Notes from the Home Front

Notes from the Home Front

Like professionals across the country and around the world, VPCS employees have been working mostly from home during the coronavirus outbreak. It’s been a bit of a transition, but our people have always been a dedicated and hard-working bunch. Not even a shelter-in-place mandate would be enough to change that.

Here, a few members of Team VPCS weigh in with insights and observations about working from home:

Johnny Mam:  Whether I’m working from home or at the office, I find that having a daily routine and a schedule in place is essential to stay productive and also keep up the morale. I’ve been checking in on the team every day, which is a great way to make sure things are on track. The most challenging aspect of working at home is that I forget to take breaks and sometimes neglect self-care. To tackle that issue, I’ve scheduled times in the morning and afternoon for a walk outside for fresh air and sunshine. This is something I plan to carry over into my post-pandemic routine.

Melanie Griffiths:  I’m trying to treat working from home just like any workday. I wake up, get dressed and then “commute” to my computer where I check emails, to-do items and tasks. My family is at home too, which can be a challenge. It’s not unusual for my seven-year-old to have class and conference calls at the same time that I do! We’re all trying to find workarounds as we accept this new reality. I’ve found the Adobe Sign program to be helpful when it comes to getting documents signed by multiple people, and I hope that’s something we can rely on more when we’re able to go back to the office. It’s very efficient!

Jenny Choi:  Since working from home, I haven’t felt like my work life and personal life have been much different. In fact, since I don’t have to wake up early and commute to work, it’s actually saving me a lot of time. We’ve set up a company-wide Google Chat so we can talk with co-workers and everyone gets the message right away if there’s an urgent project issue or update. For me, the downside of all of this is not having my co-workers right next to me. In times like this, we have to be flexible and creative to continue doing our best work for the team and for our clients.

Christine Diamond: My productivity strategy is to get up, get dressed and stay as close to my normal routine as possible…except that I’m at home. I get my work done by sending lots of emails and texts and participating in the occasional Google Hangouts video meeting.  I have actually been using Google Hangouts and Zoom to keep in touch with my friends, family and sewing circles as well. For me, the biggest challenge has been staying focused but I tackle that by setting up a separate space for my at-home-office – a place that I can walk into and out of. Now, when I’m in that space I’m at work and am focused on the job. Then after work, I shut the door and focus on family. Since I have a much smaller workspace at home than at the VCPS office, I have to be much more organized. Nothing can be set aside to be put away or finished later. That’s a new habit that I hope sticks with me. The habit I don’t think I’ll be able to keep is how I live in my slippers now! It’s going to be hard putting heels back on when we head back to the office.

Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson:  With kids at home, I would say the greatest challenge has been balancing their distance learning responsibilities with my own work responsibilities. In order for all of us to be productive, it’s crucial for me to set a daily schedule for them, complete with their school lesson plans and to-dos. But I must admit that I’m willing to let the schedule go when things get hectic; we’re all finding that we need to forgive ourselves and each other if things don’t always go perfectly smoothly. Also, we all need to take care of ourselves. I’ve been working out more consistently since working from home. It really seems to lessen the stress and focus my mind. To stay on top of projects and communicate with co-workers, Zoom and Google Hangouts have been great. I’ve even used both of those tools for evening and weekend social get-togethers. In fact, I think the fact that we’ve all been “forced” to use these tools has opened the minds of those who may have been resistant to new technology.

Alex Lim:  I’ve been conducting a morning routine that’s similar to going into the office and designating specific time blocks for work, which help me with productivity when working from home. (I also find enormous productivity benefits by not having to commute two-plus hours each day.) I’ve also created an at-home work environment that is suitable for phone and video calls. I do find it easier to get distracted and lose track of goals while working remotely, but my VPCS team maintains shared Google Keep lists and notes and we review those together on a daily basis, which keeps everybody on top of what we need to know and do. I’ve been pleased with how efficient the video call meetings have been, and I’d like to engage in more of those after this is all over.

Colleen Alexander:  I’ve found that designating a space at home that’s just for me has been really important. It’s where I go to “go to work” every day. For the most part, it’s all been going pretty smoothly. Although we had a bit of excitement the other day when the cat brought a dead rat into the house and left it under my desk. My husband tackled that challenge for both of us! I’ve been disciplined about taking a break every day to walk the dog. It’s been nice to get outside and get some fresh air. I hope I keep that habit up after all of this is over. I always come back refreshed after a quick walk.

