Normalcy, Part 3: Workflow

If we’ve decided that remote work, to some degree, is here to stay, and we have various tools to enable it, how does it actually operate? I’m going to take a look at design, since that’s the most office-oriented part of our work: investigation and construction administration are much more site-oriented. As a starting point, what was our design workflow, in broad terms, in 2019?

  1. A senior engineer would set up the parameters of the project.
  2. The senior engineer would discuss the design to be created with a junior engineer who would implement it.
  3. The junior engineer would perform calculations and draft details in line with the initial discussion.
  4. If the process of design showed that changes had to be made in the initial idea – which happens more often than not – there would be more discussion (including the architect, owner, and other affected parties) and a return to step 3.
  5. When the design was advanced to a milestone (for example, design development, or a filing set), it would be sent out as an official set of drawings. Eventually, one of those sets would be the final set.

This is, obviously, a simplified version of what went on, but it’s good enough for today’s purpose. In general, all of those steps took place in the office, except possibly for the discussion in step 4. What would the same workflow look like taking advantage of the communication and document tools I mentioned yesterday?

  1. Same. Can be done from anywhere.
  2. Same. Can be done in person (in the office), via a video call or via text messaging.
  3. Same. Can be done anywhere.
  4. Same. Our experience has been that these conversations, when taking place via text messaging, email, or video calls, tend to happen more frequently and in smaller chunks.
  5. Same. Can be done from anywhere.

In other words, if you can get past the issue of trust necessary in managing people remotely – and from the articles being published seemingly every day on the topic of remote work, not everyone can – then there’s not a real difference.

If you get into the smaller-scale details of the workflow, it’s obvious how much things have changed since I started my first job as an engineer in 1987. As a designer than, I’d take a mylar drawing out of a flat file, Xerox the area I was working on, perform member design using paper (and pencils and a calculator), write the my results on the Xerox and hand it to a drafter for that information to be added to the drawing, and sketch details using paper and pencil and hand those to the drafter. The discussion before, during, and after this pencil-shaving-and-eraser-dust-heavy process was much the same as it is now, but the tools were completely different. If we can adapt to using computers for all of the design steps, and getting rid of mylars and blueprinting, and combining sketching details with drafting into one step, then surely we can adapt to lesser changes in communication.

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