Simulation in a Post-Pandemic World
For the last year, we have all watched our futures accelerate into the present day. We expected technology to provide us with more “work from home” freedom. We did not expect how quickly we would have to adopt virtual work and the impact isolation has forced upon us. As we adjust, it is useful to think about how life is different when we work remotely. Ask yourself, “how does it impact my ability to do my job and what pitfalls should I try to avoid?” When the pandemic started, we posted a simulation model that could be used to estimate the spread of the virus. Little did we know that a year would pass and we would still be anticipating the return to normal.
It is now very clear that we have a new normal. As an engineer that does computer simulation, I have discovered four areas that deserve discussion about how they have changed with this new reality.
A key part of our projects involves getting the right data. As a simulation engineer, I often have a point of contact inside an organization or at the customer’s site, such as a project or program manager. They act as the conduit for our questions about how things are intended to operate, and specifics regarding speed, efficiency, and historical performance.
If we are able to visit a facility or interact with personnel running a line that we need to simulate, we can gain information that we didn’t even know we needed for a model. We can also gain insight on how the system might perform better. We lose this access when working virtually.
To make up for this, we need a more rigorous data collection mechanism. This could come in the form of a formal questionnaire or a series of steps and questions that we ask. An “ad hoc” method of data collection where we ask for the data as we see the need for it is doomed to fail. The replies will be slower and we will inevitably forget to ask about something we would have seen during a live meeting or tour of a facility.
Collaboration & Meeting Structure
The more video meetings we participate in, the quicker we want them to end. We don’t usually get the camaraderie that we get from sharing stories while getting coffee. The idea of cameras on everybody can make some of us want to get through the meeting quickly.
To do this, an agenda that is more than just a reusable boiler plate is important. Instead ask, “what specific topics are we going to cover and who will cover them?"
Spend the time organizing the agenda via email or phone conversations ahead of time to make the group discussion as productive as possible. Over the past year I have seen more meetings with less answers than ever before. Focus your time. This will help everyone and they will enjoy ending the meeting on-time.
Most people learn best by watching others and then practicing on their own. Our virtual distance makes this very difficult. Smaller organizations often have a more informal training plan. This needs to change with “work from anywhere.” We need more sessions intended just for training and more project reviews to discuss what we can learn from a project as it wraps up. While senior level people may see this as a waste of time, it is critical in a team setting to help everyone feel connected and that they are improving their skills.
The intermediate or final meeting when you are presenting findings of a simulation study are critical. It is important that the results are understood and that you are explaining things in an understandable way. It is easier for people to “multi-task” (i.e. read their email instead of listening to you) when we are not all in the same room.
Try to incorporate more interaction when presenting. Look for feedback from the participants during your presentation instead of just at the end. Present information in smaller doses and review those findings in an intermediate fashion. This will signal to the group that they need to stay engaged.
It is not all downside in this new virtual world. We have more time each day by not having to commute and we can all create the atmosphere that makes us comfortable and productive. However, we need to watch out for problems with data collection and how to collaborate effectively. We need to put more focus on training and find creative ways to keep people engaged during important conversations. I for one hope we end up embracing the best parts of our traditional workplace and our virtual necessity in a hybrid where everyone enjoys more freedom and welcomes more responsibility.