It is the most pressing issue in our world today and Covid-19 has certainly had an effect on every single industry. Non-essential construction work may have come to an abrupt halt, but there is a silver lining for every cloud. We discuss the positive influence of the global pandemic with Ben Coombes, Director of Quantity Surveying at MacConvilles.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the negative impacts of Covid-19, but with every negative there are always opportunities and positives to be found. In your view, what are the positive aspects on the horizon for us in business and construction?
Well, I think the obvious one is technology. The use of office space post-Covid 19 must be questioned because studies carried out recently have shown that home-working has increased productivity for many office-based businesses. So, the question about how much bricks and mortar you need for your business must be on the agenda, I would have thought. This will hopefully also act as a catalyst for the use of common data environments and the push towards greater use of building information modeling across design and supply teams.
We’ve seen the impetus in technology in terms of using tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and software like that. I’m sure that if we can get design teams operating more on a global basis, even via technology, that that will be a great boon for the industry. And we can see that happening already, so I’m sure our current situation will be a further push.
Then, I think some of the longer term trends in the industry, such as climate change and ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) will become more important in investment and procurement decisions. And, I think again, the virus will make us think in terms of trying to achieve more for less, so it may hasten the drive towards modern methods of construction and off-site fabrication in terms of social distancing.
As surveyors, we have access to video conferencing, powerful apps, laptops, the internet and social networking, so we are basically able to do most of the stuff that we can do in the office, which is fantastic. If it was 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have been in that position. A lot of us would have been sitting there with no more than emails, trying to get things done.
Looking forward, do you want business to return to normal again?
Inevitably, once the restrictions are lifted, there’ll be some kind of a novelty for people to be able to go back to the office and interact. It would be great to get back and meet people again, but once that’s worn off, we will have to review how things are done. I don’t think all offices will shut, there’ll be some kind of halfway house whereby more agile working becomes the norm.
Unfortunately, we are in the middle of an enforced social experiment. And the results of where we are will dictate the decisions made in the future. I think a lot of companies will look at the office space they have and the way that they work and inevitably it will speed up the natural process that we will have been heading towards anyway. So, what might have taken 20 years to do, we might now manage in five years. So it’s all very, very positive, but I think it’s something that we would have got to anyway.
What can the construction industry learn from this?
A lot of processes will be speed up. I mean just looking at the construction of the Nightingale hospital, for example – it was just amazing to see how quickly that got built. I know that most of the restrictions were totally relaxed for that project and I’m not suggesting that everything will be that quick, but there must be some questions about how things can be improved.
What is the most important lesson learned so far during this pandemic and how can it help make the construction sector better?
Construction is central to stimulating the economy post virus and the surveying community has got to come together to bring forward practical solutions to governments around the world in terms of how that recovery is going to work through collaboration.
I think another important lesson is for surveyors to consider in advance of entering into a project, certain factors that now may become a common occurrence, such as the need to close down the site and the need to open up again; the need to de-mobilise and then mobilise again in a short space of time. It will also mean looking at provisions in contracts, which one doesn’t normally look at, for example, how long do you allow parties to terminate a contract after a suspension event.
Digitalization and the move towards technology is going to be more paramount now than ever, and I hope this enforced way of working speeds up the process and is not just a novelty. The communication we’ve seen has been great and the trust in working digitally is something which has improved. I think we have learned that you can work digitally and people can share data and that is what has happened. There has, perhaps, in the past been a thought that people shouldn’t be allowed to work at home without feeling that they’re not being productive, but that simply isn’t the case.
If you were talking to someone considering going into surveying at the moment, or perhaps part way through their APC, what would you say?
For someone entering the industry, I would say this situation is temporary and when we come out of this, there will be a bounce back because there’s going to be a lot of projects that are mothballed and a lot of projects that still have the intention to go ahead at some point. So, we are going to need good professionals and we’re going to need the professionals who are going through their RICS, so there’s no reason to change course on where you’re going. I think that the profession is going to need bright young people coming through, so I would definitely say, stick with it.
Will the pandemic lead to longer and perhaps more realistic contract periods?
I think, yes. We, as a profession, should encourage contractors to give proper programmes and it’s up to us to make sure we’re analyzing tenders for accuracy and we’re not rewarding incorrect programmes. All too often, clients take the lowest price with the unrealistic programme, despite what we advise them. Perhaps this will lead towards selecting tenders based on the median values and programmes rather than the lowest cost.
While we focus on the present, and what we can achieve from our home offices, we are also excited for the future – our business is ready to evolve with our environment. Our style of work may have changed, but we are still doing what we can from home. If you have a project that you’d like to see take shape once the lockdown has been lifted, contact us at MacConvilles and let us get planning for you.