It's about necessity. Anyone can cope with change as soon as they see that it’s for the better or because it needs to happen.
That’s a thesis that many organizations will have become familiar with over the past few months as the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in the prohibitive ‘not the way we do things around here’ rulebook being torn up in favor of a ‘quick decisions, action now’ approach to doing business.
In this case, it’s an argument put forward by Peter Williamson Business Systems Director at Knights Brown, an independent regional construction company in the UK which delivers civil engineering and building projects, with clients including the likes of Gloucestershire County Council and Associated British Ports.
The construction sector is an old one and one that is open to accusations of being set in its ways. Sometimes that could be for good purpose - health and safety rules are there for a reason, after all - but sometimes there’s room for a breath of fresh thinking and a new approach. COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns have been a trigger for that, says Williamson:
We’ve been able to push ahead with initiatives and get them done faster. This situation has given us an opportunity to push ahead with such initiatives because they make they make us more productive in these circumstances where people work from home. We’ve plowed on ahead with a number of process efficiency programmes because we can and we can get on with them faster.
And that’s particularly true when it comes to the take-up and use of technology in the construction sector, he adds:
What we're seeing now, in a rather traditional industry, is that people have been forced over the past three or four months into adopting technology to a far greater extent than they were they were able to previously.
A good case in point is Knights Brown’s own use of Skype for Business. The video-conferencing solution was already present within the organization, but adoption had not been widespread. That all changed once lockdown was introduced and remote working became a norm overnight. Williamson points out that this shift in operating model wasn’t entirely straightforward given the dependency on building sites:
Someone working from home can’t put pipes in the ground or one brick on top of another or supervise a construction site. So we had to very quickly undertake some risk assessments on what sort of work we could conduct safely from within our sites while still maintaining social distancing. That meant that almost overnight 40% of our sites had to shut, either because the nature of the work they were doing meant that social distancing was impossible or, in other situations, our supply chain wasn't able to support this because [providers] had shut down.
Not that Knights Brown was entirely unfamiliar with remote working anyway. There have always been people in port-a-cabins on building sites collaborating with colleagues at a desk back in the office. But from the point of view of people in roles such as IT, HR accounts and so on, the shift to home working was a radical change:
They were very much used to putting a shirt on and going to the office every morning and coming home at night. Fortunately, we did have the infrastructure in place. [to support remote working]. We had had Skype for Business for years, so we were ready to go. It was part of our business continuity plan that should the head shed burn down, what do we do? Well, we would go to work from home until such time as we had temporary offices set up. So in a sense, it was lucky that we had prepared for that.
The circumstantially-enforced tech adoption that resulted from lockdown has in fact gone down well, says Wliliamson:
Our site managers, our site foremen, site agents, our engineers, they have been remarkable. They've taken to the likes of Sharepoint and Skype for Business and things like that and just accepted the fact that this is how we communicate now with our support teams and have embraced it really enthusiastically. Similarly the support teams have managed really well as well. I don't think I'm telling tales out of school if I say that those on site aren't necessarily too upset about the fact that they don't have quite so many people from head office coming to visit. Perhaps they think without the likes of me and some of the other directors and perhaps health and safety coming along every couple of days, they might get more time to get on with whatever it is they need to get on with!
Joking aside, the changed way of operating has necessitated some changes of behavior:
The difference of course is how they’ve had to plan the work, the fact that they have to factor in, for example, social distancing. Does that mean we're as productive as we would like to be? No. Does it mean that we have had the hammer blow to productivity that we expected? Again, no. And why? Because jobs have had to be planned out in such a way that the way in which they’re run and the accuracy and quality are right first time because it's just got to be planned out until so much more detail.
One challenge from an HR point-of-view has been to ensure that there’s no divide emerging between those now working from the corner of the kitchen, surrounded by their kids and fighting for a share of the home wifi, and those still out in the field. Williamson explains:
We've still got our guys on site who by definition are key workers. It's important that they keep on going. You know, we're working on the M4 at nighttime, we're working on water infrastructure projects, it's important that these jobs carry on. It's important that across our business, we don't feel we’ve got ‘them and us”. We’re very much all in this together.