Larry Fogelquist:  When I work from home, I always try to dress as if I’m going to work, sit down at my desk at about the same time each morning, and keep the door to my office closed. Showers, it seems, are optional. The biggest challenge while working remotely has been getting my project questions answered, but my fellow team members and my manager are always very available via Google Chat to get me the information I need and to collaborate. (It’s also been a challenge to stay out of the kitchen, but that’s another topic altogether!) I actually really like the positive impact of having fewer interruptions. I’d like to figure out a way to replicate that when things get back to normal.

Jess Joseph-Smith:  It’s been hard to manage my kids’ home school lessons while also being productive and accountable to my VPCS team. Luckily, we have great communication in this company, and everyone has been really understanding. I think the best part is people’s resourcefulness and the understanding that we’re all encountering things that we would not normally have to multitask. But we’re getting more creative about how to be stay organized and innovative, and I hope that continues because it will help us stay at the top of our industry. I am also grateful for the way my team allows me to help keep my kids on track and let me work around them. My kids and I eat lunch together and then take walks every day. That’s been a really nice way to break up the day; it’s something I’d like to incorporate it into my post-pandemic schedule.

Molly Burke:  I don’t have an extra room for an office, so I set up a fold-out table in my bedroom that serves as my office. Having an established workspace focuses me and sends the message to family that I’m at work. Also, maintaining a morning routine of getting to my desk at the same time with coffee in hand keeps my day consistent. All in all, it’s actually gone pretty smoothly. I’ve had a few occasions where I needed something in the office or wanted to look at a hard copy of a document, so I’ve had to make a few quick runs over there. Otherwise, I’ve been able to do what I need to do from home. I find working from home to be productive both professionally and personally. There are fewer interruptions throughout the day and the workday starts earlier because travel time has been eliminated. This means more time for sleep, exercise and family. Honestly, I think working from home has some great advantages. In this business, we’ll still always need to meet with clients and walk job sites, but I’m definitely a fan of some of the upsides of telecommuting.

Minh Dao:  I’ve relied heavily on Google Hangouts and texting while working from home, and of course email continues to be key. The main challenge I’ve faced is the way things can get lost in translation during virtual meetings. At in-person meetings, I’m able to explain things or ask questions if something comes up that I need to clarify a bit. Online meetings can be tougher in that regard; there’s a risk that things might be misinterpreted. But we’re putting in the extra effort to make sure everybody gets what they need through these channels. While working from home, I’m making sure to get up and stretch every hour. Before coronavirus, I spent my time going back and forth to sites but in the past few weeks I’ve been spending a good chunk of the day in front of a computer. Remembering to stretch helps me avoid the aches and pains!

Ray Green: As a senior project manager, I’m not able to work from home at all times because it’s still critical to have management presence on active job sites. When I am in the field, what’s really different is how we interact with contractors. We follow all social distancing protocols, whether that’s having a conversation in the parking lot or walking the project. For remote interactions, we’ve had good luck with different platforms – using whatever tool is easiest for all parties to adapt to. I have marathon web meetings with one of our CMs; with a simple text, he and I both log on and we can collaborate on the same documents and review the same drawings and change orders simultaneously. We’ve been able to prove to clients and colleagues not only that we can get things done this way but that we can do so seamlessly without missing a step. On those days when I work from home, I have to admit that my biggest hurdle is my dogs. I struggle resisting those cute little faces; eventually, I give in and take them out for a run around the house and we all feel better.

Finding Our Way to the Other Side of COVID-19

Finding Our Way to the Other Side of COVID-19

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected individuals, communities and economies around the world. Never in our lifetimes have we experienced such an abrupt shift in how we go about our daily lives and conduct our business.

At VPCS, we take our commitments to our projects and our employees very seriously. The quality and continuity of our work is as critical as the health and safety of our people. Like everyone, we are being tested on many fronts during this pandemic.

Here is where things stand as of right now:

Governor Newsom’s statewide shelter-in-place order, issued March 19, includes a mandate that public works and infrastructure projects in California are to continue until further notice. Since many of the agencies, organizations and consultants we partner with are also affected by the pandemic, our project teams are checking in regularly to ensure these operations are open and that their progress continues. We have confirmed that all of the districts where we are working are expecting contractors to remain on projects with only a few exceptions.

Our offices are open, although many of our staff members are working remotely until further notice. As we continue to monitor the changing situation and implement agency recommendations, we will maintain our services and follow through on our commitments to our clients. We have enhanced our remote capacity to ensure all work and communications continue to flow. In addition, where appropriate, we are replacing in-person meetings with phone and/or video conferencing to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect our staff, our consultants, our clients and all of our project partners.

As for how this affects us as a company, we are staying in close contact with our VPCS team members, distributing updates and encouraging two-way communication. We are so fortunate to have such a talented and close-knit group of employees and we are doing everything we can to protect them, their families and their livelihoods. As difficult and unnerving as this is for all of us, we feel confident that this is temporary and not the new norm.

