Construction sector reflects on lessons learnt from COVID-19 pandemic

Working from home more often will become the new normal post COVID-19 Picture: contributed

Working from home more often will become the new normal post COVID-19 Picture: contributed - Credit: Archant

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating many issues and challenges for the local construction industry. Sue Wilcock looks at the lessons that have been learnt.

Sue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page

Sue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page - Credit: Archant

All businesses are having to adapt to working within the new government guidelines and none more so than those in construction. So, on reflection, what are the lessons that have been learnt from the crisis, and how can they help prepare for what the future might bring?

Craig Western is Director at Wincer Kievenaar Architects. He explained: “Although there’s been upheaval, the pandemic has brought several positives.

“As a design-based company, we have realised that we need a hub or headquarters where everyone can get together and share ideas; our clients employ the team and their collective knowledge, and to work creatively you need to be together. However, that doesn’t mean that we want to revert back to how we were before lockdown.

“We have learnt that being adaptable and flexible about how you work and where you work is key to future business success. Therefore, we’ll definitely be encouraging the team to work from home more often.”

This is a sentiment shared by James Potter, MD of Superstructures. “Our business strategy has always been to treat our office as temporary accommodation; an area where we can get together and bounce ideas off each other, but not a necessity,” he said. “We’ve always had ultimate flexibility in terms of our infrastructure and systems – cloud server, VOIP phones etc, so that we can work anywhere seamlessly.

“The crisis has put this to the test, and I’m delighted at how we’ve managed and how the team have adjusted.”

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The pandemic has definitely tested the robustness of the business continuity plans at Barnes Construction. Bob Steward, joint MD, said: “We’ve learnt many things from the crisis; the most important being that we need to wrap our IT team in bubble wrap!

“Although we had procedures in place to enable all our staff at head office to work from home, we hadn’t anticipated the situation of having to close down all our sites.

“So, as well as being very impressed with the flexibility and adaptability of our employees and supply chain to do whatever it can to keep everything up and running, something we’ve learnt all about is furloughing. This is a word we hadn’t heard of pre-COVID and we now understand how to furlough responsibly and not just as a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to cut costs.

“In addition to working from home becoming a viable option for how we operate in the future, other lessons learnt have been that we should stock up with plenty of PPE and hand sanitiser, and ensure that a global pandemic is written into all our contracts as a legitimate reason for being given an extension of time to complete projects!”

Other lessons learnt are around communications and interaction. Although, a positive to come out of the pandemic is that meetings can work just as well being conducted virtually via video conferencing, the consensus from Barnes, Superstructures and Wincer Kivenaar is that it doesn’t necessarily allow for the conversations and general chats with your peers that happen when you meet face-to-face in a social environment.

Mr Potter explained: “I miss the atmosphere of networking events, as well as the business opportunities they bring.”

Mr Western added: “We’ve learned that you can’t replace social networking events and the valuable insight it gives you into what’s happening in the region.

“One negative for us is the realisation that the region’s broadband infrastructure is not up to scratch. With the team accessing via a remote connection to the office server all at the same time, and team meetings taking place via video conferencing, this has caused issues, especially with those that live in rural areas. We really need to see the national broadband issue resolved sooner rather than later.

“Going forward though, as well as increasing our investment in technology that improves our video conferencing ability, when we purchase hardware and IT machines, we now need to think about its flexibility and how it works remotely.”

However, the last words go to Mr Potter: “We’ve learnt to always have the worst-case scenario in the back of our mind – actually something that structural engineers do quite well; we’re always having to design buildings for best and worst-case scenarios.

“I’ve also learnt that aside from the worry this situation has caused (I wouldn’t ever want it again), it’s also been the most interesting time to own a business and an extreme test of business leadership and crisis management.”

Together we are stronger

The Suffolk Joint Construction Committee (SJCC) was 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. It includes representatives from the main construction professions, the National Federation of Builders (NFB) and Royal Institute of British Architects, the Institution of Structural Engineers, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.

Steve Reason, who sits on the committee representing the NFB, said: “The SJCC has been working collaboratively to bring some logic to the debate. The group is small in national terms, but big in its beliefs. It has already had meaningful discussion with a local MP, who was receptive to the concerns and has relayed them to the government.

“We are still actively discussing ways of dealing with local issues arising from this devastating virus, while trying to support the safe and regulated return to construction activity.

“We have learnt that it is incredibly important that we’re united as an industry and work together, to raise construction as not only a significant contributor to national GDP, but also to spotlight the strengths of the sector locally and the importance of its contribution to employment in the region.

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