Collaboration is intrinsic to the building world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction industry has had to find new ways to maintain the flow of information that’s critical to its success.
As a technology partner to the construction industry, Bluebeam saw an opportunity to take stock of what’s changed in building work practices. Bluebeam partnered with Building Magazine to host a roundtable discussion on the most useful lessons the construction industry has learned during COVID-19.
The partnership brought together a variety of leaders and representatives from across the U.K. construction industry, including small- to medium-sized businesses, large-scale general contractors, The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) and other community members representing the fields of architecture, construction and engineering.
Who took part?
- James Chambers – Regional Director UKI, Bluebeam
- Todd Wynne – VP Strategy and Partnerships, Bluebeam
- Paul McNerney – Director of UK Building, Laing O’Rourke
- Will Waller – Director and Build-to-Rent Market Leader, Arcadis
- Anne-Marie Friel – Partner Infrastructure, Pinsent Masons
- Nelly Twumasi-Mensah – Business Projects and Change Lead, Faithful + Gould
- Nick Cole – Director, Robert Bird Group
- Mark Beard – President, CIOB
- Dr. Oliver Jones – Director of Research, Ryder Architecture
Chaired by: Thomas Lane – Group Technical Editor, Building Magazine
Recognising and appreciating digital tech investment
Many of the panel’s speakers found they already had the necessary infrastructure in place to make the switch to virtual working. Businesses still on the journey toward digital transformation had to accelerate that change.
“Our digital collaboration tools and systems were quite mature when the pandemic hit. We’re a global business with a culture of flexible and remote working, so our people who are operating at all regional levels are used to the flow of digital communication.”Will Waller
The importance of strong company culture was a recurring theme.
“The importance of staying connected as a business really struck us. Our senior management is focused on keeping in touch with staff, conducting weekly surveys, and organising small group meetings, all of which is really important.”Anne-Marie Friel
Having the digital tools and processes in place to facilitate remote work is clearly just half of the battle. It also takes a lot of human effort to maintain morale and protect company culture during times of upheaval.
Buying into the digital future
The panel found that some people weren’t on board with tech in their organisations. Those who had been avoiding it had to quickly get up to speed to keep their projects going.
“Not everyone necessarily adopts these freely available systems. Then suddenly you’ve got thousands of people interested in the tool you’ve been trying to get them to use for years, finally realising ‘Oh, can I use this.’”Nelly Twumasi-Mensah
For some businesses, this provided an opportunity to simplify digital processes, helping meet the needs of less digitally savvy employees and improving collaboration with external parties.
Rethinking meetings in the virtual world
The switch to digital communication isn’t as simple as installing an app—it takes careful planning to make sure meetings and conversations are productive.
“Just because you’ve got your digital infrastructure in place, doesn’t mean it’s instantly easy for teams to engage and collaborate. We learned that we needed to have the right processes in place—alongside the tech—to communicate effectively and keep building team ethos when we’re not all in the same place.”Nelly Twumasi-Mensah
One of the things the panel missed most was being able to pick up on each other’s non-verbal cues.
“Virtual meetings are more fatiguing. I think that’s because you lose a lot of the body language—and something like 70% of communication is through body language.”Will Waller
Anne-Marie realised that some legal processes aren’t as effective when they happen without face-to-face human connection.
“I don’t think anybody would choose to do technology and construction court claims virtually. Mediations done virtually are quite difficult—some of the normal benefits are harder to achieve.”Anne-Marie Friel
Beyond the board room
All of the panel’s speakers have been missing the chance encounters and casual conversations sparked when working in close proximity with other team members. Meetings can no longer happen spontaneously—everything must be planned.
“Working from home removes ‘blue sky’ space in your day where you make connections between communications and projects. In our organisation, internal social media quickly became noisy and crowded. We’ve had put structures in place to facilitate more productive conversations.”Oliver Jacob
It’s clear that teams must continue to adapt to digital communication as face-to-face conversation could remain difficult for some time.
Maintaining work-life balance
Remote working means time gained back from commuting or traveling to and from meetings. The panel’s speakers agreed they don’t want to go back to doing everything in person.
“This has taught us that a large number of the team can work through a digital setting and not be at the place of assembly five days a week, liberating a whole plethora of savings and efficiencies. People can get much better work-life balance. It would be a crime to allow ourselves to settle back into any other way of working.”Paul McNerney
However, it can be hard to switch off from work when your professional and home environments have merged. For people like Anne-Marie, it’s been difficult to maintain a good work/life balance.
“The nature of legal work can be that you don’t move from your desk, so in the first week of lockdown, I did 95 hours’ work from my bedroom. I didn’t move because I was closing a big deal. There’s a whole myriad of issues depending on people’s individual circumstances that we have to be really mindful of.”Anne-Marie Friel
How can we find a balance between flexible working and an ‘always on’ culture? Mark Beard believes the best way forward is with a blended approach.
“I think we’ve got to reach a stage where there’s a balance between effective home working and getting people in the office for a sufficient amount of time that they feel part of a team, rather than a group of individuals working together.”Mark Beard
Supply chain resilience is critical
Supply chain disruption has been the biggest heartburn for contractors. Even with digital technology in place, if the materials aren’t there, you have an unavoidable stumbling block, as Mark discovered.
“From a contractor’s point of view, the pandemic has made us realize that by integrating contracts some of our supply chains are potentially holding up the whole process. Even some relatively low-cost components are doing this because you can’t get them out to a certain part of the world.”Mark Beard
It’s certainly not a simple fix, but the key takeaway from the panel is that supply chains must be able to withstand future shocks; otherwise, work will stall.
Experimentation leads to adoption
When businesses are free to experiment, the way they work can change quickly. One thing Nelly Twumasi-Mensah wants to take forward post-pandemic is the culture of trying out different tools and processes to see what fits best.
“We should keep being able to experiment more—becoming comfortable with using a tool for three weeks and then moving on to another one if it’s not working. It doesn’t seem like a crazy thing to do anymore because we’ve had to do that through this process.”Nelly Twumasi-Mensah
Uptake of digital tools is more likely to happen in organisations where people have “sandboxes” to play around with technology.
“Until you give someone the thing to play with or an opportunity to be able to experiment, without the fear of failure, it’s going to be difficult for people to really ‘adopt adoption’ in the truest sense of the word.”Nelly Twumasi-Mensah
Overall, the acceleration of digital tech adoption has had positive effects on construction industry businesses. The next challenge? Standardisation.
“The next step for us as individuals, companies and technology providers is to think about standardisation in terms of open formats. How does the adoption of the digital journey fit into working with third parties and subcontractors?”James Chambers
Varying levels of digital maturity within client organisations adds complexity. If clients or supply chain partners haven’t begun a journey of digital transformation, it has an impact on collaboration. There’s a clear need to encourage these partners to cut red tape and open up communication channels.
Keeping up momentum
Where should we focus as we look to carry forward our learnings from this time? The panel’s speakers agreed that the industry’s efforts should be concentrated on developing and adopting technologies that add the most value. That means processes and tools that save time and help everyone do their job better—whether that’s simply accelerating uptake of modern working methods or exploring new technologies such as automated machine control and drones.
“Digital and automated processes should be deployed where they’re driving out inefficiency and driving in value—allowing us all to do what we should have been doing for years.”Paul McNerney
It’s been an extremely challenging time for the construction industry, and there may be further challenges ahead. But there’s reason to be positive, too, as Todd Wynne summarised:
“We’ve proved that things can be done quickly when there is motivation and pressure, and even companies that were once hesitant now are motivated to transform. So, let’s take advantage. I think that this whole pandemic has acted as a turbocharger. Let’s continue.”Todd Wynne