Coronavirus calls for tailoring of accepted best practices

June 8, 2020
CRB ramps up to handle clients' COVID-19-related projects while aggressively transitioning to more remote working technologies and procedures.

Just as formulating an effective response to any process control problem means addressing its individual details, handling the coronavirus means tailoring accepted best practices, so they'll be most appropriate for each staffer, application, organization and environment.

For instance, CRB is an engineering, architecture, construction and consulting firm with more than 1,300 staff and 19 offices worldwide, which serves mostly pharmaceutical, biotech, life sciences and food and beverage clients, so it's ramping up to handle their COVID-19-related projects at the same time that it's aggressively transitioning to more remote working technologies and procedures. To help its clients develop and provide preventive and therapeutic products more quickly and efficiently, CRB has been refocusing on how it can use more automation, and eliminate less-necessary human contacts during production. Similar methods are already used in validated pharmaceutical applications, which are required to collect data automatically, rather than entering it manually.   

"About 95% of our staff are working from home, so where we used to have 120 people in an office, there are now just five or fewer. However, with 19 offices, we were already doing a lot of remote work, so it wasn't a horrendous shift for us, and we were able to jump in pretty easily," says Steve Pflantz, subject matter expert for automation at CRB, who was also president of the International Society for Automation in 2017. "It's been a minor hiccup that we can't visit face-to-face as much as before, but we're still solidly busy, and most of our projects are carrying on so far.

Remote work shifts by CRB's staffers include:

  • Setting up and settling into home offices, if they don't have them already, and treating these areas like dedicated workspaces;

  • Establishing consistent communication routines with coworkers, such as a 20-30 minute daily update and task coordination calls on Microsoft Teams, WebEx, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans or other video conferencing services; 

  • Standardizing on Bluebeam Revu, an engineering-friendly PDF viewing and editing software, and its sessions that let multiple users access, view, markup and comment on projects that all of their coworkers can see and review; and  

  • Holding their first, virtual Thirsty Thursday office happy hour to let colleagues reconnect socially.

"We're seeing productivity with remote work that's overall as good before because there are less opportunities for disruption. When people do reach out, they're talking smarter when they need to," explained Pflantz. "We've also switched from biweekly multidisciplinary meetings to weekly to make sure we're all communicating. Prior to COVID-19, we performed a large design project across four time zones and five different offices, so we were already used to remote work methods. That project is going to construction in Wisconsin, and we did a virtual kick-off on video with the system integrator in Ohio, while we were in St. Louis. Most integrators are used to virtual meetings, so it's not so different. It's just that now we're forced to meet virtually, and this will increase in the future."  

At the basic design level, CRB's engineers still use Autodesk's Revit 3-D design and modeling software, but Pflantz adds they're also focusing a bit more attention to synch up their individual design models/files and refine workflows to account for everyone being remote as opposed to sitting in the same office. Bluebeam is still one of their more heavily used software packages that aids remote work and collaboration “Our arsenal of software we use to do our work is substantially unchanged from before. We're not truly activated online yet, but it's getting more mainstream for us," says Pflantz. "We're still doing many virtual design meetings, but more of us are participating and gaining in proficiency presenting drawings or 3-D models, showing a virtual fly-through, and getting advise on what to adjust."

For engineers, end users and other technical professionals seeking more effective remote working conditions, Pflantz advises:

  • Learn and standardize on one—or as few as practical—virtual, interactive meeting and collaboration tools by weighing the cost versus performance of different available options;

  • Prepare a transition office to assist home offices and other remote sites, make sure they have what they need, and keep track of the company's assets and where they're deployed; and 

  • Practice presentations and rehearse for crucial remote meetings to make sure tools work, and solve annoying problems like poor sound on a headset ahead of time.

"The main challenge isn't functional. It's the ease and familiarity that people need to acquire with virtual meetings," adds Pflantz. "In the past, the bulk of people attending would just log in, sit and watch. Now, everyone needs to learn the basic tools of conducting virtual meetings, so they can collaborate. Before COVID-19, we'd hold face-to-face, kick-off meetings, and get a sense of their body language, which would make it easier to talk on the phone later. Now, virtual meetings are critical because they have to fill that role, which makes good web cameras, proper placement and lighting, and quality video equally critical."