Returning to Work: Billy Mathis Outlines his Office’s Strategy
As part of the COVID-19 Response Team for Institute, I wrote a short entry in May of this year on the steps that were being taken at my office to allow a semi-return to normalcy. In summary, we broke the office into two teams, each team coming in on off days (1 team MWF and the other TT and then reverse).
I also discussed our use of masks, hand sanitizer, and other methods of remaining as safe as possible while still working in an office environment. I did this hoping to engage with others about solutions to the COVID-19 distancing requirements and closedowns.
I have since been asked to talk about the things that have changed since that entry, and my perceptions as to just how things are going. I suppose I should start with the beginning. In April 2020, the State of Arkansas was placed into closedown status with everyone working from home or not working at all.
I was one of the lucky ones whose boss had already been thinking about this and other issues in advance. We had just moved into a new office space that was generally already taking into account social distancing and our workspaces were easily 6-feet apart. The office had also invested in more advanced technology to allow us to work from home if needed due to illness or some other cause. Keep in mind, this is pre-COVID-19 when all this was planned, so we were lucky that we had such forward thinking people in charge.
A little later on, the Governor of the State of Arkansas decided to implement Phase 2 of the COVID-19 response and allowed businesses (not bars and restaurants) to begin opening up as long as they complied with the CDC and the AR Dept. of Health guidelines. We started our return by splitting the office into two teams (Team Green and Team Yellow), with each coming in on different days of the week—basically every other day with alternating weeks of Monday-Wednesday-Friday and then Tuesday-Thursday workdays.
The office was also divided up to make sure that there was at least one empty office space between each worker. Along with that, we have to wear masks when away from our individual desks, and we were all issued hand sanitizer to keep at our desks and Lysol Wipes were placed in all common areas. We also implemented no meetings in the office unless absolutely necessary for a Project and all Lunch and Learns in the office were cancelled. There were a few more things, but that covers the gist of the changes.
Updates and Outcomes
So with all of that being said, what has happened since then? Well, the schedule of work is doing what it was intended to do. It allows people to come into the office and get things done, coordinate with others, and generally do things that cannot necessarily be done easily from home.
There have been hiccups along the way. When some go on vacation to places like Alabama Gulf Shores or Florida, there is a need for them to quarantine in place for a little while because they did visit places where there is a rapid spread of the virus. This takes them out of the rotation and can cause some adjustments in other people’s rotations to cover their duties. These are unusual but they do occur.
Next, there are meetings that do have to occur. Our new large conference room does have the room for a standard meeting of six to eight people to separate appropriately and wear masks during the meeting. This includes asking people coming in from outside companies or agencies to wear masks as well. Hand sanitizer is present and available for all to use. (A little note about our hand sanitizer. One of the local distilleries paused making alcoholic products and began making hand sanitizer that has some unique smells – vodka, gin, rum among others. This makes for an interesting conversation just before a meeting).
Working from Home
So what is my life like under this system of working from home? My days go pretty much like this:
When I am at home, I get up around 7 am, do the usual necessaries and get my cup of coffee from my Keurig. I then crank up my home desktop and sign in to my system at work. I am actually running my system from home so there is a little drag between keyboard and execution but not so much that I notice any significant impact.
I then work through my emails, process all submittals, proposal requests and other information and work on the Project Manual of the day. As you can imagine, there are sometimes when nothing is going on and it is during those times that I will take care of little things at the house. Maybe wash and dry a load of clothes, load the dishwasher and hand wash the items that can’t go in there, go check the mail, and other things.
These are usually short, maximum 15-minute chores just to break up the day. I may also work on some of my CSI stuff, like our Chapter Newsletter or maybe setting up the next webinar. When my wife was working the “swing” shift at her workplace, around 2 p.m. she would depart, and I would have run of the house for the remainder of the day till she got home at 11:30 p.m.
Now, however, she has changed jobs and works day shifts from home like me (except she works from home every day). We share an office space and do our best not to get on each other’s nerves. Some would say being together all day and then all night would present problems, but we seem to be able to zone each other out when we need to and work together when we need to. Every day is just about the same and as long as we can keep not getting on each other’s nerves we will be just fine.
