While the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed flaws in global, social, institutional and political systems, it has also created new opportunities for bright and motivated fixers—not unlike ENR’s 2020 National Top 20 Under 40 achievers.
Kim Scott, vice president of business development and marketing at Blach Construction in San Jose, Calif., helped one of her direct reports with a role critical to proposal production to work remotely from another state so her children could be closer to other family support.
Aaron Yohnke, vice president and a district manager at PCL Construction in Glendale, Calif., prioritized his employees’ mental health, prodding each—“No, how are you really?”—when an employee said he or she was fine. Omotoye Omoniyi, lead superintendent at Gilbane Building Co. in New York City, made sure his crews took “necessary precautions” when returning to work on what will be the tallest commercial building in Brooklyn.
David Barritt-Flatt warns that it’s important to recognize the additional pandemic pressures on the industry’s young managers, who worry about COVID-19 derailing their employers and their own careers. Vice president for client service at Clark Construction Group LLC in Bethesda, Md., he says that young leaders need necessary support, tools and training. “They are the ones that are ultimately going to guide this ship for the company and the industry. I see that taking a toll,” Barritt-Flatt says. “At the same time, I look at it as a positive, a really awesome opportunity to lead in these challenging times.”
In stepping up, the T20U40 group has helped debunk longstanding misconceptions about the industry’s lack of nimbleness and flexibility, especially when it comes to deploying technology and addressing the challenge of remote work.
“A lot of [people thought] it was impossible for construction to ever go to a work-from-home model,” says Caleigh Raymer, vice president and director of operations for Lendlease in Los Angeles. “Because of COVID, we’ve all figured it out in the last couple months. I do think that [added flexibility] will drive some up-and-coming people toward the construction industry.”
In emphasizing the pandemic’s mental strain on workers on and off the jobsite, Yohnke downplays construction’s macho facade. “It’s about having this open conversation to talk with people about their personal circumstances, what’s happening at home, and how they’re finding ways to de-stress and decompress,” he says. “The reality is that safety risks that existed before COVID are still there, and now you’ve got people that are distracted, tired and anxious. There’s a risk that the eye is further off the ball. That’s been a big thing we’ve been trying to push [at PCL], making sure that we’re keeping a constant pulse on.”
Yohnke has also been amazed by technology adoption during the pandemic, including field employees using Microsoft HoloLens during a Microsoft Teams call “to show us on site what they were looking at.”
Raymer says her crews are using automated sprayers to disinfect hoists. She says limiting the number of workers carried on each lift has “been one of our biggest social distancing challenges; one way we’ve been able to solve it is by putting additional hoists on jobs.”
Perhaps the biggest impact of the pandemic has been uncertainty, according to Todd Abrams, principal-in-charge of civil engineering at WT Group, Hoffman Estates, Ill.
“Not knowing when the economy will be open completely will affect short-term and long-term planning for all industries,” he says. “Based on conversations I have had with nearby colleagues and competitors, we are all beginning to become concerned with how business will look in six months to a year, and that construction may come to a halt. This uncertainty is creating caution in our investments in technology, staffing and plans for growth.”
Still, T20U40 recipients have not only helped execute on new business opportunities presented by the pandemic, such as redesigning schools with more outdoor learning space and adapting hospitals to meet demands of COVID-19 and beyond, they are also emerging as thought leaders, helping to design the new normal.
Kate Howell, senior associate and interior designer at REES in Oklahoma City, says her firm completed a hospital project before the pandemic that combined an emergency department with an intensive care unit in an acute care facility that included “beds that could easily transfer into ICU isolation spaces as needed.” She says a similar model could be incorporated in rethinking “how hospitals will use space and how we can prepare for something like this in the future.”
Menzer Pehlivan, a geotechnical engineer for Jacobs in Bellevue, Wash., says that cities allowing restaurants to “spill out into the street” and creating more avenues for “biking and walking … makes me think about the need for some of our physical infrastructure to also maybe be flexible in the future so that it better allows and accommodates all of those various modes,” not to mention “additional uses that a year ago you would never have thought we would be considering.”