Construction focus: Furlough, the new F word

PUBLISHED: 15:49 24 April 2020 | UPDATED: 15:56 24 April 2020

Superstructures avoided the natural knee-jerk reaction to furlough as many employees as quickly as possible, and instead took the time to form a considered approach   Picture: Friel

Superstructures avoided the natural knee-jerk reaction to furlough as many employees as quickly as possible, and instead took the time to form a considered approach Picture: Friel


Sue Wilcock looks at how the Norfolk and Suffolk construction sector is managing the issues and challenges around furloughing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staszek Stuart-Thompson has been printing full face visors for the NHS on a 3D printer at home  Picture: Wincer Kievenaar ArchitectsStaszek Stuart-Thompson has been printing full face visors for the NHS on a 3D printer at home Picture: Wincer Kievenaar Architects

Only a month ago, if you had asked anyone what furlough meant, the response would probably have been a blank and quizzical look. Not so today, furlough has now become the new F word.

Organisations are past the stage of deciding whether to furlough and the question is more about ‘how do we furlough responsibly?’.

James Potter is managing director at Superstructures, a structural engineering and design business. He explained his company’s rationale around furloughing: “The natural ‘knee-jerk’ reaction was to furlough as many employees as quickly as possible. But we sat back, took stock and really considered the medium to long-term impact that our actions would have on the timeline for getting everything back to the same financial position we were in before COVID-19.

“Uppermost in our thinking is that we value every single member of our team and therefore our main objective was to ensure that everyone felt they were treated fairly.

“We want to emerge from COVID-19 with a full team, stronger than ever in terms of ability and culture. Yet, we need to continue to operate at the highest level and look after the performance of the business. So, when deciding who to furlough, we looked at individual skills, experience and considered personal circumstances.

“We didn’t just go for the highest paid employees – in fact we did the opposite. We considered the effect on the personal lives of our team, as well as the versatility, experience and diversity of the team left working.

“The result was that we opted to retain all our senior level staff and those that we furloughed we have encouraged to use their time to develop themselves professionally. We are continuing to allow them access to our resources, such as software and our technical library and we are still allocating team leader resource to aid personal development.

“We have remained resolute that if you carry out the furloughing process sympathetically, the team will emerge from this crisis stronger and more committed than ever.”

These views are shared by architectural practice, Wincer Kievenaar, as director, Phil Branton explained: “Delivering a service to clients is paramount and we took the decision to furlough individuals whose projects had been put on hold or couldn’t progress. From the outset we looked at ways to keep the team together and have encouraged furloughed staff to undertake online training. Fundamentally, when we exit this crisis, we want to have the same quality, experienced and skilled team back in the office.”

However, most businesses that work at the delivery end of construction have had to take a different stance.

Barnes Construction employs just over 100 people. As soon as the government announced the lockdown, and in support of the directive and its attempt to relieve the pressure on the NHS, it decided to suspend all its site activity and that eventually led to all site-based employees being furloughed.

Bob Steward is joint MD and he explained: “The one thing that matters more than everything else is the wellbeing and safety of our staff and supply chain. I think one of the main things we would want to emphasise is that the people we furloughed, we see as intrinsic to the future success of the business.

“As soon as it is deemed safe to restart our operations, we will be relying on them to be back on the construction frontline getting our projects moving again and playing our part in rebuilding the local economy.”

The SJCC: working collaboratively for construction

The construction industry contributes 7pc to UK GDP and in the East around 7pc of all jobs are in the sector.

Originating 65 years ago and born out of a belief that if the industry locally is to be properly represented and have a voice nationally, then it is more powerful if everyone comes together, the Suffolk Joint Construction Committee (SJCC) includes representatives from the main construction professions. These include the National Federation of Builders and Royal Institute of British Architects, the

Institution of Structural Engineers, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.

Darren Webb, current chair of the SJCC, explains: “Construction is made up of many players, from designers and surveyors to contractors and materials suppliers; all who normally work in a competitive environment.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact in the short, medium and long-term is at the top of SJCC’s agenda. As a forum, we have several areas of concern and over the coming weeks, we will be actively lobbying the relevant industry wide bodies and government, to gain clarification and support for local construction businesses.”

Charity and support for the NHS

Barnes Construction has been quick to help local charities and the NHS during the COVID-19 crisis.

It donated £5,000 to FIND in Ipswich to help support local families suffering hardship and set up a gazebo so food donations can be distributed and received at a safe distance.

Other support has included providing Ipswich Hospital with much needed extra storage space, to make room for extra beds. It has also donated PPE to St Elizabeth Hospice and arranged for GBS Builders to assist in fitting and training on wearing it correctly.

Printing PPE for frontline NHS

Rather than producing models of buildings, a member of the team at Wincer Kievenaar has been using the company 3D printer to support the NHS.

Staszek Stuart-Thompson is an architect at the Hadleigh-based practice and when everyone moved to working from home, he took the office 3D printer with him and put it to good use printing full face visors for the NHS.

He is now accustomed to listening to the drone of the printer continually working in the background and has printed over 50 visors, with each one taking 2.5 hours to produce.

This story is in association with Barnes Construction, Wincer Kievenaar, Superstructures and Suffolk Joint Construction Committee.

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