Forty years ago, Fred Van Pelt offered some solid advice to his sons, Mike and Mark. “Boys, build schools and hospitals,” he said. “As long as people have babies, you’ll have projects.”

This statement has never been so true. Even in the midst of these unprecedented conditions, we remain in business. And we move forward, bolstered by friendship and family.

Stay safe and healthy.

By Mike and Mark Van Pelt

Warm Wishes from VPCS!

Warm Wishes from VPCS!

Even amid the busiest moments of the holidays, we remind ourselves to pause and focus on what matters most: the people who surround us at home and at work. We are immensely grateful for all branches of the VPCS family for allowing us to do what we love, day after day. What a gift. For that and so much more, we wish you all a merry and bright season and a joyful new year.

Pushing Contractors Without Harming Relationships

Pushing Contractors Without Harming Relationships

Construction project managers (PMs) like me are responsible for tracking all the large and small details related to the job (or jobs) we’re overseeing. We’re the bridge between the owner and the people who design, engineer and build the projects. It’s up to us to make sure that the work is done well, buildings are completed on time and established budgets are honored.

For the past seven years, I’ve been serving as VPCS PM on the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) efforts made possible by Measure I, passed by voters in 2010. The $210 million bond funds are helping BUSD add new classrooms and science labs to the high school campus and make structural and safety improvements to school sites throughout the district.

Whether a PM is keeping watch over the construction of a single structure or the implementation of a multi-million-dollar bond program, the general responsibilities remain the same: complete the project in a manner that exceeds owner expectations and serves occupant needs. Accomplishing those end goals requires constant interaction between the PM and the general contractor during the construction phase, whatever the scale of the project.

Given the scope of the BUSD program, there are a variety of contractors distributed throughout the district working on different elements of the work. And I monitor their progress – and the progress of all of their subcontractors – on a daily basis. Sometimes even on an hourly basis!

It can be tricky to find the right balance when it comes to all of these interactions. I need to be communicative but not oppressive; persistent but not naggy; friendly but not unprofessional. Plus, it’s important that I tailor my methods of communication according to individual preferences. While some contractors are happy to engage in text or email exchanges, others are more comfortable giving me updates by phone or in person. I’ve made it a habit to kick off any new engagement by asking team members how they’d like to receive all the project-related information that will be coming their way – and how they’d like to keep me in the loop with their own reports. It’s amazing how grateful people are to be given the choice; this simple act also helps establish a two-way system of trust within the working relationship.

One of the many things I enjoy about working for VPCS is that we’re known for building long-lasting one-on-one relationships with clients and contractors alike. (Mark Van Pelt even wrote a blog piece on the business case for pursuing personal connections with professional colleagues.) I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. There are a million obvious reasons to keep things positive with the people we work with every day, including the likelihood that we’ll work with many of the same people multiple times over the course of our careers. Still, a PM’s job sometimes requires giving contractors or their subcontractors a bit of a push … maybe even a firm one. Keeping schedules on track or paperwork in order or quality standards on par occasionally means that the professional relationship must take precedence over any personal one that also exists. But this “pushiness” is always in service to our common goal: delivering an excellent completed project.

I know I’m doing my job well when I’m applying an appropriate amount of pressure on contractors – enough to honor my obligation to my client but not so much that it places my relationship with my fellow tradespeople at risk. Because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing: professional satisfaction and the option of grabbing a cold beer together after work every so often to celebrate our shared accomplishment. I’ll always push for that.

By Chris Moreno

Rock-Solid Detail Work

Rock-Solid Detail Work

My official title here at VPCS is Administrative Assistant. But sometimes I think I should change it to Mortar Assistant, given all the ways I fill in the gaps.

When people ask me what I do at work, I usually answer with a very enthusiastic, “Whatever’s needed!” In other words, my job responsibilities include everything from processing forms to taking minutes, researching change orders, organizing moves, and more. Another thing that takes a significant portion of my time – and is one of the highlights of my job – is planning, managing and producing events.

I am part of the VPCS team overseeing the $269 million bond program in the Napa Valley Unified District. Needless to say, there are lots of events associated with such an enormous undertaking. I coordinate ribbon cuttings, groundbreaking ceremonies, community meetings, and bond oversight meetings. I’m also responsible for publicizing these events via the District website, social media channels, banners, brochures, etc. And that’s not all. It’s also my job to handle all the little things that VPCS does for every client. For example, we recently moved teachers into the new Snow Elementary School campus, and we put together gift bags with welcome letters and a site map to help ease the teachers’ transitions into their new setting.

