this trust outside the context of a crisis, we will have a smooth and productive transition into a crisis. This trust starts with equipping and encouraging your team. This leads to empowerment which will generate confidence and respect. These are all important elements to developing well established trust.

Adapt Or Get Left Behind

“For a team to be successful you must be nimble and adaptive. If you resist you will get left behind.”

The motto of our team is “the only thing consistent is change” and we realize that the nature of this profession lives and dies on agility. For a team to be successful you must be nimble and adaptive. If you resist you will get left behind. A global crisis is not immune to this. You cannot simply go back to your normal way of doing things with the perspective of this experience in hand. Like 9/11, The Fukushima Disaster or The Great Recession, a global pandemic will change you. Are you going to listen, learn and apply?

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