Working at the Office
When I am in the office, it is a whole different routine. First of all, the building we are in has a “mask required” policy and is adamant that everyone inside the building not at their desk wear a mask. Our office policy is also that when you are anywhere but at your desk, you must wear a mask. So I put my mask on in the car when I arrive in the morning.
I then fob my way in and up the elevator to our offices on the 3rd floor. Once there, if our Office Manager is there, I go directly to his office and have my temperature taken and recorded. I then go to the break room and store my lunch in the fridge, get a cup of coffee and if I brought it, cook breakfast.
After getting the breakfast cooked, I wipe down the appliances I used and take my coffee, breakfast and lunch box to my desk. I remove my mask at my desk. However, if I go anywhere else in the office, I put my mask back on. This means if I meet with someone I am working with, we both wear masks and try to stay separated. If I go to the restroom, I wear my mask and wash my hands before coming out. As I dry my hands, I use these same towels to open the bathroom door and then throw them away. When I leave for any reason, I wear my mask. Basically, I wear my mask a lot while at work.
Difference and Similarities
These routines repeat day after day with very few changes. How does this affect my job? Well, I don’t see a lot of difference in the product we put out. The specific areas where there is an impact are as follows:
Coordination – much more of the coordination for Project Specifications, Contracts, Proposal Requests, Change Orders, etc., are done through email and via phone conversations. This is a direct reversal from the way these were previously accomplished. Instead of someone coming to my desk and discussing the best route to take to get to the desired outcome and then preparation of drafts and final documents, we now have a lot of email conversations, a few phone calls when emails aren’t truly working, then a log of sending drafts and preparation of finals for signature being done through electronic services (email, Drop Box, Sharefile, etc.).
Design Team Meetings – these are no longer being conducted as we had in the past with our engineers coming over and spending several hours in the conference room hashing out issues and getting the design effort all on the same track. Now things are done via zoom call, or Microsoft Teams, or some other call system, then a plethora of emails and trading documents for review and comparison. While it seems this takes much more effort, I don’t feel we have lost much in the effectiveness of these design coordination meetings.
The biggest change we have observed is that all of our “learning” is now being done online only, through various webinars. Prior to this, I had maybe attended two webinars and only a handful of meetings via online systems. Now I am becoming an old hand at them on all the various platforms. I don’t know if this is the way of the future, but I do know for the short term it is the only way we can proceed with any assurance of safety. Our Chapter monthly meetings have also converted to these online sessions, sponsored by one manufacturer or another who is presenting an educational credit with each and have, thus far, volunteered to provide each attendee with a $10 voucher or gift card to have lunch at some time in the future. This is new and I can’t wait till we see how this works out.
My Personal Take on the Present Reality
The only thing I haven’t discussed is my feelings about this whole matter. When the Pandemic was declared in April, I was a little worried and somewhat skeptical about the whole thing being as deadly as the experts had predicted. The doom and gloom predictors have been wrong before and the way this whole country was going both politically and personally, I just wasn’t sure that this was not some political exploitation as we have seen in the past.
As it progressed, I became more and more concerned that we would not take this seriously and that our response would be either too heavy handed or too light handed. As it turned out, it was a mixture of both and generally resulting in great confusion on the part of the American people.
I watched as people ignored the pleas from the medical establishment and some government agencies to wear masks, stay separate and wash your hands often. I also saw where this occurred, the number of cases spike and people getting sick and dying. I became concerned enough that my family isolated themselves as best as possible, while still working. We took every precaution, wore masks, kept hand sanitizer in our cars and around our home and office, and we basically became hermits when not at work.
Gradually, we began to get out when we needed to, taking the same precautions, and now we do go places locally and try to return our lives back to as normal as possible, all things considered. If everyone would do this, we might get a handle on this situation, however, I firmly believe that no matter what we do, we cannot stop the spread of this virus and until a effective and safe treatment is found and a vaccination is made, it will continue to infect people and some people will die.
This is the most scary part of the whole thing. Is this going to stop me from living life as I had before? Will it change my way of thinking and interacting with people? Only time will tell for sure, but for right now it has changed everything.