New research from Loughborough University suggests that better planning during lockdown had a positive effect on construction site productivity.
In a report titled "COVID-19 and construction - Early lessons for a new normal?" the research team found that advance planning, rapid decision-making and site reconfiguration had overall been positive for site productivity and could have important implications for the construction industry in the post-pandemic world.
More time, better outcomes
Researchers found that site managers who spent more time on planning tasks and better forward planning were able to avoid an overlap between trades and sequence work more effectively.
By deploying frontline workers in smaller groups working in sequence rather than side by side, efficiency and productivity have increased and both on-site housekeeping and logistics have improved.
Professional, admin and managerial staff, in particular, reported an increase in productivity and wellbeing, while increased frontline worker effectiveness reduced costs and improved health and safety.
Some construction firms interviewed reported that a 50% reduction in the workforce had only led to a 30% reduction in output, while others estimated that 7 workers could achieve the output of 10 under the new ways of working. Those interviewed for the research generally felt that individual productivity had improved, despite the overall dip in productivity.
Opportunities for construction
The research, financed by Balfour Beatty, Keir, Mace, Morgan Sindall Group, Skanska and GKR Ltd., identified a number of opportunities for the construction industry as we move forward into the 'new normal.' The perceived benefits of better planning, sequencing and execution could influence more flexible working patterns with the enforced culture change of better housekeeping seen as a sustainable improvement.
In addition, there's an opportunity to increase the expectation for specialist subcontractors and frontline workers to fully participate in improving and maintaining site practices rather than relying on the Tier 1 constructor.
Covid-19 has also heightened the necessity for consistent and clear messaging on health and safety and there are opportunities to embed better messaging to create good habits.
However, the report also highlighted the benefits of designed solutions rather than relying solely on behavioural change. In fact, improved standards in hygiene and welfare provision were identified as a critical benefit of the coronavirus crisis.
Construction has been slow to adopt beneficial technologies including remote meetings and virtual site tours and the pandemic has highlighted the opportunity to embed these technologies in a cost-effective way across the industry. The report sites one example of a manager using his phone to demonstrate Covid-19 site reconfiguration to 100 colleagues who could then replicate the same measures.
While the construction sector has a reputation for tending to stick with the tried and tested, the Loughborough research shows an industry flexible enough to respond to the crisis and emerge with workable solutions in place.
Covid-19 may have opened the door to unprecedented change in the construction industry with the adoption of improved health & safety measures, flexible working and a shift towards digital adoption. The challenge will be for the sector to identify what mechanisms need to be put in place to retain these good behaviours across the workforce.