We interviewed Garry Horvitz, Vice President and geotechnical engineer at Hart Crowser for his perspective on how the engineering world has changed since the coronavirus arrived and what the future holds. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
The Coronavirus is Hastening a Continuing Trend
I’ve noticed over time that, from an engineering getting-work-done perspective, there has been less and less need for interaction. Less need for proximity. We had developed a habit of video conferencing even before this. The tools have become that good—we can not only see each other, but we can share information virtually: project plans, drawings, white board information. We’d been using tools like Skype, Teams, Zoom, and WebEx to save the time and cost of travel and parking. We already know we can be effective without physically congregating. This is not game-changing in that respect. Things had already been evolving.
The Downside to Meeting Virtually
The downside to this trend is that we need human interaction. Even this conversation with you would be much more comfortable if we could have done it in person. I don’t like working from home—I enjoy social interaction—walking around the office to talk with others. Remote work gives me a little PTSD from when I was convalescing for four weeks after I broke my knee.
As far as marketing and business development, it’s always been “Don’t send an email if you can pick up the phone, and don’t pick up the phone if you can meet in person.” I have also said that there are times when I make up an excuse to meet with a client in person. The more senses you have working when you’re meeting with someone, the easier it is to build and maintain a relationship. But we’ll get back to that. Engineers tend to be introverts, and there will be those who will shy away from making that personal contact when they have the alternative to do that.
The Upside to Meeting Virtually
Personally, I’m happy I can visit with Lynn-dee who is in the other room working. I also like the 20-second commute although I miss stopping at the latte stand on the way in.
What is Essential Work?
People are pushing the definition of essential work to keep the economy going. There’s a natural tendency to call something essential when it’s not. They want to keep people working but it’s overplayed. On the other hand, you can’t just turn everything off just to avoid risk. There needs to be a balance. You can’t decide never to cross a street to avoid being hit by a bus. You have to balance risk and reward.
The Importance of Patience
One thing we can do for each other is to have patience. Don’t expect things to happen as quickly as you’d like. Everybody is exasperated and frightened. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’re sailing in uncharted waters on both a business and personal level. Deadlines may need to be extended, although not from a lack of efficiency—because we had already been working virtually. We’re fortunate in the architect/engineering industry that we can do that for design.
Our Real Enemy
When you think of the number of people in this world and how they are all affected by the coronavirus, you see that the threat of pandemic far exceeds external political influences and the threat of war. We seem to like to hate other people but our most important enemy is microscopic. A virus has no soul so you can’t hate it. Our government should have acted on this months ago. We were completely unprepared. That will change. And it ought to change. (“I’m Garry and I approved this message.”)
What Does the Future Hold?
I never thought it would get to this point. Even so, I’m not seeing a lot of architect/engineer firms going out of business (yet). Back in the 2008 recession it was different; the writing was on the wall. Development dropped off a cliff. Hart Crowser’s client base was diverse, which helped us to weather that. Now money will likely be put into infrastructure packages of one sort or another and that will keep us going. I don’t see a huge downturn, but ask me again in two months.