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The Effects of COVID-19 on the Construction Industry

Date: 26th October 2020 Utilities & Civils

In less than a year, COVID-19 has impacted every single industry across the globe. While some industries have thrived, many have faced enormous challenges to overcome the potentially damaging effects of the virus.

In this article, we discuss the challenges faced by the UK utility and construction industry and unpack how stakeholders are overcoming these issues with promising and positive results.

Project Delivery and Efficiency

Given the nature of the construction industry, it would be fair to assume that project delivery and key deadlines have been hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

As a result of lockdown measures introduced in the first quarter of 2020, many projects came to a grinding halt. At first, concerns over the clarity regarding government guidance on workplace safety within the construction industry posed a real challenge, but with further clarification many operators have re-organised to return to work and push through in these uncertain times.

Discussing the challenges faced with social distancing in a naturally physical industry, a commissioned study from Loughborough University has identified that construction organisations have split large work teams down into smaller groups to carry out work in relay with one another, and external trades are working around each group shift.

This reorganisation allows companies to maintain social distancing measures and minimise the risk of viral transfer between colleagues. Positively, the study has found that shift alternation between each work team has encouraged greater internal motivation and increased productivity for organisations.

However, reports do not ignore the adverse effects felt by some during this period. The combination of reorganising complex project structures, adopting and implementing new workflows, and ensuring employee engagement has placed increased pressure on site managers and supply chain operators. This reinforces the need for recovery to support employee wellbeing, particularly at this time.

Rethinking Construction Methods

For utility projects in particular, application and construction will need to take place on-site. Whether it’s applying underground cable protection or installing new gas pipelines, work needs to be carried out on-site.

However, modular construction has been proposed to support productivity and bypass the struggles faced by a traditional working environment in a post-COVID-19 world.

Modular construction is the building of resources off-site, with supply occurring once assembly has been completed. Once built, the item (for example, an exterior wall panel) can be brought on-site for immediate application.

Adopting this workflow can not only improve time management KPIs, but it has also allow companies to reduce the frequency of deliveries while minimising the amount of materials held on-site. With fewer deliveries required, this, in turn, reduces the number of external parties entering sites. This enables organisations to become more COVID-secure and reduces the risk of viral transfer between workers.

Centriforce’s Stokbord Drum follows a similar modular principle for long-distance cable protection. Traditionally, utility protection tiles would be laid individually with workers required to peg them together which can involve close physical teamwork.

Supplied on a single industrial reel, our Stokbord cable protection drum can be simply rolled into the trench above cables and pipelines with the use of machinery. Introducing Stokbord Drum to this workstream allows companies to reduce the requirement for close proximity teamwork on utility protection installations.

Adopting New Technology

At the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020, UK government guidance encouraged employers to arrange for employees who could work from home to do so – and this has transformed the way teams communicate across many industries.

Construction naturally requires a physical presence for many team members; however, the adoption of virtual meeting software has been necessary to maintain social distancing and safety measures amongst colleagues, while also posing time-saving benefits for organisations.

Hosting remote meetings allows construction companies to spend less time planning and organising for a single discussion. Workers can share updates directly from project sites, offering digital tours and reviews to colleagues based off-site or working from home.

Employees can join discussions from anywhere in the world, without the need to travel or reschedule busy calendars. In turn, updates and decisions can be reached much more efficiently without the setbacks often faced in traditional meetings.

The pandemic has also accelerated the adoption of digital project management software. Often due to time, cost, and complexity, many organisations had been apprehensive to fully implement new digital work systems. Now in the midst of a pandemic, there is a greater need to act innovatively and introduce faster, digital alternatives to manual processes.

Construction companies are turning to cloud-based project management software to maintain high organisation and consolidate functions such as project scheduling, supply chain and logistics, financial reporting and much more. With greater visibility of operational activity, leaders can make more informed project decisions and better guide their teams through uncertain times.

It should be recognised that training may be required by more tech-averse employees to get up to speed with software usage. While this may take time, it allows organisations to find new and innovative ways to introduce technology into their workforce.

Housekeeping and On-site Safety

As increased hygiene measures are introduced, the need for workplace housekeeping has increased for many organisations.

Pre-pandemic, large scale projects in particular required continual maintenance due to high traffic and material levels – now in 2020, this need has grown. We’ve discussed the change in shift patterns to relay-driven workflows, and this has encouraged workers to maintain clean and tidy spaces ready for the next team to work.

Equipment, tools and materials can suffer unnecessary wear and damage when neglected – and as workers engage with necessary hygiene measures, their teams are also taking greater care of their work environment and the equipment used. This is leading to a reduction in avoidable project costs and time wasted organisation replacements.

Improved housekeeping has also been reported within the six projects studied by Loughborough University. Increased cleaning and maintenance measures are in place on-site to support a safer working environment for all. This, in turn, has helped to mitigate potential issues arising as a result of COVID-19 such as a reduced workforce, while further increased staff motivation.

The New Normal for the Construction Sector

The utility and construction industry has faced many challenges stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak. However, many organisations have developed innovative solutions to overcome the adverse effects and turn them into a positive.

Not forgetting the devastating effects felt by the world in this pandemic, this period has demanded acceleration within the construction industry to increase project efficiency and embrace technological changes to support the success of major utility projects and their keyworkers.

Where our recycled damage prevention products are required, Centriforce will continue to support our utility and construction partners in key industries including electricity, water, gas and telecoms.