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To keep people, projects moving, engineering firms tackle challenge of COVID-age staffing
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To keep people, projects moving, engineering firms tackle challenge of COVID-age staffing

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HDR received an ACEC Nebraska Honor Award for the expansion and renovation of Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

You don’t build a portfolio like HDR’s – innovative projects from Omaha to Alabama to Australia – without knowing how to navigate some challenges.

Using roof overhangs in Canada’s first carbon-neutral winery, for example, to keep patrons cool and ease the burden on the building’s air system. Or, drawing inspiration from a healthcare client’s sophisticated AI-model to design them a new clinic and headquarters in west Bengal.

Throughout the pandemic, HDR has put that same challenge-solution mindset to work to keep current and future projects – and employees – moving forward.

“Engineering is an essential service, so it has been important that we find ways to solve problems and complete projects together,” said Matt Tondl, HDR senior vice president, Nebraska/Iowa area manager.

Challenge: Recruiting new talent in the COVID age

Solution: Embrace new realms of possibility

Megan Black, HDR regional recruiter, used to love meeting job candidates face-to-face. She’s not only adjusted to our new virtual reality; she’s found a bright side.

“The pandemic has shifted the lens on what is possible from an interviewing standpoint,” Black said. “A greater portion of our interview process has moved to a virtual format, which has accelerated the process and saves coordination time.”

There are cons. COVID-19 has caused candidates to miss a lot of informal introductions, discussions with other employees and firsthand looks into how HDR operates. But Black said virtual interviews, on occasion, can actually enhance getting to know candidates.

“We meet their pets (most times unintentionally) and learn about candidates’ interests through the pictures, trophies or unique items hanging on their walls,” she said. “I think many candidates are starting to use this dynamic in their favor to help break the ice in an interview.”

Maybe now more than ever, Black said job security and well-being are extremely important to candidates. For those who do land a position at HDR, she said the on-boarding process varies from office to office right now. In locations on state or local lockdown, HDR does virtual onboarding. In other locations, like Omaha, the firm on-boards in-person with proper social distancing.

Reaching the next generation of HDR employee – that’s been a challenge too. HDR staff has become adept at virtual career fairs and virtual networking events with students.

“We’re able to connect with more students and have more representatives from HDR. They can participate in smaller windows of time, instead of all day, like an in-person event,” Black said.

When the world returns to an in-person reality – and even though she loves that face-to-face interaction – Black said she’ll maintain some of the current virtual realities, including a video interview option “as they tend to be easier to get on everyone’s calendar.”

Challenge: Keeping current talent engaged and connected

Solution: Flexibility and experimentation to maintain a creative, collaborative culture

HDR’s offices in Omaha and Lincoln have never closed, not even during the height of the pandemic. But co-workers are masked-up, rigorous cleaning and other safety protocols are in place, and remote work is an option.

“Our philosophy is to take an employee-centric and business-conscious approach to work options. We have a mix of scenarios. A popular one has been small groups of employees taking turns coming into the office,” said Ann Williams, HDR vice president, area water client development leader.

Regardless of whether staff are working from home or the office, HDR currently holds all of its regular area/department meetings and project review meetings virtually through WebEx. Staff, in addition, have developed webinars for clients and attended and presented at virtual industry conferences. On a national scale, HDR has conducted its companywide leadership meetings virtually with participation from managers across the country.

“We’ve been able to engage mid-level and junior-level staff in these meetings because travel is not required, therefore providing additional opportunities to develop existing talent,” Williams said.

HDR has also taken steps to ensure that mentoring, another important part of the culture, continues.

“We have provided safe, in-person office environments for more experienced professionals to develop younger staff,” said senior VP Matt Tondl.

Taken together – from recruiting to student outreach to employee engagement – he’s proud of how HDR has pivoted to the virtual world.

“Our staff have kept busy, and our clients are doing well at keeping things moving on their end,” Tondl said.

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