W.B., 29, a mechanical engineer in Missoula, MT

Hi there – I’m a mechanical engineer and product designer, and I wanted to share my professional experience with the pandemic: how it’s effected my work and how my coworkers and peers are responding.

The outbreak in Italy is what truly forced me to start paying attention to the spread of coronavirus, and the few cases in Santa Clara county (my home county) had me refreshing the news constantly. I had a flight scheduled to return to Atlanta for work and a coworker’s wedding on March 14th (For the past two years, I’ve worked for a design consultancy remotely; I’m based in California, they’re based in Atlanta, Georgia). About two weeks prior to my planned travel, I called off the trip. At the time, coronavirus wasn’t being taken as a very serious threat in Atlanta and amongst my coworkers – I could tell when I explained my rationale for not wanting to attend the wedding that my coworkers thought I was overreacting. Fast-forward to the week of my originally planned travel and the situation in the US is starting to look much more concerning after the NBA postpones the season and the case numbers in NYC (and Atlanta) start growing.

As the shelter-in-place orders were issued across most of the US, and the dire news about shortages of PPE and ventilators started hitting mainstream media, many of my designer and engineer friends tried to put their professional skills to work to try and solve these problems. Some of my coworkers started designing face shields and face masks, teaming up with local manufacturers to help fight the shortage. The spirit of designing new face masks and PPE is positive, but I largely felt this was a wasted effort – designing new PPE isn’t addressing the real problem at hand (the lack of materials needed to make PPE, most of which are produced in China). It’s a distribution problem, not a problem where an improved design will save the day. In hindsight, this was more of a coping mechanism than an actual solution to the problem it was trying to solve.

At this time, I was very concerned about the future of the company – we had very few projects lined up as clients were entering cash conservation mode (one of our major clients specializes in aircraft interiors… a bad industry to be aligned with as airlines report record losses). Fortunately, in the past few weeks (early May 2020) we’ve been able to find a few more projects in the healthcare industry, although some clients have paused projects indefinitely. I’m quite used to working remotely, so my day-to-day work life has not changed very much. Meanwhile, the rest of the office has fully transitioned to remote and appears to be doing well considering the magnitude of the change. It seems like work-from-home is being much more widely accepted and normalized within the design/hardware world, which I think is a great positive externality of the pandemic (I love working from home!). We’ve had occasional all-staff video conferences to try and catch up with each other (one of my coworkers actually found a new job about a week into shelter-in-place, completely remotely, so we had a company-wide video chat to send her off). Its hard to predict when the office will return to normal – Atlanta/Georgia has completely opened up, so technically everyone can resume going back into the office. Fortunately, everyone is still quite cautious and the office is still closed.

[submitted on 5/17/2020]

Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic is an initiative sponsored by the Poetic Media Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.

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