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The COVID-19 pandemic caused a huge amount of upheaval and turmoil in industries across the globe. Although parts of the construction industry were considered vital work, and therefore able to continue after only a short government stoppage, the effects of the coronavirus on the industry were sharply felt. The continued future recovery of the industry depends massively on the lessons that we can learn from the past 12 months.
If anything has been made clear in this time, it is that we aren’t going to go back to “normal” as we previously knew it at any point and that certain adaptations to our working lives are here to stay. We’ve taken a look at the five biggest lessons that the construction industry has learned from dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in the past year; highlighting issues that became inevitable once lockdown hit and what was learned from the industry’s reaction to these problems.
Before we knew almost anything else about the spread of COVID-19, one thing we learned very early into the pandemic was that being in close proximity to one another, especially in large groups, had to be avoided wherever possible. Understandably, this created a big problem across almost every area of construction.
Offices, no matter how small or large, had to be closed for months and adapted for the return of staff. Travelling to meet clients, prospects or associates became quickly ruled out. But it was on-site where the challenge to maintain new social distancing standards proved to be the most difficult. Why? Well, because office workers and sales people learned to adapt and utilise new forms of communication and working to maintain their roles from a safe distance (more on this later); but there is no getting around the fact that for buildings to be built and projects to be finished, there is no alternative to being on-site.
So, the industry learned to adapt. New technology and good old-fashioned ingenuity were combined to provide solutions to this previously unheard of problem within UK construction. One such example came from Metek, who specialise in panelised lightweight steel construction, design, manufacturing and site installation. Oliver Rogan, Managing Director of Metek, explained to us recently that by increasing the size of their panels from 2m to 8m, they were able to reduce the number of pieces needed for a project, and therefore reduce the number of things needed to do in order to produce a product and finish a project.
Despite now needing a crane to install the larger pieces, on-site productivity improves because you’re only installing one unit, rather than several and overall production time on-site has been reduced by around 30% for Metek. The 8m panels only require two workers to install them, rather than the four workers it took previously, which was a key factor to make sites safe and productive in the era of social distancing.
Furthermore, the industry began to trial staggering the times that workers arrived on-site, in order to reduce public transport crowding and help ensure the safety of construction workers, other key workers and the public at large. Keeping staff in specific bubbles on site also ensured less mixing of households and again further reduced the risk of spreading COVID-19, if any one worker happened to become infected.
The industry proved that with our backs to the wall, the potential for innovation is there. Certain measures on-site, such as the ones that Metek have taken, have led to better permanent outcomes for businesses. Shifting our focus form “business as usual” may end up being a good thing for large portions of the construction industry.
In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, reports of stockpiling and shortages of key items were rife across the whole of society, as well as specifically within construction. Toilet paper, fresh meat and household cleaning items were flying off supermarket shelves faster than they could be replenished. Whilst in construction it was bricks and other key building materials that became hard to source for weeks at a time.
This was mainly down to a couple of factors. Firstly, before we had figured out en masse what could be considered a vital service that could stay open throughout lockdown, many manufacturers and merchants shut their doors, which by necessity caused a backlog in orders once they reopened. The knock on effects of this then meant that often distributors didn’t have the resources to get back on track, even if manufacturers were back at a point of being able to produce enough of their materials to fulfil orders.
A perfect storm situation was occurring where the panic of confronting pandemic-related issues also coincided with the impending approach of the Brexit date, which people had been stockpiling materials for long before COVID-19 hit our shores.
As we moved through the year and the nature of lockdowns became somewhat more normal, we learned how to lessen the impact of these events occurring. For one, construction has not shut down again since those early weeks of the pandemic, therefore the same level of panic, stockpiling and backlogs have simply not occurred. A level of patience, understanding and co-operation has also hopefully grown throughout the supply chain, as we all came to realise the unique factors that played into these early material problems and how to avoid them moving forward.
It wasn’t just in manufacturing where coronavirus social distancing issues affected working productivity. No mixing of household bubbles meant no shared office spaces, no on-site visits unless absolutely necessary, no in-person business meetings or sales prospecting and very little indoor space sharing of any kind, even amongst your own business.
