Remote work construction COVID-19

How Remote Working Can Support the Construction Industry During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused industries around the world to find new ways to operate while adhering to social-distancing rules. For businesses, remote working has become the norm, making use of teleconferencing tools like Zoom, which has seen its daily active user base grow by 67 percent since early January. And while some industries have been able to transition more easily than others, areas that rely heavily on in-person work (like labor jobs in the construction industry) have been hit hardest.

In the construction sphere, site closures and severe project delays and cancellations have posed serious problems. Nonetheless, people, not machinery nor technology, are at the core of the construction, and there is hope that the industry can survive. Many administrative tasks can already be done from a distance, while new demand for hospitals and shelter can also be organized remotely. 

Although remote work is certainly creating difficult times for construction, there is still momentum in the industry moving forward. 

It’s worth remembering that IBM made headlines in 1997 as one of the first Fortune 500 companies to enable its employees to work from home. By 2009 it had 40 percent of its 386,000 employees working remotely, highlighting the capability for non-traditional remote industries to function off-site. 

Bypass ‘essential’ status needed for on-site operations

In the U.S, state authorities are responsible for deeming which industries are classified as ‘essential’ and allowed to continue operations during quarantine measures. On-site construction in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington has been ordered to come to a complete halt. However, locations that are granted ‘essential’ status have to deal with a slower supply chain, as overseas factories where the building materials are produced are closed. 

On the flip side, employees who are remote do not need to be confirmed ‘essential’ to continue their work, and so are facing fewer blocks in processes and tooling. Fostering client relationships and retaining stakeholders are some of the key tasks in construction right now, all of which can be done from home, without pending ‘essential’ approvals. For this reason, the construction industry can continue its communications and stay informed about stakeholders. 

Facilitate admin for emergency projects

Greater pressures on healthcare services have caused a surge in the demand for new hospitals to treat people with the virus. In China, the Leishenshan Hospital was built in 12 days, providing 1,600 beds for patients; in the UK, the NHS Nightingale, with 500 beds, was built in nine days. Over in Philadelphia, the new University of Pennsylvania hospital was originally scheduled to open July 2021, but is now anticipated to open by mid-April. The speed at which these hospitals have been completed is extremely impressive and a testament to the talent of the construction industry. 

Remote work is just as vital among these emergency projects as on-site work. Remote employees can check contracts, interpret key figures, resolve disputes, develop strategies, and optimize processes. Additionally, they can design marketing campaigns, like the one being led by an Australian construction firm spreading awareness about safe practices while working during the outbreak.

The contribution of people in construction has not gone unnoticed by authorities either. The UK government recently published a letter thanking construction workers (on-site and remote) for their commitment to the nation’s infrastructure.

New internal policies for firms

Adopting new technology is one of the most impactful ways the construction industry can stay afloat right now. Not only can technology improve conditions for on-site employees, it can also facilitate remote work in the future. Robotics, augmented reality, 3D printing, drones, and cloud software services have begun to be integrated in the industry, but COVID-19 could be the necessary push to implement the tech on a wider scale.

As well as provide a more efficient foundation for remote work, these types of technologies addresses pre-existing issues in the industry like skills shortages and outdated collection processes.

In fact, some construction firms are gradually introducing new internal policies to prepare employees for the move to technology. At Messer Construction, employees can take their computing devices home each day so they have constant access to the intranet, project information, and file storage. Ferry Electric has upgraded network capabilities so 100 percent of office employees can work from home. Monograph is looking to cloud-based solutions tailored to the current needs of professionals in the construction industry. And, Skender is offering tutorials, videos and training in case workers are unfamiliar with new technology.

Looking to the future

Construction will always require on-site personnel to actively build and lead teams. The cost of the sudden arrival of COVID-19 in the industry is already being felt, as 25 percent of U.S firms have laid off staff due to the outbreak. No doubt, construction companies will feel even more negative effects as time passes and the industry’s lack of experience with remote working leaves it more vulnerable to the business pitfalls of the pandemic.

Nonetheless, it’s becoming more apparent that many of the day-to-day tasks do not have to be completed in-person. Instead, technology can bridge the gap between on-site staff and remote workers, meaning construction has more scope to operate amidst troubling times. This innovation combined with the need for hospitals and shelter, demonstrates the real value of construction in society, and provides a possible pathway for it to function well into the future.