Traveling for work amid COVID-19

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Thoughts about traveling for work amid COVID-19.

This post is authored by FOS of CannonDesign team member Rich Mrugala from our Buffalo office, with his thoughts about traveling for work during a global pandemic:

I wish I could say what a relief it is to be traveling once again. You see, I work in the Facility Optimization Solutions (FOS) wing of CannonDesign and to live we must travel often. So, when the opportunity arose in early May to venture back out into the world on a mission to collect data to keep FOS moving, I took it. But unlike previous work trips, to do so now, under the current circumstances, brought with it an additional set of ethical, personal, and professional challenges superimposed atop those already faced by people who must travel for work.

Under normal circumstances, leaving my wife at home for a week or two by herself can be stressful. I’m not present to take care of things that I normally would. Things like clearing snow from the driveway, the removal of a bat from the house in the middle of the night, and making dinner for her after she’s had an exhausting day of work. The shared time and experiences lost while apart cannot be recovered so you forge ahead trying to make the most of the time that you do have with one another and reduce the sense of distance via various video chat and other available telecommunication methods. Luckily, my wife fends pretty well for herself and seldom gives me grief about being away. Having to catch and remove the bat from the house while I didn’t answer her phone calls had me briefly in a bit of hot water…but everyone survived and life has moved on. I can only imagine how challenging it would be if I had children or elderly parents to care for as well.  God bless all of you out there who do and pull it off!

But now, COVID…. In addition to my spousal separation anxiety, I am faced with carrying out my professional responsibilities amid all of the uncertainties and inconsistencies associated with our responses to this disease. Thankfully, I am in good health and have experienced no illness thus far… But as we have been informed by our leading epidemiologists, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t carry the virus and have the capacity to spread it to others who may be more vulnerable. Therefore, I wear N95 masks anywhere that I may come in contact with others without the ability to properly distance myself from them, through the airports, on the planes, checking into the hotel, renting the vehicle, and picking up groceries and take out. I have worked for years in the construction industry and as such am well accustomed to wearing these masks despite ridicule. So if simply wearing a mask in my current work environments and washing my hands more frequently can make a big difference in helping to protect the health of myself, my colleagues, and others then I take it as my responsibility to do so. Contamination mitigation while carrying on is the art of the day. 

The team working on our current project in Florida is composed of professionals from Buffalo, Chicago, Houston, and Boise who over the course of spending many weeks in the field with one another working, but also sharing meals, conversation, and comradery, get a pretty good sense of each other and as such are plenty aware that we are not only geographically diverse but also ideologically diverse. Given the current state of heightened political sentiment further inflamed by the differing opinions regarding how we ought to respond to COVID-19, the first moments of our re-convention at our first assessment site on field day one in May had plenty of feeling one another out in terms of how strictly we would each adhere to the CDC behavioral guidelines. Not shaking hands to greet each other or our client was an adjustment that felt a bit awkward at first but, as far as I could tell, was understood and accepted mutually. The typical political exchanges that we have become accustomed to entertaining ourselves with after having carefully measured one another’s tolerance levels were approached with a bit more caution and reservation than usual which certainly reduced the risk of making anyone excessively uncomfortable but also seemed to somewhat isolate us from one another resulting in another more muted kind of anxiety. Fortunately, our team is a collection of top notch professionals and our client is one that we wish we could continue working with through retirement. Consequently, we accomplished the mission without any difficulty whatsoever.

Another casualty of the pandemic is that we no longer go out to eat together in restaurants, which before was one of the perks of the job, now somewhat diminishes the travel and team experience. I personally enjoy searching for and treating ourselves to nice meals while afield as a pleasant past time and distraction. Unfortunately, the attitude of much of the public where I am working is quite cavalier often resulting in packed restaurants where nobody is masked or distanced. The gregarious environments are attractive and provoke nostalgia but also appear reckless and thus threatening. Fortunately, I have been able to find restaurants that are acting responsibly and have developed effective strategies for safely providing customers with their product. This however has limited the dining options, reduced the thrill of exploration, and resulted in several less than ideal experiences while trying to figure out where and what to eat.

In a few days we will be returning to complete our final week of field work (week 13) for the project and I’d really like to take our client out for a beer to celebrate since he has been phenomenal in facilitating us over the past year of working together, is an all-around great guy, and we will potentially never see one another again. But of course…its complicated… If anyone has alternative celebratory recommendations…I’d love to hear them.

So yes I am very glad to be able to travel to keep myself and others working but it’s a qualified gladness due to the elevated amount of inherent risks… And I am certainly looking forward to operating under less complicated circumstances.

Rich Mrugala