The Major Projects Association convened a virtual roundtable discussion about the impact of Covid-19 on major project construction plans.  The Global pandemic of Covid-19 has brought many challenges and accelerated both problem-solving needs, and issues management across much of the construction industry.   The quick learning, and ways of operation across the industry is both vast and an opportunity to gain insight for shared learning, and to support wider construction through this.  The discussion included viewpoints from a mix of clients, consultants and contractors.  The discussion principally tried to answer the following questions:

  1. Within the Construction Industry, how are we modelling the change to our construction plans in the light of the impact of Covid-19 crisis, and the in the introduction of new ways of working.
  2. What assumptions are we making to construction plans for ‘Covid-secure’ compliant working on sites and what are the assumptions being made within this uncertainty through this thinking

The discussion covered a number of themes from on-site safety and rapid change in office utilisation to funding implications and the allocation of risk.  There was consensus that the Covid-19 crisis has enabled the industry – clients, contractors and consultants – to get rid of a lot of “clutter” and should be used as a catalyst for positive change.  All agreed that the rapid shift to digital, remote working had highlighted outdated work processes which could be removed or streamlined in future.

On-site safety

Contributors reported reduced numbers of personnel on site to comply with social distancing guidelines but were concerned about the lack of visible leadership on sites.  Social distancing created a conflict between providing leadership presence versus the very real need not to overload the site or public transport with too many people.  However, some reported fewer safety incidents, attributed not only to reduced numbers but also to the fact that personnel are having to think more carefully about activities which previously were second nature.  One contractor said that they had issued new safety controls on all their sites which were prompts rather than rules – requiring personnel to engage actively with the safety considerations.

Ironically, it was agreed that external construction sites have been easier to manage that office spaces, particularly when those offices were multi-occupancy.  The need to use lifts, fixed windows in tall buildings and air conditioning all contributed to making it difficult to make offices useable during the pandemic.

Office usage

Without exception, contributors to the discussion, believed that office usage will decrease post lockdown.  Remote working has been made possible for many through greater use of digital technology which has proved a positive solution for large numbers of employees.  Those with caring responsibilities in particular have felt the benefit of being based at home.  Many people have avoided long commutes and have been able to be more productive as a result.  However, it was noted that no everyone has the same access to strong WiFi or a quiet study in which to work.  Younger people in shared accommodation or those with children at home have found it more challenging to find a quiet place to work undisturbed.

This element of the discussion raised a number of questions about how we might work following lockdown:

  • Will we need so much office space in future? What will it mean for our office infrastructure?
  • If a future workforce is more home based can we still argue for “co-location” of project teams?
  • Longer term – will the move to greater remote working change house design and make us rethink our national infrastructure?

The benefits of digitisation

As office usage has gone down the utilisation of digital solutions to enable staff to continue working has gone up considerably. All of the roundtable contributors, without exception, spoke about the benefits of more digitisation.  For many the decision-making process has sped up, as in-person meetings which can take weeks to arrange have been replaced with video calls that are arranged at a day’s notice.  This greater speed has been necessary in cases where the changes brought about by Covid-19 have required organisations to be fleet of foot.  And it has further demonstrated that speed of change is both possible and positive.  One contributor shared that his organisation had rolled out Microsoft TEAMS to 400 staff in 6 days – a process which previously had been planned over a number of months.

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Diversity, clarity and wellbeing

Many of the roundtable contributors believed that new ways of working had created new ways of communicating which was not only of benefit to decision making but to employee wellbeing.  Clear protocols in virtual meetings enable all staff to have a voice and be heard and the ease of scheduling such meetings enables leaders to be more visible to the whole team or workforce rather than via the hierarchy of management.

And leaders have demonstrated that they are acutely aware that working remotely does not suit everyone.  As such there has been a significant increased focus on the wellbeing of staff throughout the pandemic which we hope will continue long after we return to “normal”.

For more about how the new conditions interface with issues around Diversity see our blog here: https://majorprojects.org/blog/lockdown-through-the-lens-of-edi/

Resetting and Reimagining a new future

All agreed that it was important not to return to the assumptions of the past.  In the medium term it was necessary to consider how to understand and contract for Covid related risks and delays to projects, and it was agreed that no one party could be expected to hold that risk.  Longer term, design solutions should not be defaulted to pre-Covid plans but instead should be interrogated and reset as necessary.

The Government’s desire to “build, build, build” was also discussed and contributors were adamant that so called “shovel ready” projects should be properly interrogated before being initiated.  It is important to question whether “shovel ready” projects which pre-Covid were considered necessary are indeed the right projects to pursue.   In terms of speed of delivery, which is important to Government, it was recognised that some processes cannot be accelerated – planning applications, proper governance and approvals for example.  Overall, the roundtable acknowledged the challenges ahead and were cautiously optimistic about the future.

Contributors to this discussion were:

Dr David Marsh, MoD – Roundtable Chair

Manon Bradley, Major Projects Association

Andrew Fotherby, WYG

Tony Gates, Sir Robert McAlpine

Darren James, Keltbray

Simon Mapes, Atkins, part of the SNC-Lavalin Group

Andy Murray, Major Projects Association

Andrew Nash, Balfour Beatty

Rob Stacey, Turner & Townsend

Nick West, TfL

Heidi Waggett, MoD

Richard Whitehead, AECOM

 

Manon Bradley, Development Director, Major Projects Association