When business is booming, some companies are content to coast and enjoy their good fortune. Few companies, however, were able to ride out the difficult economic environment in 2020 brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The architecture, engineering and construction industry, which had been riding a construction boom pre-pandemic, fell hard as COVID-19 quickly ravaged the economy in March 2020. The industry experienced a 14% loss in construction starts in the United States, according to the 2021 Dodge Construction Outlook. The situation in Europe wasn’t much better.
While many companies rely on good times to bolster technological innovation, using outsized profits to invest and develop new products and services, for other companies down times bring innovation as well, as survival forces firms to find new efficiencies.
Expanding existing tech
For many construction companies, the pandemic-induced downturn meant making better use of tools and technologies already part of their existing stack. “The tools we had got pushed to the forefront,” said Steffanie Schrader, senior VDC engineer at Barton Malow Holdings.
Those tools included Microsoft 365, the package of office productivity software that includes more familiar and ubiquitous programs like Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook but also nascent communications and collaboration platforms like Teams. While the Southfield, Michigan, company with more than 2,000 employees in offices across the U.S. had been a subscriber to MS365 prior to COVID-19, it reviewed how it could further take advantage of all of the different capabilities it included.
“Because most of us who were working at headquarters are now working from home, we had to change the way we meet and work,” Schrader said. “We put in Microsoft Teams and now it’s one of our primary sources of meetings and chats.” She added that use of chat, rather than email, has led to increased efficiency, less clogged inboxes and quicker responses among colleagues.
Barton Malow also set up a process for daily health screenings on jobsites that don’t require paper. The health survey can be easily scanned and placed in records on the back end, which makes compliance simple.
Maximizing existing technology also became a priority at The Walsh Group.
“We’ve been focused on operational excellence in our suite of technology and on ‘let’s use what we have to the best of its ability,’” said Dan Smolilo, director of process and innovation at the Chicago-based company, whose business is focused on water, civil and vertical build projects.
“Although we were an early adopter of MS365, the pandemic forced us to look at the tools and leverage them further,” Smolilo said. “We have executive meetings via MS Teams and are working out how to have more impromptu water cooler meetings where knowledge is shared.”
Additionally, Cameras 360 has allowed The Walsh Group to get owners and others on-site to proceed with remote inspections and jobsite visits.
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Mortenson, a top 20 builder headquartered in Minneapolis, is similarly focused on moving the needle on existing technology. “We put on our lean innovation hat to determine how to leverage our existing technology to improve processes,” said Alison Hart, the company’s manager of project solutions.
One challenge Mortenson tried to solve during the initial stages of the pandemic was how to use jobsite cameras from NoteVault to track project progress. “We found opportunities to push that back to leadership to give them a glance of what’s happening at a jobsite,” Hart said, “and we developed keywords and notifications to let them know if a project is at risk to the point where leadership needs to be engaged.”
Finally, Mortenson used Bluebeam Revu to help develop a jobsite logistics plan and properly space out crews. Hart said the company has found Bluebeam to be a “tried and true” tool that has helped its workers plan site logistics to space out people on the jobsite during the pandemic.
Into the future
While many of these companies said the pandemic may have pushed them to explore further use of existing technologies, the issues they aim to solve weren’t specific to those brought on by COVID-19.
“None of the solutions we created are focused solely on COVID-related issues,” The Walsh Group’s Smolilo said. “We created solutions to fix the industry’s systemic problems, focusing our protocols and procedures around our employees’ health and safety and the well-being of our projects rather than the utilization of technology for the sake of innovation.”
Mortenson’s Hart said it’s too early to tell if changes will stick—but she hopes they will. One way to ensure change sticks, she said, is to find value in it.
As for the changes at Barton Malow, Schrader said she absolutely sees them continuing. “We’ve changed the way we communicate by using chat, and while it may seem like a little thing, it saves time.”