Others around the world have come out of lockdown ahead of the UK, Gleeds chair Richard Steer looks at what we can learn about returning to work

A new phraseology has dominated all our lives for the last two months and it has evolved as the pandemic has swept through our country. We have gone from “following the science” to “flattening the curve, through to “tracking the R number and now we are into the “new normal” …

richard steer BW

If we viewed the banking collapse of 2008 as a nightmare, in economic terms alone the coronavirus of 2020 is the apocalypse. It is also an ever-changing scene without precedent. So one of the advantages of being part of a global organisation is that one can gauge the response of colleagues around the world to the situation as it evolves.

Many are now coming out of lockdown in its various forms and there is a learning opportunity here. At some point we all need to get back to work but this “new normal” will mean we need to adopt and adapt quickly.

We have live projects across 34 of India’s 39 states and some of those will open for business more quickly than others

Looking to our office in Mumbai, for instance, where India learnt from China and enforced a lockdown that closed everything. The country was shut down in less than half a day, which caused chaos initially but was enforced strongly by the police and army which ensured the new rules were well observed. There have been challenges. For example, when shutting down sites there was a situation in the industry where migrant labourers had no means of transport to reach home, and this will also present a challenge when opening them back up.

Since the outbreak began, we have been tracking India’s national government and regional state government responses weekly. We have live projects across 34 of the country’s 39 states and some of those will open for business more quickly than others. We therefore need quick, accurate intelligence covering when and how things are changing. Looking at the situation now, the sectors likely to spring back into action rapidly are data centres, logistics and office space, while hospitality and aviation are suffering at the moment.

We are finding that global organisations everywhere are using this time wisely and taking the opportunity to re-evaluate designs and undertake value engineering and cost engineering exercises. Some have slowed their programmes schedules but by utilising this “down time” to reappraise, greater efficiencies are being achieved.

One of New York schemes now has to have a full-time nurse employed to take the temperature of site operatives before they arrive and leave the job site

Moving across to the USA, in most areas except New York City construction has been considered an essential business and has either not stopped, or in the case of California, sites have reopened after only a brief closure. New York has had a huge death rate, not unlike us here in the UK, and this means that those in the industry are understandably cautious about returning to work. Enhanced health and safety measures on construction projects are very noticeable and expensive. One of our schemes now has to have a full-time nurse employed to take the temperature of site operatives before they arrive and leave the job site. The impact of additional measures on construction production could mean operations are up to 35% less productive.

In China, our colleagues here are only now slowly starting to return to their offices, around six months after the virus was first discovered. In Shanghai, construction sites were closed for 6 to 8 weeks but now all projects that we’re working on have re-opened except one. The authorities have been strict in ensuring adherence with spot checks and strong oversight

Finally, closer to home maybe we should be pleased we are not working under French rules which are very rigorous indeed. The authorities there are using severe fines to police construction. For someone to go to the office or attend a site meeting, the local business manager needs to sign off that the work can only be achieved in person rather than by remote working. If they are found to have approved a false statement, the fine can be upwards of €5,000 (£4,500). One small contractor of 30 people has told me that, to ensure his site accommodation and other sanitary measures meet the new health and safety protocols, his costs have risen by €150 (£130) per person per week. That is then £4,300 a week, or £16,500 a month. Multiply that by three, six, nine months and you start to see the impact.

So, if we take our lead from changes occurring now around the world, we are likely to see that health and safety will maybe shake off its old jobsworth image and assume a new credibility as it will be vital if work is to proceed. It will cost us all more to ensure we can all operate safely, and it will inevitably take more time and be more complex, with social distancing being a compulsory pre-requisite and not a voluntary suggestion. This is the reality we all now face. Who would have thought that we would look back at the financial crash of 2008 as a relative blip in terms of the disruption caused, in comparison to the swathes of changes brought about by coronavirus which heralded the beginning of the “new normal“.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide