August 6, 2020

Face mask—check. Hand sanitizer—check. Packed lunch, water bottle, coffee thermos—triple check!

After working from home since mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis, Gresham Smith employees have begun a phased return to the office, with our staff still having the option to work remotely for the remainder of the year.

The aforementioned items are just a few essentials that Jason Fukuda, a senior structural engineer in our Nashville office, and Sarah Blackburn, a senior transportation engineer in our Alpharetta location, recommend their colleagues add to their don’t-leave-home-without-it checklist when it’s their time to head back to the office during this new normal.

Jason and Sarah recently caught up virtually to compare notes on their first week back in the workplace after more than three months’ hiatus. In this post, they share some of their observations.


Jason Fukuda: What was your first impression returning to the office?

Sarah Blackburn: The first thing that struck me was that my desk calendar was still flipped to the month of March and was sitting next to a card that I’d been given for my birthday, which was on March 16—the same day we were given the directive to work from home. I was off that day and hadn’t returned to the office since. I have to say it was a little surreal. It was almost as if time had stood still.



Jason: It’s funny, because my first impression before I even entered the building was how time had marched on when I saw the progress made on the Hyatt property directly across from our Nashville office. Before we left in March, the development was just rising up out of the ground. Now, it has to be at least 17 stories high.

As my workstation is by the window on the Second Avenue side of the building, I faced my computer so the property under construction became my backdrop. That way, my co-workers who are still working remotely can see how the construction has progressed, and that I’m actually in the Nashville office with a real backdrop as opposed to a virtual one!



Sarah: What was one of your first RTO lessons learned?

Jason: To make sure that I have everything I need before I leave the house. My first day back, I made sure I had all the usual items—keys, wallet, cardkey, backpack, computer gear and so on. However, as I got to our parking garage, I realized my face mask was still at home even though I’d left it right next to my backpack to jog my memory. Fortunately, our AA, LiLeahe Louallen, came to the rescue and walked an extra mask down to me in the lobby.

It’s one thing to get out of your routine of going into the office and to forget a few things. But it’s quite another to overlook your face mask when you need it to enter the building and for use throughout in the common areas such as the restroom, hallways and the kitchen.

I now make myself a back-to-school-type checklist of all the stuff I’d typically bring to the office along with the additional items we now need such as face masks. After my first day, I added a packed lunch to the list as I discovered that many of the eateries around our building are no longer catering to the diminished lunch crowd and are only open in the evenings.

Sarah: I actually put in a food order and did a curbside pickup on my first day. Although it was a slight change to the way we’d typically order things in, it was really nice to do something like that again. I’ve also started making out a personal checklist of things to bring to the office, which includes a thermos of coffee—as the communal coffee pots are put away for safety reasons—as well as a water bottle as we’re not providing kitchen supplies also for safety reasons.

I’m glad those things were identified as a policy ahead of time, but I have to admit that not having fresh coffee brewing in the pots takes a little getting used to!

Jason: Fortunately, I am not one to drink coffee. So, that didn’t affect me at all. However, I do know that a lack of caffeine can have a profound effect on a lot of individuals that I work with. I guess the good news is we can still use the individual Keurig coffee makers. But break out those Yeti flasks if you still have your heart set on freshly-brewed coffee. You know who you are!



Jason: What was your biggest motivator for heading back to the office?

Sarah: That’s easy—the people. I wanted to be around my co-workers again and feel the collaborative energy that I had missed. I have to admit that it felt a little different than I expected with the physical distancing and having to wear a mask when we’re away from our workstations.

I think we’re all just figuring out what’s OK and what’s not OK in terms of interacting with one another. But I know we’ll work through it and work it out, and it was so good to see so many of my peers in person again after so long.

Jason: And nothing can replace that personal interaction with your colleagues. As good as technology is—and we’re getting close—you just can’t replicate the real thing with a 2D image on a computer screen.

It was great to just chat with a few of my co-workers on my first day back. I’ve missed that spontaneous one-on-one communication that’s not project-related and doesn’t occur as much as it used to when connecting virtually.


Sarah: What advice would you give to your co-workers returning to the office?

Jason: I guess I’d tell them that just as we had to adapt to working from home full-time, it will take a little time to adjust to being back in the office as the work environment is both familiar yet foreign at the same time. One of the main challenges is letting go of your old habits and learning new behaviors, such as putting your mask on each time you leave your desk.

I also think it’s important be as patient and flexible as possible, and to keep in mind that the new protocols are in place to help keep everyone as safe as possible. To that point, I have to say that I’ve been so impressed with the cleanliness of our Nashville office. We have been provided with plenty of wipes, disinfectant, paper towels, bottles of alcohol spray, etc.

Now I know why all the cleaning supplies disappeared from the shelves in the stores—Gresham Smith had an “in” somewhere to get a good supply of all of that stuff!



Jason: What else stands out to you about the transition back to the workplace?

Sarah: It would have to be all the thought and planning on behalf of the firm to prepare us for our return—from mailing everybody two Gresham Smith-branded face masks and hand sanitizer to equipping us with the digital Return-to-the-Office Guidebook.

I found the guidebook a super-helpful resource and kind of the ultimate checklist in terms of what not to forget before leaving the house, including daily temperature checks and completing the required weekly COVID-19 certification form. Overall, it gave me a better idea of what to expect in terms of new office protocols set in place to keep us safe.


Sarah: Along with reconnecting with some of your co-workers, what else have you enjoyed about being back at the office?

Jason: I just love having those big, dual monitors again!

Sarah: I agree! There’s definitely the workstation benefit. I was working from home with my laptop and an older monitor, but now I get my nice, big screens back. Man, I’d forgotten how nice that was.


Workstation spacing has been reconfigured to meet with social distancing requirements. 


Sarah: What do you personally take away from the experience of working from home and then returning to the office during the COVID-19 crisis?

Jason: I have to say that Gresham Smith has really risen to the occasion, acting swiftly to safeguard their employees and find a new way of working until we could return to the office.

I feel that we’ve adapted quickly to this new style of working. If we can leverage that as we return to the workplace, in a safe environment where we can enjoy our work and collaborate with our colleagues, then I believe we will be at a great advantage competitively when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent.