WASHINGTON — A majority of U.S engineering firms (67%) remain steadfast that the U.S. economy is worse now compared to March 1, 2020, but also show growing optimism about an improving business climate, according to the latest COVID-19 Business Impact Survey, Wave 9.

“The results of this survey reinforce what we’re seeing nationally across all industries,” said John Carrato, board chair, ACEC Research Institute. “The business environment is improving, but it’s nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels. We’re starting to see the emergence of more optimism, but it appears that the recovery is not lifting up all firms evenly.”

Sponsored by the ACEC Research Institute, the survey of more than 400 respondents was conducted between Feb. 25 and March 5. Findings show that more firms continue to see improvements in overall finances (42%-32%) and in cash flow (40%-31%) compared to previous survey results in September 2020.  In contrast, an increasing number of firms (39%) with 25 FTE’s or less say cash flow is worse compared to the 35% who said the same in September.

Additionally, more firms (44%) reported increases in backlog compared to the 31% in September, compared to 30% of firms that still report a declining backlog.

Many more firms (44%) plan to curtail remote working policies to bring staff back into the office more once social distancing restrictions are lifted, compared to 19% of firms that plan to expand remote work policies. Also, 51% of firm leaders plan to follow CDC guidelines or those provided by state/local authorities when it comes to vaccinations, while just 26% will not require staff vaccinations. Fifty-eight percent of firm leaders are at least somewhat concerned about being held liable for office workers getting sick, while a significant percentage (42%) say they are not.

“The return to whatever ‘normal’ looks like is still uncertain, but one thing we know from this survey is that it won’t require the same amount of office space,” Carrato said. “The success of the nation’s vaccination program seems to be the most important metric for getting back to the office according to firm leaders.”

Nearly half the firms will forbid staff travel to events of 100 people or more during the next six months, although a strong nine of 10 leaders do plan to allow travel to client meetings during the next six months. View the wave 9 survey here.