Out with the old: How construction can bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic

How can we ensure that construction bounces back from COVID-19 stronger than before? Read our thoughts on it here!

The power of habit is a force to be reckoned with. Habits are often seen as something we as individuals battle with, such as kicking the after dinner dessert, or trying to exercise more often. But habits exist on an organisational level too. Project teams, departments, and even entire companies can have deeply ingrained habits that employees collectively fall back on in times of uncertainty. As we begin to look towards bouncing back from the disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis, now is a great time to address organisational habits and look at how construction can benefit from this.

All too many construction companies are looking to go back to “business as usual” at this point. Of course this is understandable. We all want to go back to the office, meet with our co-workers, and add the social aspect of work back into our daily lives. But in terms of how we work, business as usual is not the path we should be following. As a result of the coronavirus, market conditions have shifted, team dynamics have changed, all the while construction projects continue to increase in complexity and size. Additionally, the government has been urged by UK business leaders to take a more active role in creating a economic recovery plan that emphasizes sustainable growth and development. This could potentially result in even more challenging targets and requirements imposed on construction.

For the industry, this means increasing the use of sector specific digital tools will be vital to help support the delivery economically, socially and environmentally sustainability projects. Luckily there is opportunity amidst the challenges of this pandemic. The industry is moving slower than ever, presenting a great opportunity to take stock, and make fundamental organisational changes in preparation for the recovery. If ever there was a time to make a shift in construction, it is now. As an industry it’s time to break some of our age-old habits and embrace a digital transformation to support improved project workflows and processes, for profitable, productive and sustainable development.

The challenge

Change is tough. Adding new tools to old workflows is seen as a major challenge, and sometimes even as an inhibitor, by site teams. This often results in Project Managers and Project Directors concluding that it’s not worth the investment or the effort. Unfortunately, this is based on poor past experiences and misconceptions of what these digital tools actually do.

To overcome this challenges and embrace change, communication needs to improve. As software providers, it is our responsibility to act as your business partner and to clearly communicate and demonstrate the value of these tools to decision makers in construction. This in turn should enable them to communicate this to their site teams and bring everyone else on board.

Another misconception is that field teams aren’t tech savvy enough to be able to work effectively enough with digital tools. However, this simply isn’t true. 80% of British adults own a smartphone and spend an average of 2 hours a day using it. Approximately 70% of British adults use online banking systems. Well-designed digital systems in construction are no more complex than the systems and devices used in every day life by most British people.

The tech world moves so fast that the problems you faced with software 5 years ago have been eliminated, new challenges may have taken its place but progress is undeniable. User centric design ensures that the technical complexity of the tool matches the competence of the teams using it. And the computing power of machines is being put to good use, augmenting human performance on site, and not enslaving the workforce to data inputting tasks.

That being said, it’s important to allow for time to train your teams to adopt the new technology, be understanding of them when the technology is still new to your site, and collaborate to make it work for you. The upfront investment of time will pay dividends down the line.

The solution

The answer to a strong recovery lies in people, collaboration, digital tools, and standardisation. By focusing on these 4 elements, construction projects can begin to see a healthy recovery and take advantage of the opportunity presented in this time of crisis. Here is what you need to think about for a successful recovery:

1. Understand your people

One of the most important aspect of your organisation are your people. Without them, failure is guaranteed. Before you embark on a digital transformation, ask your team what pains them, what would they look to fix first and why.

It’s important to note that a common mistake is for Project Directors and Project Managers to turn to IT or innovation teams first for advice on how to proceed with their digital transformation. Unfortunately, as these individuals are rarely on site day-to-day dealing with the most common challenges, they are likely to miss the burning pains.

So, begin with understanding your team’s pain, and expand from there. This will ensure that any new tools you are looking to implement will yield a good return as well as make your team happy.

2. Foster a collaborative environment

Unfortunately, the contractual environment we tend to work in has lead to or as least enhanced a combative, culture of blame and fault across the construction industry. Organisations such as i3p and Project13 have acknowledged that this kind of mindset is destructive to progress and needs to be addressed.

For a successful recovery into a new age of construction, there needs to be a safe and collaborative environment. Project teams need to look for mistakes with the purpose of learning from them and using these insights to drive incremental progress, not to find the culprit and punish them.

A real shift in culture and environment must come from the top down. Executives, Managing Directors, and Project Directors all need to communicate clearly with their teams that they support collaboration and that everyone is working to achieve the same goal. Ideally, this will be communicated through the supply chain and reflected in contracts as well, to fully harmonise the process.

Technology can help you foster collaboration. Look for technologies that allow real-time communication and cooperation across teams. By using tools that make project information available to all relevant teams, mistakes and opportunities will be identified before they evolve into costly project risks; enabling teams can help solve problems quickly, together.

3. Shift to sector-specific tools

Far too many projects today are relying on tools such as Excel, WhatsApp, even pen and paper, to run their projects. Although these are great, flexible tools, they are not well suited for the complex dynamics of construction, resulting in frustration and poor application by their users.

Once projects become heavily reliant on these generic tools, things start to go astray. Vital data and important messages are easily lost in the myriad of information passed around every day. This isn’t just a matter of inconvenience; the limited capabilities of these tools leads to costly mistakes and rework that can have significant negative impacts on construction projects. Furthermore, the information passed through these tools lacks project context adding additional strain to the decision making process.

By selecting the right digital tools, Project Directors and Project Managers will receive critical, contextualised information at the time they need it, enabling better and more efficient decision making. The timeliness of information allows problems to be flagged long before they have a negative impact on the project and it can help inspire proactive solutions to future problems.

4. Standardisation

To solidify the changes that come from a digital transformation the process needs to be repeatable. Luckily, the majority of core principles in construction are the same from project to project. This opens up the opportunity for standardisation, an important concept for the future development of the industry. By standardising your projects you will achieve greater consistency, mitigate risk, and be able to monitor a wider data set. With more consistent data, more areas of opportunity will present themselves and areas for targeted improvements become more apparent.

Bringing about a digital transformation can be a tough endeavour. You will be dealing with a multitude of inputs and stakeholders. Understanding up front that it will be difficult and knowing that the uphill battle will not last for long is important. Use this framework to support your digital transformation and to help break the old habits of “business as usual”. Shortly, you and your team will start to see a healthy recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and be looking at a more robust and thriving organisation moving forward.

More on construction post COVID-19

We highly recommend reading the Construction Leadership Councils full Roadmap to Recovery.

Great article by McKinsey on how construction can emerge stronger after coronavirus.

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