Embracing Change After COVID-19: Working from Home Construction

The world was turned on its head in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 swept across the globe, closing down societies, devastating communities and wrecking national economies. Construction activity was badly hit, but the sector learned to do things differently, and new ways of working are now being embraced

Two years ago the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced a series of sweeping restrictions across the country to curtail the spread of a new and deadly virus, COVID-19.

In what feels like another era, society was effectively shut down. Shops, businesses, pubs and leisure facilities were closed, as were offices and factories. People were limited to one hour’s outdoor exercise a day while gatherings were prohibited, and those found to have breached social distancing rules faced heavy fines.

Crucially, in most cases people were required to work from home. This had severe implications for the UK economy. For construction in particular the lockdown rules, especially in the early months of the pandemic, proved extremely challenging.

While many companies bit the working-from-home bullet, at the time on-site construction activity ground to a halt, stalling work for months on everything from much-needed homes to office developments.

Three months into lockdown, consultant Turner & Townsend warned that the impact of COVID-19 was causing productivity losses of around 35% on the UK’s construction sites, triggering extensive programme delays and spiraling costs.

Signs of Improvement

But even in the midst of the pandemic, firms were already starting to look at how the sector could work more effectively when it was all over. COVID-19 was forcing construction companies to look at how they could operate better, and encouragingly, by the autumn of 2020 work was commencing on a number of projects, while some public sector schemes kept on track almost throughout the dark days of lockdown.

According to the Office for National Statistics, work on infrastructure schemes continued to perform strongly in 2020 and 2021, despite the imposition of a second lockdown last year, notably the High Speed 2 rail link, a number of motorway improvements and windfarm developments.

Elsewhere, the Deloitte Winter 2021 Crane Survey for the London office market found the volume of new starts rose from 3.1 million ft² to 3.4 million ft², above the long-term average of 2.4 million ft². The Deloitte survey suggested that developers were “much more sanguine about the impact of home working on demand for office space than they were at the onset of the pandemic in 2020.”

Indeed, Deloitte’s Winter 2021 Survey found more than a third (37%) expected home working to have no impact on leasing demand, three times the proportion (12%) revealed in its Winter 2020 report.

This is encouraging for construction, as are some already-emerging trends that have been given added impetus by the pandemic. The case for digitalisation in construction—including tools such as 4D simulation, digital workflow management, digital twinning, real-time progress tracking and advanced schedule optimization—has strengthened over the past two years.

Enabling construction work from home has required more effective communication channels be set up between office and on-site workers, while an increase in the sharing of documentation—through digital tools such as Bluebeam Revu—has made the task of collating and following the progress of a project easier.

And as lockdown restrictions have been removed and construction activity gets back up to speed, operators—from developers to subcontractors and suppliers—have been able to further assess their working practices, aiming to improve both the physical and mental well-being of staff.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of building workers are still choosing to wear masks, but otherwise construction activity in places like the city of London, where several high-profile schemes are currently underway, including 8 Bishopsgate, looks much as it did pre-pandemic.

Lessons Learned

As England sheds its last remaining pandemic measures, one might reasonably ask what will construction do differently now that the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us?

For starters, there has been a working from home “revolution.” To what extent working from home construction stays in place remains to be seen, but flexible working is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Elsewhere, suppliers and subcontractors have been urged to look at greater use of modern methods of manufacturing, particularly where parts of a project could be pre-assembled in a quality-controlled environment. This off-site construction—also known as prefabrication or modular—could also count toward sustainability and environmental goals by reducing material waste, noise and air dust, as well as enabling circular building systems.

Consultant giant PwC expects the marketplace to shift, with investment in public sector infrastructure likely to increase to consolidate the recovery, while it believes portfolios will also change, “with both public- and private-sector project owners placing a new emphasis on sustainability and resilience.”

The trend to work from home will be continued by many, with employers addressing the needs and demands of staff who over the past two years have warmed to flexible working arrangements, including working from home.

This trend, PwC argues, will lead to greater investment in telecommunications and “smart city” initiatives, along with growth in the delivery of data centres to handle the increased flows of information traffic.

The COVID-19 pandemic unquestionably proved to be a shock to construction’s system, but lessons have been learned. As the sector emerges from the worst downturn in more than a generation it could be on track to embrace trends that were already emerging—digitalisation, flexible working practices, off-site manufacturing, etc.—and exploit them to the full.

The Hybrid Workplace Is Here. Will Construction Embrace It?