I really enjoy this “hospitality” part of my job and it’s something I have a lot of experience with. Before coming to VPCS, I spent 20 years on staff at Walt Disney World, with the last six years in the Resort Sales and Weddings departments coordinating multimillion-dollar events. After relocating to California, I worked at a global wine company, where I planned wine dinners, team-building events, education seminars, executive retreats, and whatever other events came along.

It’s critical to be detail-oriented and really organized when putting on an event of any size. Plus, of course, you have to make contingency plans for when things don’t go precisely as expected, then stay calm while you adapt to those inevitable hiccups. (We once hosted a groundbreaking ceremony on a 102-degree day, but were able at the last minute to gather the necessary supplies to provide ice-cold water and pop-up tents for shade to help keep our guests happy and comfortable.) Most importantly, I always try to just smile and stay positive. Because if people are having a good time, that’s the memory they’ll take with them.

Making sure an event runs smoothly or assembling little gifts for teachers are just a couple of the countless ways VPCS delivers quality and solidity to our clients. These details reflect our commitment to doing our jobs well – and to always going above and beyond what’s simply required of us. As Mortar Assistant, I’m just helping keep the pieces in place.

By Melanie Griffiths

Let’s Get Fiscal: Excellence in Bond Accounting

Let’s Get Fiscal: Excellence in Bond Accounting

When I was hired by Mark Van Pelt, a little over three years ago, I never would have imagined that my responsibilities would include categorizing, tracking and reconciling budgets totaling more than $268 million dollars. After all, I have a literature degree and I rarely, if ever, balance my own checkbook. But as of my first day with this firm, I began an intense practical education in school bonds and bond program accounting as part of our work on behalf of the San Rafael City School District.

Here’s the easiest way to describe how school bonds work: school districts use bond funds to pay for school repairs, upgrades and new construction. Bond measures are voted in and funded through property taxes paid by the voters, and are expended only for very specific and defined purposes. Every penny spent through bonds are reviewed, evaluated and re-evaluated not only by the voters but also by the School District Board of Education, parents, teachers, oversight committees, and anybody else interested in studying complex fiscal structures.

Needless to say, it was important that I quickly learn the nuts and bolts of bond accounting – as well as the many subtleties – as a way of protecting our clients’ interests.

Early on in my tenure at VPCS, the firm invested in accounting software that assists in systematically registering every project and tracking each financial transaction involved in a large program. The application helps with everything from paying an invoice to setting up a purchase order, staying on top of retentions, managing change orders, tracking contract contingencies, and more.

As I got up to speed on the San Rafael City School District bond program and more deeply involved in managing its accounting, the software helped simplify the process and … I’ll admit it … make it fun! Not only are we able to track every project budget to the penny, but we’re also able to answer and accommodate every question, every request for information and any inquiry regarding proper usage of bond funds. With this, our team here at San Rafael City Schools has built a very clean and systematic approach to bond accounting.

With regard to our approach, the Van Pelt team stands by three fundamentals:  consistency, transparency, and accountability.

  • We insist on consistency when establishing and modifying contracts and when paying all invoices. Once Board-approved, all contracts are entered into the software application and every subsequent invoice follows an identical chain of approval involving four signatures in proper sequence: the bond accountant, the bond operations manager, the construction manager, and the senior director. We follow this process 100% of the time.
  • We have maintained an “open door policy” with regard to all accounting transactions. We prepare and supply regular budget and expenditure reports to the members of the Board of Education, the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee and the surrounding community. Our goal is to maintain 100% transparency in all that we do.
  • Through our signature process, we’ve established a line of accountability ensuring that all four signatories review every transaction for accuracy and bond funds are spent as approved by the voters.

We have found that maintaining a sound process, along with continued collaboration with the district accounting team, allows us to pay invoices accurately and on time. This has proven to strengthen our current and potential future relationships with consultants and contractors.

Throughout the San Rafael City Schools’ bond programs, it has been a source of great pride for the Van Pelt team to maintain a record of “zero findings” on each of the annual fiscal and performance audits. These audits are performed by public accountants hired by the school district as required by bond language. To administer audits, two or three auditors set up shop in a nearby office and arbitrarily request bond-related documents that might pertain to invoicing, contracts or some kind of adherence to a state mandate. We’ve been fortunate to work with some very helpful auditing teams and have enjoyed the challenge.

Our bond programs here in San Rafael are slated to be complete sometime within the next three years. I look forward to continuing my education into the intricacies of bond accounting and taking what I learn to the next project. But I’m not going to lie: I might not ever get into the habit of balancing my checkbook!

By Patti Llamas