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Has the construction sector benefited from some Covid-19 changes?

Better planning, more health and safety measures and general productivity improvements. These are just some of the improvements that construction sites have made since the coronavirus outbreak.

A lot has happened across the housing industry in recent months, and the construction sector in particular has seen some major changes. After an initial period of inactivity, where many building sites closed temporarily, much of the construction industry began to resume.

However, building sites put a number of new measures in place to adhere to new coronavirus guidelines. While they may have seen reduced activity overall, a new report shows there are some major benefits, too. Some of these new approaches could become embedded in the industry, says the study, meaning ongoing improvements within the sector.

The report, created by Loughborough University, used information gathered from a number of major construction groups. These included Balfour Beatty, GKR Scaffolding, Kier Group, Mace Group, Morgan Sindall Group and Skanska UK. It looked at six projects specifically, and covered topics such as planning, productivity, health and safety, management and technology use.

Early lessons for a new normal

One major difference seen post-Covid on building sites was better planning, productivity and tidiness, says the report.

“All five study sites had increased the time spent planning work and tasks,” it states. “There was a widespread view that planning in this way was beneficial, albeit time consuming: in most cases, it contributed to increased worker effectiveness and improved site tidiness.”

For example, many sites now implement a regular “six-week look-ahead” to forward-plan. They also conduct more detailed planning. As a result of fewer workers on site, there are also fewer materials, leading to better housekeeping. Enhanced cleaning measures also play a big part in this.

In terms of productivity, the report noted that there was a 50% reduction in workforce, but only a 30% reduction in output. While the aim will be to return to previously high levels of output, efficiency improvements will prove hugely beneficial.

An example of this includes fewer workers “hanging around” waiting to start tasks. The workflow is also more streamlined, due to staggering start times. Social distancing and one-way systems means “less chatting”, which again increases productivity.

Opportunities in these areas

These areas all present a variety of opportunities in the construction field. While on the downside, some of the processes may mean things take longer to complete, the report notes that developers must discuss which aspects of these changes can be taken into the future.

The report said: “Increased planning was necessary to sequence tasks more effectively. It also led to improved understanding of tasks – planning in greater detail, with less decision-making ‘on the hoof’.

“Planning to this level is not new, but it is perhaps one of those features which separates excellent projects from the rest and would benefit from being adopted more widely.”

“The benefits seen in tidiness and housekeeping partly related to having fewer staff and more sequenced work. However, they also reflected a change in culture, and improved enforcement on some sites and therefore could be sustainable. Planning had an impact here also, in ensuring that materials were not delivered before they were needed.”

Advances in technology

Undoubtedly, technology has proven to be indispensable in many ways throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. This applies to most sectors, but the construction industry has also adopted a more technology-focused approach.

The use of remote meetings has increased exponentially over recent months. The report believes this is an area where the change could become permanent. People responding to the report noted that even normally ‘IT-shy’ people had adapted to using remote meetings to keep in touch.

A number of sites are now also using more cameras and videos to share information, says the study. This technology could be useful for showing absent workers around sites, as well as architects and designers. Builders are also using cameras and videos to update clients and stakeholders on project progress.

The report adds: “Construction has been quite slow in adopting some technologies, such as remote meetings and virtual site tours. There is a big opportunity here to embed this, with cost savings, improved productivity and enhanced engagement.”

The future for construction

The study concludes that the construction sector has adapted extremely well to the challenges of Covid-19. It has shown its “flexibility, resilience, and ability to solve problems”, like much of the housing industry. The difficulties have challenged some conventional ways of thinking, leading to change for the better.

However, it warns that things could drift back to “business as usual” once more commercial pressures return. The building groups involved in the report believe companies should try to capture the positive changes made to try and embed them in future practice.

“It is equally important that the sector takes full advantage of this uninvited learning opportunity, engaging in wider discussions about the culture and accepted norms of construction and what benefits might accrue from rethinking these.”

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