Covid-19’s long-term changes to the construction industry
Technology

Covid-19’s long-term changes to the construction industry

Covid-19 has changed how people live, work and interact in their personal and professional lives. While time will bring back some semblance of normalcy, there will be some facets that will be changed for the foreseeable future. That is clearly the case in the construction industry as it has had to quickly navigate and rethink safety, supply chain issues, design changes and more, many of which have been “in the works” for years. Many of these sweeping changes and new approaches, discussed below, will remain in place long after the outbreak has subsided. 

Jobsite risk and safety have been redefined

Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of worker health and jobsite safety. In order to continue working on projects, many commercial contractors quickly implemented new practices for containing the virus, and keeping the jobsite and its workers safe and healthy, including:

  • social distancing policies, such as, staggered start times and break times, and shift work;
  • controlled access to worksites and increased security of the worksite so contractors know exactly who is onsite and when, and so they can monitor productivity; 
  • employee self-monitoring for covid-19 symptoms;
  • temperature checks at the worksite;
  • new handwashing, sanitizing and disinfection policies for workers, tools, machinery and work surfaces; and 
  • clear guidelines for infectious diseases outbreak and response plans and sick leave policies.

While these and other changes can create safer, cleaner, less crowded and more efficient construction sites, companies must be cognizant of the need to ensure these new safety protocols do not negatively affect productivity. 

Increased use of technology

This unprecedented pandemic event has accelerated the adoption of construction technology in ways that make project management easier. Tools such as video conferencing have enabled the various players in a project to engage in project meetings remotely, which for a contractor with multiple projects being constructed simultaneously, can help them ensure the work is progressing properly. 

Owners and safety managers can also now participate more closely in the project meetings without physically traveling from site to site. Contractors, designers and engineers of projects are relying more heavily on digital collaboration tools such as 4D and 5D simulations and Building Information Modeling in order to help replan or rescale projects and to schedule workers and shipments. 3D-printing has also been utilized to quickly manufacture critical parts to counter supply chain disruptions. Some remote technology processes are even allowing regulators and building departments to conduct inspections remotely, which can cut down on inspection delays and allow for contractors to turn projects over on time, which will likely continue after the crisis is over.

More remote work

Many American workers have transitioned to working remotely and studies have shown that a large percentage of the work force will continue operating remotely even after they are allowed to return. While construction workers may not be able to work remotely for most of their tasks, much of the support staff may be able to, including the back-office workers, billing and accounting employees, and other support staff. Reducing on-site staff can help companies manage costs, decrease office overhead and apply the savings to the new safety measure and better technology. 

Smaller employee pool

In the short term, many contractors have been tackling the shortage of workers. Travel restrictions have prevented both domestic and migrant construction workers from reaching jobsites, which limits the pool of the workers available, causing an ever-widening labor gap. Moreover, Covid-19 has resulted in some workers not returning to projects because of concerns over the risk of infection, competing responsibilities at home, and reliance on unemployment benefits from the CARES Act.

In order to recruit skilled construction workers who will be increasingly in demand and to maintain long-term productivity, companies will need to take steps to educate personnel on how to protect themselves on-site, provide adequate safety measures and PPE, and allow for more flexible sick and leave policies.

Supply chain disruptions 

The pandemic has had a significant effect on the global supply chain due to the fact that U.S.-based construction companies source large quantities of building materials from China. Due to the virus outbreak in China, the closing of ports and other travel restrictions, there were immediate supply chain disruptions in the U.S., which forced U.S.-based companies to quickly turn to contingency plans for solutions by seeking manufacturers of products at home and in nearby countries such as Mexico. Since the concerns over sourcing and supply chains persist, the construction industry will likely seek permanent domestic suppliers and seek to maintain larger inventories of critical materials and long-lead times to guard against similar disruptions and related delays in the future. 

Longer project timeframes

Many of the changes at construction sites, in addition to the increased worker and supply chain demands, will lead to longer project timeframes. Construction schedules will need to take into consideration that the cumulative effect of new safety precautions, the time it takes to put on PPE, the staggered shifts, the social distancing requirements will slow down the progress of the work. Even with the increased technology efficiencies, there will likely be little to no fast-tracking of jobs in the near future. Contractors need to set expectations for the entire project team, from the designers to the owners to the subcontractors and other consultants, so everyone understands that projects are going to take longer and plan accordingly. 

Increase in offsite and modular construction

The shortage of skilled workers, the supply chain issues and the need to increase workplace safety have resulted in an increase in offsite, prefabricated and modular construction. Because the modules or components are built in an off-site facility and shipped to the construction site, this method allows for quicker and more efficient work with less skilled labor and is often more cost effective. Factory production also addresses some of the safety concerns raised by the pandemic because it reduces both the time construction workers will be at the jobsite and their time working closely with another person in order to assemble materials and parts onsite. As the construction industry seeks new ways to construct faster, safer and with reduced labor costs, the trend toward more modular, prefabricated, and even 3D printed building walls and parts, will continue to rise. 

Communication and documentation among all players will be key to job success

Finally, more than ever, clear channels of communication and documenting the construction plan will be critical to a project’s success. Contractors need to ensure that their workers are following safety guidelines and regulations before coming to work. Owners want to know how their projects are being impacted by the pandemic and what steps the contractor is taking to bring the project in safely, on-time and on budget. Subcontractors and staff will want to know what safety protocols have been implemented to keep them safe. Ensuring that there are effective channels of communication and clearly documented project plans though well identified means, whether that is through email, zoom meetings, or other online platforms, can help keep all team players aligned on the goal and keep projects moving forward. 

As the construction industry navigates this crisis towards a new normal, leaders in the industry have recognized that in many ways things will be changed for the long term and have invested in the tools, strategies and operating procedures to come out stronger and improve their future success. 

Written by Deanna L Koestel. Reprinted from Construction Executive, 17 October 2020, a publication of Associated Builders and Contractors, Copyright 2020. All rights reserved. View original here.