Remote Work and Virtual Workshops

By Michael Pearsall, P.Eng., CVS, FEC – Manager, Design and Contract Standards Office, Ministry of Transportation Ontario and Vice President / President-Elect, SAVE International

What a difference a month can make in our lives sometimes. Within a matter of weeks, my office has been turned inside-out and I have gone from having all my staff within steps of my office to 100% of the group working remotely from home. Any readers who work for a Department of Transportation can also appreciate how I have been called into quite a few discussions on emergency measures and things like border closures. Within all of this, the important Value Engineering (VE) work we do must continue.

Most readers would agree that in times like now, VE is even more important. Recently, various governments put out calls for innovative delivery of several products given current shortages. This caught my eye and instantly made me think of Larry Miles developing the methodology back in World War 2 because of material shortages. I was particularly enthralled by a grass-roots VE style proposal put forward by Ford engineers to build personal respirators using seat blowers from F-150s and cordless drill battery packs. I hope a SAVE International member was involved and they can tell us the full story in detail at a future event.

As much as we would love to be volunteering our services to lead teams through emergency innovation like the above noted, we also have to heed the other government warnings about self-isolation and social distancing. By now you should have all had a chance to read SAVE’s message on the Impact of COVID-19 on Conducting the Value Methodology.

With the increasing global shift to on-line and virtual resources, there has been pressure before this current situation to conduct studies remotely and I know from reading conference papers from around the world that many others are pioneering this approach. I currently have two workshops which are critical for program delivery and need to go ahead without in-person contact. I will admit that I am very apprehensive as I was pressured a couple years ago to facilitate a VE workshop on-line and I really didn’t enjoy the experience, nor do I think the team dynamic was what it could have been. However, since that time, I have been experimenting with different software and watching what others are doing.

As a user of the methodology, I want to step back for a minute and clarify some terminology. Since virtual workshops can be conducted either live or strictly via document sharing for the purposes of this discussion, I am using the extra descriptor “on-line” to clearly define what I am discussing is a live workshop that is conducted remotely with a combination of live touch-points and document sharing. I am aware of some virtual workshops that are conducted entirely through document sharing and I am not advocating for this latter kind of virtual workshop.  VM is a team approach.

Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued some excellent guidance on this and I will repeat it in a slightly modified form here with my comments added:

The following items should be considered/addressed in the pre-workshop planning stage:

i. Accessibility to Virtual Private Network (VPN)

  • Consider having all project documents downloaded to team member computers ahead of the scheduled workshop so they do not need to rely solely on a VPN connection.

MTO COMMENT: We have been having success using the Office 365 One-drive, but it has its moments and I would agree that everything should be downloaded on all machines in advance.

ii. Software

  • Select software that will allow the six-step job plan to be completed with participation from all value team members participating virtually.

MTO COMMENT: I have tried Skype, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. So far, I see the most promise in Zoom for the live on-line portions, plus it can quickly break the team into sub-groups and rejoin them without disconnecting. Also, there will be issues with people using the software, practice in advance with team members if you can and have a support person ready to help (see more below under Schedule and Duration).

iii. Web camera availability

  • All Value team members should be required to use a webcam to encourage and confirm participation.

MTO COMMENT: I think this is a must, both as a facilitator and as a participant. I know not everyone is comfortable with it; however, it helps with the dynamic and clarifies who is speaking. Take some time to think about how your personal camera is aimed, I have been in too many meetings recently looking up someone’s nose or at the top of their head.

iv. Schedule and Duration

  • Give consideration that team members may be participating virtually from different time zones.
  • Hold to a schedule and include breaks that account for participants from different time zones.
  • Consider lengthening the study duration to allow for facilitator and team member meetings or “check-ins” at the beginning and end of each day and after each workshop phase. These “check-ins” are to enhance communication between the VE team by ensuring a common understanding of daily goals, by allowing the voicing of any problems or concerns, and by ensuring team member understanding and buy in of the result of each phase.
  • Development of a contingency plan in the failure of communication or other software or technical component.
  • Development of a communication and conflict resolution plan detailing how communications will be controlled and conflicts resolved during the study.
  • Scheduling of a pre-workshop communication test or dry run with all team members to check communications, software and webcam functions and present the communications and conflict resolution plan.

MTO COMMENT: You might find you need more breaks as the facilitator as it can be like herding cats. An experienced facilitator and a strong support team is a must. My experience is that the study could take a bit longer as people don’t have the focus for long on-line sessions that they do for in-person workshops. I would also add here that you need to discuss a detailed facilitation plan for all stages in the process. Webcams and screen sharing work for most stages, but not so well during development.

v. Cost

  • This workshop format may not necessarily cost less than in-person workshops, due to the considerations listed above.

MTO COMMENT: As an Owner I agree with this as well. There may be some savings from mobilization and facilities, however they could be offset by technology costs and extra time.

To the above list, I would also echo the earlier mentioned SAVE advice, which is provided in the newsletter, please take some time to review it in its entirety. I am forging ahead with my workshops and I look forward to hearing tips from others as we explore this new approach together, but apart.

My thoughts this past month of course are also with any of our colleagues who are dealing with COVID-19 themselves or with a family member. Sadly, I marked the unfortunate milestone this week of receiving the first email about the COVID-19 related passing of an engineering colleague. I hope that I do not have to pass on similar messages about any SAVE members. Remember that your own personal health and safety should always take precedence – do what you need to do to stay safe.

In closing, I would like to give everyone a reminder that the 2020 Value Summit will once-again have a dedicated track for transportation. We are monitoring the current situation closely and considering all options to continue to deliver what we have promised.

Until the next issue, I would like to continue to encourage any transportation professional out there who would like to share their stories to contact me at

I still hope to see you all June 6-10, 2020 at the 2020 Value Summit in New Orleans, LA. Mark your calendars now!