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Return-to-work plans a reminder to 'be human,' consider others

7/10/2020 Emily Jankauski

When COVID-19 hit, it took the swift actions and collaborations of heroes among us to get the world to start spinning. That story is no different when it comes to getting the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s transportation research center, Illinois Center for Transportation, back up and running in the midst of a pandemic.

Meet Greg Renshaw and Uthman Mohamed Ali, who led ICT’s efforts to close the research laboratory temporarily during Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s Stay-at-Home order from March 17 through May 29.

Renshaw and Mohamed Ali, ICT’s senior research engineer and research engineer, respectively, are now tasked with ensuring the safe, staggered return of the center’s faculty, staff and students.

At first, the thought of closing the lab temporarily, for Mohamed Ali, was “scary.”

“There was a lot of confusion regarding what actions the department, university, city, state and federal jurisdictions would take,” he said.

Greg Renshaw, ICT's senior research engineer, dons a facemask while removing a hot-mix asphalt sample after testing it in one of the center's servo-hydraulic test frames at ICT on July 7.
Greg Renshaw, ICT's senior research engineer, dons a facemask while removing a hot-mix asphalt sample after testing it in one of the center's servo-hydraulic test frames at ICT on July 7.

Renshaw couldn’t agree more sharing that the closure was “very ominous.”

“We have never shut down where no one was going to be in the labs,” he said. “Much of our research depends on physical laboratory testing.”

It was time to “switch gears” and “adapt,” Renshaw said.

Mohamed Ali saw many students having to reconsider their thesis plans, faculty reorganizing their projects and staffers moving equipment to work remotely.

“Methods of communicating and analyzing our work became creative and forced us to think about our work in a different light,” Renshaw said of the temporary closure.

Now the two are full steam ahead working vigorously to reopen the lab. This requires developing procedures to consider new-way-of-life factors like social distancing.

“(It’s) scary, or more like worrisome!” Renshaw said. “(It’s) difficult to balance human health and safety with trying to provide necessary resources to continue our physical research testing in the lab.”

Times like these cause Renshaw to pause and speculate: “(Are) we being proactive enough? (Are) we being too cautious?”

“In the end,” he added, “we chose a path that gave us the best opportunity to keep people safe.”

A return-to-work plan requires moving equipment in the lab to ensure social distancing, setting up cleaning stations and even calibrating equipment that went unused for several months.

As for implementation?

Uthman Mohamed Ali is ICT's research engineer and serves as second in command to Renshaw, leading the center's return-to-work policies and implementation.
Uthman Mohamed Ali is ICT's research engineer and serves as second in command to Renshaw, leading the center's return-to-work policies and implementation. Here Mohamed Ali uses a Superpave gyratory compactor to develop a new hot-mix asphalt design.

“Everyone is adapting well to the changes and adhering to the protocols,” Mohamed Ali said. “Students and researchers keep masks on in common areas, disinfect their stations, work at different stations in a given day (and) schedule lab use a week in advance.”

Renshaw seems to think adapting to this new sense of normal is all about “mindfulness” and “awareness.”

“(We have) to get people thinking about being in the lab with others and not reverting to ‘business as usual’ from before,” he said.

Aside from being flexible, the pandemic has taught the two engineers a great deal.

“For myself, I have gained a better appreciation for being adaptable, how to work through a challenge and view it from multiple perspectives,” Renshaw said.

Well, that and “wearing a facemask at work is harder than you think,” he said. “I have so much more appreciation and admiration for our front-line first responders that have been fighting for all of us during this difficult time.”

Mohamed Ali’s takeaway is to simply “appreciate life’s blessings that we so often take for granted.”

As for their advice for others tasked with implementing return-to-work plans?

For Renshaw, it all boils down to consideration for others.

“Step into the shoes and mind frame of those that are about to return,” he said. “What are their fears, worries and concerns? How can we create an atmosphere of security and health while balancing the work needs as well?”

“Be human,” he added, “because the rest of us are human.”