The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the construction industry, engineering community, and global marketplace over the course of the past year. The industry has faced impacts including government mandated closures, project shutdowns and suspensions, manpower drawdowns, supply chain and procurement issues, solvency issues with subcontractors and other partners, productivity declines due to added worker safety requirements, and reductions to financial backlogs and corporate project portfolios. The pandemic has also exasperated skilled labor shortages that have plagued the industry for the past decade. Though these impacts vary geographically and by market sector, the coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way day-to-day business is conducted and given the industry an unsolicited growth opportunity.
Clearly, COVID-19 has forced nearly all workplace cultures to pivot and adapt to virtual meeting environments and the construction industry is no exception. Social distancing requirements, frequent quarantining, and work-from home mandates have forced construction management professionals to hone their virtual meeting skills – it is no longer acceptable to be the guy who cannot find the mute button! Virtual meeting environments have established benefits in cost, productivity, and work life balance flexibility and generally result in participants who are better prepared and eager to be efficient. The pandemic has also led to a necessary efficiency evaluation of in-person interactions, often leading to shorter meetings or a reduction in the quantity or frequency of meetings. However, while coordination meetings, hiring interviews, job pursuit evaluations, and even building inspections may have moved to virtual settings during the pandemic, construction has and will always remain operationally centered around a physical project site. Construction functionally cannot proceed with everyone working from home and without labor forces physically interacting. Pivoting to remote working also poses a risk to workplace harmony between workers who can perform their work remotely and those whose responsibilities require them to be on site every day.
The reduction of travel for construction support staff and the establishment of remote working has increased the need for progress documentation technologies like webcams, UAV/drone flights, and 360-degree cameras to conduct virtual job walks and mitigate the inability to physically be at the construction site. Though these technologies are not new to construction professionals, the pandemic has born out their ultimate return on investment during trying times. These COVID-proven benefits on relatively low-fi technologies also speak towards the next wave of technological advancements beginning to gain footholds in the construction industry: prefabrication, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Though prefabrication is currently deployed on certain strategic construction product types, utilizing engineering technologies to prefabricate portions of a construction installation away from the project site has never been more attractive given its ability to keep workforce populations spread across multiple workplaces. While often skeptically viewed as a future tool for physical installation replacing human labor, initial pilots of robotic technology in the construction industry have shown inherent benefits towards progress and quality assessment, allowing construction management professionals to work remotely more easily. Harnessing artificial intelligence to mine project data and assess construction progress can also lead to better sequencing decisions and optimized project plans.
COVID-19 has ultimately exposed the vast need for risk modeling for all construction stakeholders. It is paramount for construction organizations to understand the areas of risk and uncertainty within their cost estimates, manpower plans, and project schedules by determining what the most likely, optimistic, and pessimistic outcomes may be. COVID-19 has especially demonstrated the need for risk analysis within procurement tracking (analyzing international versus domestic supply chains), manpower uncertainty on task durations, and subcontractor strength, experience, and capability. Risk analysis must also be applied to corporate project portfolios to understand uncertainty and financial exposure on in-progress, committed, or active pursuit projects. Many software solutions provide the ability to conduct risk analysis through probabilistic simulation, but any successful risk analysis program must be one that is thoughtfully customized to the individual organization.
In all industries and most aspects of daily life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there exists a desire to return back to normal. The construction industry has always been particularly susceptible to deferring to the way it has always been done. Predictably, the construction industry has also consistently lagged behind other industries in productivity growth over the last half-century as documented in an oft-cited report from the McKinsey Global Institute. Accordingly, it is in the construction industry’s best interest to resist that habitual temptation and utilize the lessons learned from COVID-19 toward a more efficient and productive future. An August 2020 study conducted by Loughborough University in concert with several major construction industry partners in the United Kingdom found that the COVID-19 pandemic has, in fact, driven several improvements to construction management processes and overall productivity. For example, there is evidence that planning processes instituted to reduce contact as a result of physical distancing requirements has exposed inefficiencies and had a net positive affect on workflow and labor effectiveness. In addition, many safety and hygienic practices that have sprung from pandemic-induced conditions should remain best practices for the future. Rather than returning to the way it has always been done, perhaps COVID-19 has shown the industry that this is how it should have been done all along.