And that means being conscious of those remote workers who perhaps aren’t as comfortable with the experience as others:
It's been very different to how remote working was before, where we might have been a little bit shy and nervous of kids making noise in the background and things like that. That’s just all part of it now. For lots of people, it's working quite well; for others, it's not, either because they are just more comfortable with putting on a shirt and going to work in the morning, that’s their routine, or perhaps because they're not fortunate enough or at a stage in their life where they're able to have a different bit of their house or flat they can work from.
Building the future
With that in mind, Knights Brown intends to learn from the unavoidable circumstances of the last few months and use the experiences of the workforce to shape future directions. Williamson cites a survey that’s been sent out to all employees:
We sent out questionnaires to all our staff and said, 'We've been mobile working and under the COVID regime for a number of months now, so let's have a company-wide conversation about it. Let's accept the fact that now working from home has become a bit more normal, working remotely has become a bit more normal, tell us about your experiences. Tell us the good, the bad, the ugly. Tell us what your working hours were and now are and how you've had to adapt. Again, the good, the bad, the ugly.’ We're going to take all that [on board]. We're proud to say that we put our people first and we live and breathe that, so we’ll take all that back and we'll listen to it and we’ll adapt wherever we can just to find that new normal.
As to what that ‘normal’ will look like, there will changes to come, predicts Williamson, including around modern methods of construction:
That's things like building off site. It's properly adopting Business Information Modelling (BIM). It's looking at energy efficiency, both in terms of the design of what it is you're building, but also how it is you're building, improving productivity, reducing waste…The large tier one organizations have undertaken a lot of their projects using BIM and it's been mandated on public projects since 2016, but it's just not seen at even large and medium-sized [private] companies because there's no demand for it. Now that people are more familiar with collaborative technologies, I see the excuse for not using that approach falling away, so long as the procurement framework supports it.
From a specific Knights Brown perspective, there have been welcome advances in the use of technology to automate and enhance core processes:
We've had to take paper-based, wet signature forms and say, 'We've got to do this in a different way and do this in a smarter way’…we use things like SharePoint and used Power Automate to design workflows across documents that have to be authorised or transactions that have to be authorised. I can see us doing an awful lot more of that. My team is really busy doing both training in the systems we already have, but also building out our SharePoint capability because from there we can be much better collaborating on the documents and drawings.
We've found that it is entirely possible to do a tender finalisation with people working remotely. For some people that would have been unthinkable before. There's a range of different technologies that allow people to collaborate, not just on Word and Excel spreadsheets, but on large drawings to do mark-ups and things like that, and even visualisation. So, the technology is there; it's just the appetite or even the perceived need to adopt it hasn't been there.This pandemic has forced us to do that and so, in a positive way, I think we'll carry on with some of those really good processes.
And there are more changes to come, he says:
Although we're on Skype for Business, we're going to move to Microsoft Teams. We've already moved some of our guys across. And we’re totally starting again with our approach to not just document management, but data flow around our business so that we own one version of everything…I think that the change, for the most part, will be welcomed because now people can see the benefits of the technology because they've been using bits of it more and more over the past three or four months.
This use of modern technology as an enabler for change in an old industry is a concept that has gained credibility from the pandemic, he concludes :
Not just as a business, but across the whole cost, value risk, opportunity, how we work with our customers, how we work with our supply chain, our subcontractors and suppliers, technology makes all that smoother Construction and contracting is all about change. It's about adapting to it, agreeing to it and then get getting on with it. Anything where technology can enable our really good people to to do that better is all for the better.
But it’s still all about the people who make the construction sector work, he cautions:
[Technology] is still only an enabler; it’s not it's not doing the job. That’s the people who work for us and people who come to us to do the job.