LightBox is grateful to have as a guest blogger John Sallman, P.G., Senior Principal and Assistant Director of Environmental Services at Terracon Consultants, Inc., headquartered in Olathe, KS sharing his professional and personal thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted work levels. He talks about the impacts on his own work day, how the Terracon team has rallied during this challenging time, and how the management team is preparing for a smooth reintegration.
On how COVID-19 affected business:
JS: Our firm has a diverse workforce that goes beyond environmental consulting to include facilities engineering, geotechnical engineering, materials testing, and drilling. With local operations across the U.S., we are seeing a mixed bag of impacts and results. We saw a reduction in work from many of our national clients, while our materials testing technicians and drilling crews have continued working on essential projects throughout the pandemic. We have also seen a surge in work related to solar farms, asbestos work on schools, transportation work, and other various areas. At the same time, we have seen a relative decrease in environmental site assessment work, with the exception of telecom. On the Phase I ESA projects we’re doing, we have been able to complete site reconnaissance on property exteriors. In some cases, buildings are not occupied (or minimally occupied) and we have still been able to conduct interior reconnaissance of buildings. In other cases, such as with multi-family housing, we have only entered vacant units and noted such in our report. And in other situations, such as with medical facilities, we have coordinated with a property manager or building engineer to use FaceTime, Skype, or other means to complete a virtual walkthrough of a building and the pertinent mechanical areas to complete a site visit and ask questions. In many cases, states have files available online, which has not hampered us in completing file reviews. Some states have minimal staff that are still working and they have emailed scanned portions of files. Where these options are not available, and file reviews can’t be conducted, we have relied on interviews with regulators to gain the information needed. Otherwise, we have simply noted the inability to get the required information and made our opinion based on the information available.
To date, we have had only three positive tests for COVID-19 out of over 5,000 employees, and each of the three has recovered. We took quick action to provide and require PPE on job-sites to help protect our front line workers. We also operate laboratories associated with geotechnical and materials testing in most of our offices. These labs have remained operating during the pandemic with greater distance between workers and a transition to shift work to complete the work while minimizing contact. Most other employees have been working from home.
We have seen teams get creative in dealing with the social limitations this pandemic has placed on us. In going after a large county contract, for instance, we had a client that still wanted to meet the team we were proposing for the project. Our marketing team and the local office worked together to film a personal message from each team member using an iPhone. Then our marketing team edited it into a video that enabled the client to meet and get to know each person.
On how the pandemic affected employees:
Terracon has a core value of caring. We see it come out in many ways from our CEO Gayle Packer all the way down to our field personnel. Our CEO has remarked in several company-wide newsletters at how proud she is to see all of us carry out that core value of caring during this incredibly tough time.
Overall, the biggest difference between the 2008/2009 downturn and the current situation is that many of us are isolated in our homes, so there’s the social impact of feeling disconnected from each other, our staff, our managers, and the work. We don’t have that office friend to lean on when things seem bleak. We aren’t getting the friendly smile from a coworker when getting coffee or water. We are not socializing at lunch the way we used to. In response, we are seeing teams embrace social media, Skype, Teams, and other avenues to creatively stay in touch with each other, have virtual happy hours, make client presentations, have lunch and learns, and to simply just listen when a coworker is experiencing a tough time dealing with the crisis. Despite finding creative ways of being together, it’s virtual, it doesn’t always feel real, we are afraid to get too close to a friend, neighbor, or coworker because “they could have it.”
I have also watched so many of our leaders getting scrappy and fighting for everything they can to keep their staff busy and employed. In many cases, our staff needed time off to care for young children or had underlying health issues that forced them to take time away from work during the pandemic. Terracon’s core value of caring and our strategic plan goal of “Together we are the best at people” drives us in many ways.
Our CEO quickly formed a COVID-19 team to help deal with the myriad issues that came with the pandemic. As a first step, she sent a message to all employees that we were creating a special bank of sick time for those impacted by the virus so that they would not lose pay if they could not work. Second, we had numerous folks donate paid time off to those who needed the extra time to deal with children or health issues. Across the company, we had well over $400,000 of PTO donated to help those in need.
On how his work day has changed:
My work days have become somewhat like the movie Groundhog Day. A regular routing of a Zoom workout with some friends (rather than meeting in person outdoors), shower, breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner…. In order to not let work overrun me while home, I have shut the computer and phone down completely between 5 and 6 pm each day and don’t look at anything again until morning. That way home and work aren’t so intermingled that I burn out. I think I have painted about half of the inside of my house, amongst other home projects that have been neglected for far too long. I have actually watched little TV and spent more time working around the house or with the family to prevent the TV/boredom/refrigerator raids. I have missed gathering with friends. I usually do morning workouts outdoors with a number of friends, and we have resorted to Zoom workouts in our garages and basements. We resumed outdoor workouts this morning with social distancing. Still not the same, but it was great to see a beautiful sunrise this morning and being out in the cool of the morning. I am looking forward to being able to again meet with people face-to-face and be able to read faces and body language. It’s so hard to present and talk to a group via video call when you can’t see your audience. We take so many non-verbal cues that it is hard to feel confident when we lack those.
On expectations for a return to pre-outbreak levels:
Personally, I am expecting to see work start to trickle back and projects that are on hold restart slowly. The month of May looks like it may be a ramp-up period as the country starts to define yet another new normal as we ease back into full swing. With that, I expect June to start out much busier and for the faucet to be fully open again by late July/early August.
On lessons from the previous recession:
From the last downturn, we know that no matter how bad things get, the market always rebounds. The rebound is like dribbling a basketball on gravel. On a court, you know which way the ball will bounce when you dribble it, but on gravel, it takes some odd angles and projections that you were not expecting. As we went into the pandemic, we assembled a COVID-19 team to help offices deal with various work and protection issues that arose. Our teams were flexible, responsive, and resilient, winning and maintaining work that competitors were losing. Likewise, we learned from the Great Recession that we need to be flexible and responsive to what the market has to offer. Our communication increases and we share what is going well and not so well across our entire national network so that we all have the best chance of winning more work. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. I think we have all seen how we have invented ways of maintaining our lives as closely as we could to pre-COVID conditions. That exercise of being inventive will need to continue during the recovery, as we will likely see unexpected bounces of the basketball.
On Terracon’s readiness efforts:
As states are lifting shelter in place orders and we slowly start reintegrating across the country in the coming weeks, Terracon is choosing a slow, steady, and deliberate approach. We will continue to have staff who are able to work from home continue to do so as a way to limit potential transmission of COVID-19 and to allow a safer environment for those employees who need to work in the office. Each office manager is developing a protocol for working in the office when needed that includes social distancing and the use of PPE.
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