This meant that the industry had to react quickly and adopt practices and innovations that many had probably not envisioned happening in their business for many more years, if at all. Digital communication quickly became the norm. Whether your platform of choice was Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Amazon Work Spaces, Google Meet, or perhaps a combination of them all, you suddenly had no choice but to get on board and make sure that your business was part of the digital world from boardroom level all the way across the business.
There may have been some bumps along the road, but we quickly learned how easy it can be to join online meetings. We saw into each other’s homes for the first time, even if only through a window the size of a webcam lens. Barriers were broken down just that little bit, with the playing field became more even as we were thrown into situations that none of us recognised.
Salespeople suddenly could fit more meetings per day into their calendar because they weren’t spending hours driving hundreds, if not thousands, of miles per week to meet prospective clients. Inefficiencies across the industry had a spotlight shone on them and many were permanently fixed.
Hanson UK Commercial Director Andy Murphy spoke to us recently about how being at home actually improved training processes for them because you didn’t have to herd hundreds of people to a specific location, you could get them all on calls that nobody had to travel to and record sessions for those who couldn’t attend. They’ve now developed a wealth of resources to onboard any new starters with that they never previously had.
We learned that sometimes adversity can be an accelerant, rather than a diversion. For many these past 12 months has accelerated a move towards digital and remote working that was a necessity that they had previously avoided, and now can face head on with confidence.
With the coronavirus lockdowns forcing us all into our homes with very little chance for socialising, the need to focus on mental wellbeing has been more important than ever before. Not only have we been restricted of socialising with friends and family outside the workspace, the communal aspects of a workplace are vitally important to maintaining social bonds and encouraging social skills.
In construction, this need to focus on mental health is in more dire need than almost any other industry. We’re all aware of the devastating levels of depression and suicide within construction, and the isolation of the past 12 months has led many to worry about the long-term effects this will have on the wellbeing on those within our industry and beyond.
Mental health check-ins have become more widespread throughout businesses in recent years, and a real effort has been made since 2020 to ensure that this becomes more commonplace across the board.
Across February Barbour ABI focussed on mental health within construction and various figures from across the industry wrote a series of blogs for us on how businesses can improve their mental health provisions for staff. Ben Thexton, owner of TAC Accountants, wrote on the moral duty that companies have to empower employees to express how they are feeling, and gave several tips that you can easily put into practice in your business to help achieve a greater level of wellbeing amongst staff.
More than ever in the last year we’ve learned that it is equally as vital for businesses to check in on their staff, as it is for staff to speak up of their own accord. Providing resources for the betterment of staff is the morally right thing to do and will lead to better workplace morale (whether that workplace is remote or in the office), better job satisfaction levels, and less time off and money wasted due to avoidable absenteeism and presenteeism.
Early in the first UK COVID-19 lockdown it felt as though society was “in it together” more than we had seen in recent years. Whether it was clapping for carers, donating to Sir Tom Moore’s charity fundraising or doing virtual nationwide pub quizzes, there was a feeling of solidarity amongst everybody as we all tried to get through this new situation together. Fortunately, this attitude also spread to construction, with figures and bodies across the industry coming together like never before to help one another through this crisis.
The formation of bodies such as Scotland’s Construction Industry Coronavirus Forum (CIVC) brought together bodies, organisations and single voices from across the board so that the widest range of thoughts and opinions on topics such as the safe return to worksites could be discussed by stakeholders at every level.
The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) is working with the Construction Leadership Council, Build UK and other to provide a central resource for UK members with guidance on construction-specific issues.
These moves of solidarity come in tandem with the ever-increasing discussions surrounding the need for joint industry accountability for building safety, with widening acceptance of the need for the formation of the ‘Golden Thread’ of information central to this topic.
Hopefully we are learning that we are stronger together as an industry. As we rebuild from the damage of COVID-19, we need to rebuild together to ensure future success for as many as possible. There has been good to come out of the past year, and chief amongst that good is the formation of trust and relationships within construction that will long outlast this crisis and make the industry permanently a better place.