The pandemic highlighted the importance of workday social interaction, protecting key technical staff from burnout, and using technology to engage with clients.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the first major challenge MKN faced after almost eight years of booming growth in a hot California water resource market. The firm had benefited from a huge need for water, wastewater, and recycled water infrastructure in central and southern California. Our design, condition assessment, planning, construction management, and project management practices were expanding with new staff, new clients, and new partnerships. Our team had great talent among our seller-doers, management team, and production staff in our seven offices, extending from Fresno to Oceanside.
The pandemic struck California in early March 2020, resulting in Governor Newsom issuing stay-at-home mandates for most non-essential businesses. As a firm focused on public water and wastewater engineering, we could continue to operate in an office setting, but made the decision to send nearly all our office staff home in mid-March. We slowly allowed staff to come back into offices in June and July of 2020, with the requirement that conference rooms or break rooms couldn’t be used to congregate. Staff could only work in offices with doors, and all staff had to wear masks when they left their offices for any reason. Many of our staff elected to work from home to take care of children or to keep themselves safe.
Our financial performance remained solid and the firm continued to grow. We were fortunate to have eight months of backlog headed into the pandemic and were able to continue executing and winning work. Our recruiting efforts continued as well, resulting in new senior engineers, assistant engineers, and construction management staff.
However, looking back it’s easy to identify what we learned and how it should change our business, and maybe others, moving forward. I see the following lessons:
- Mentorship can suffer in a remote environment. In-person mentorship and collaboration are irreplaceable in the growth of junior staff. You cannot improve upon field visits, impromptu discussions about project work, or getting pulled into a discussion with senior staff about one of their own projects or something exciting or strange that came up. It’s hard to share and nurture enthusiasm and passion for work remotely.
- Implement processes to avoid burnout. We relied too much on a handful of key technical staff and risked burning them out. It wasn’t as noticeable when we were in offices together because each office tended to solve technical issues locally, then reach out to our top experts after local resources had been exhausted. Now it was just as easy for staff to reach those top experts first. While we always encouraged an open-door policy, and work across offices, it really highlighted the importance of processes that balance the delivery of quality work, training of junior staff, and protection of work-life balance for our top experts. Project managers and local office managers need a firmer grip on their projects and need to provide more technical oversight to address the day-to-day questions and minor problems.
- Yes, engineers crave social interaction too. Most engineers are social and need to see each other, eat lunch together, and enjoy each other’s company. Few really want to work remotely full-time. If given the opportunity, and when they felt safe, most of our staff wanted to come back to the office. We learned that we could operate as a firm with staff working remotely, but most of our team wanted to be together. The social aspects, even for those with busy home lives or hobbies, were critical during the workday.
- Web based meetings will continue – and should. I think many clients prefer web meetings over face-to-face meetings, particularly for talking to consultants about upcoming projects or opportunities. It puts the client in more control. For example, if the meeting is running long for them, it is easier to end a web meeting. It is much less physically awkward than “cold” business development meetings or first-time introductions. In my opinion, this trend will continue after the pandemic is over.
We were very fortunate to be in an industry that is essential to public health, and we were fortunate to be able to continue executing work remotely. Our team did an outstanding job staying focused throughout this period. The pandemic helped us prioritize mentoring junior staff, and reminded us of the importance of workday social interaction, protecting our key technical staff from burnout, and using technology to engage with clients. I look forward to taking what we have learned to improve our processes and prepare us for future success.
Mike Nunley is CEO and president at MKN. Connect with him on LinkedIn.