Debate | How working from home is affecting young engineers – New Civil Engineer

06 Jan, 2022 By Sotiris Kanaris
When the government advised people to work from home to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in spring 2020, businesses rushed to enhance their IT infrastructure and supply laptops to staff. The aim was to keep running as efficiently as possible via remote working. 
But it soon became evident that not all problems could be solved by technology, with employees struggling with the move away from the office environment in different ways. 
The impact on those in the early stages of their careers has been immense, with professional development and mental health adversely affected. NCE recently hosted a round table event with the sponsors of the NCE Graduate & Apprentice Awards to discuss the challenges that early career staff faced and to explore to what extent they will remain, as flexible working becomes the norm. 
At the start of the pandemic, the change of working environment in association with job insecurity and lifestyle change was detrimental to the wellbeing of some civil engineers.
Some really need to have a conversation with someone to understand something, rather than being sent information
ICE Benevolent Fund chief executive Kris Barnett says there was a 22% year on year increase in requests to the fund for counselling support in 2020, specifically for anxiety, stress and depression. She says that the rate of increase was higher among young ICE members. 
Barnett gives an example of direct feedback the Benevolent Fund team has received: “I missed the office vibe. I feel isolated and out of the loop, and I am ruminating and internalising every small problem.”
Stantec senior vice president and director of strategy David Smith says that many young graduates and apprentices he spoke to were feeling isolated early in the pandemic, particularly those that had recently moved to a new location for the job. 
I think that flexible working is fine, but I don’t think it’s a panacea. People need to be together
“They did not have that social connectivity, either with work or through their home life […] a lot of them ended up going back home [to their parent’s house],” he says.
Working from home has changed the way colleagues communicate with each other with quick and informal conversations becoming less frequent. Heathrow infrastructure and project management office director Alistair Awcock says that new recruits often find it difficult to schedule an online meeting with senior members of their team and as a result they do not get the reassurance and support they need. 
“I can’t imagine how stressful that is,” he says. “I guess there are times where they sit there for four or five hours, just needing a two second conversation to enable them to finish a bit of work.”
Awcock adds that home working has impacted learning as well. “The way that some people learn is completely different […] some really need to have a conversation with someone to understand something, rather than being sent information via email or on a Teams call,” he explains. 
Amey Consulting head of professional excellence Frazer Wild adds that working from home also removes the ability of early career staff to learn by absorbing information from being in the office environment. 
With flexible and hybrid working becoming the norm, employers have introduced a number of initiatives for wellbeing and career support, aiming to address some of the challenges faced by new recruits.
Wild says the most important initiative Amey has put in place is “getting people into the business dedicated to support the wellbeing of the younger people” to deliver pastoral care.
Companies are also trying to find ways to improve guidance and advice to graduates and apprentices. Smith says Stantec has set up “regular drop in hubs where people know they will be able to connect with more senior staff”. 
He also says that the importance of preexisting developing professionals groups has increased since the pandemic. “They have groups where they connect up graduates and apprentices from around the business regularly,” he says.
Even though onboarding processes were already predominantly online before the pandemic, they proved challenging for new recruits and managers when everyone was working remotely. Employers have consequently looked at ways to improve the way information can be accessed as well as communicated. 
Wild mentions a change made by Amey: “Rather than trying to get somebody into a physical room or virtual room and shovel information at them for the first five days and just leave people overwhelmed, we drip feed it a little bit more.”
Flexible working also provides opportunities for graduates and apprentices to apply for positions outside the area in which they live, as there is less need to move or travel to work. Travelling to work may have also prevented people with disabilities from applying for some jobs in the past.
The move to home working can also facilitate job changes within a company. Wild finds that it has opened up opportunities for people to “move around a business virtually that perhaps weren’t there before”. 
Despite the measures taken by companies and the positive effects of flexible working, some believe that many issues new recruits face will remain. 
Barnett says that feelings of isolation will persist unless people return to the office. 
“I think that eventually people will start coming back to the office,” she says. “I think that flexible working is fine, but I don’t think it’s a panacea. People need to be together – we are social beings.” 
Awcock believes that employees should not be given working from home as the only option, as during the pandemic it became a “one size fits all way of working” and it was not inclusive. He says that companies should provide spaces for those who are unable to work from home because they do not have the right space or they cannot concentrate there. 
“As employers, we need to listen to the staff and I think staff need to listen to the employers,” says Wild. “We need to work together to come up with a solution that works for everybody . 
“I think there’s going to be a little bit of trial and error with this. We’ll get it wrong a few times, but hopefully, as we go on, we’ll get it right.”
The ICE Benevolent Fund provides free services to current and past ICE members and their families in the UK and abroad. In addition to offering financial and housing support, the organisation also provides wellbeing services and has programmes to help people get back to work. 
Since the pandemic, there has been an increase in demand for the wellbeing services, with a lot of members having counselling via the 24 hour telephone helpline and face to face. 
The fund also provides wellbeing support through webinars and workshops as well as access to information about issues such as anxiety and depression via its resource portal. 
Even though companies offer such support, a lot of people choose to receive it from the fund because of the confidentiality it offers, says chief executive Kris Barnett. 
“There is still some hesitancy from civil engineers to go to their employer in case it gets back to the line manager,” she says. She adds that the waiting time for the first counselling session is shorter than with public health services.
Barnett calls for people to seek support early on when they are experiencing mental health issues, as early intervention makes a big difference. 
This report is based on a virtual round table
discussion held in October 2021. 

Contributing to the discussion were:
Alistair Awcock infrastructure and project management office director, Heathrow
Kris Barnett chief executive ICE Benevolent Fund
David Smith senior vice president, director of strategy, Stantec
Frazer Wild head of professional excellence, Amey Consulting
Claire Smith editor, NCE
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Tagged with: graduates Remote Working
Hooray… at last we have industry evidence that for many people and particularly those in the early stages of their career working from home is not on the whole a positive experience. Whilst there is a need for more flexible working practices in our industry most of what we do requires teamwork and close interaction with colleagues. There is in my view (and that of those interviewed for this article) no substitute for face to face contact with colleagues for a productive and fulfilling work experience. Let’s hope that in 2022 we can return to office working as the norm for the sake of both our business and mental health.
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