From soaring productivity levels to greater collaboration and innovation, there are a lot of positive things going on in the industry at the moment, Ann Bentley says
There is a lot of doom and gloom out there at the moment. From news about the domestic implications of a second wave of covid-19 to its on-going global economic impact, it is all very sober reading and watching.
As I scroll through the stories, it is not lost on me that we are seeing similar headlines in the construction sector at the moment – the talk is about contractual disputes, lack of accountability, toxic supply chain relationships, falling productivity, redundancies and how construction cannot attract talent as it is not really an attractive place to work.
But while it is incontrovertible that covid-19 has had a horrendous health, social and economic toll, the real picture in construction is more nuanced and there is so much good going on.
We have also seen pragmatic approaches by clients and the supply-chain, underpinned by clear guidance from the government
Construction productivity only suffered a short-term dip and, in some areas, it is now higher than pre-covid levels, as contractors and consultants adopt more agile and innovative ways of working. While we should not underestimate the contractual fall-out, we have also seen pragmatic approaches by clients and the supply-chain, underpinned by clear guidance from the government. We were also one of the first sectors to launch a talent retention scheme. But no one tends to talk about these so much.
In my last column, I wrote about the work that the Construction Industry Hub is undertaking on its value toolkit – a gamechanger that will allow us to drive better social, environmental, functional, quality and economic outcomes through value-based decision-making.
Over the past six months, I have also been actively involved with some of my colleagues from RLB and many other organisations with the CLC’s Road to Recovery plan and, only last month, the Construction Knowledge Task Group launched its new standard that will help practitioners find the knowledge they need, when they need it.
All of these things are making massive strides forward, helping to take the industry to a better practice with long-term, value-based solutions for the built environment.
But we cannot be complacent, and, while it might be over-stretching a point, are there lessons to be learnt for construction from the different approaches that countries have taken to the pandemic?
Much coverage was generated about the controversial strategy the Swedish government followed in the early days, not locking down like the rest of Europe, but putting clear, firm guidance in place about how people were expected to behave. Instead of changing tack and messaging at different points of their pandemic journey, they outlined their strategy, stuck to their principles, engaged their nation in adhering to these principles and now have some of the lowest infection rates in Europe.
Collaboration is about working together to deliver common goals, not rhetoric, and not just when times are tough
Yet, so far I have not seen much reporting about this good news. It feels a bit like we are back in the playground and giving all the attention to the naughty children while the studious kids work their way to success, quietly and without much praise or acknowledgement.
In the UK politicians repeat that this is no time for party politics, but the time to work together to do the right thing for the nation. To me there is still an undertone of “one-upmanship” which destroys any real hope of collaboration.
Perhaps this is another lesson that our industry can learn from the pandemic? Collaboration is about working together to deliver common goals, not rhetoric, and not just when times are tough. And yet, to the surprise of many, the pandemic has meant that those from disparate parts of our industry have put their opinions and egos aside and agreed on a way forward – and we can build on this.
As an industry, now is the time to bring our collective issues to the fore, support others and drive forward for the greater good, not just for our own organisations. An initiative that showcased this for me was the dispute avoidance panels that Network Rail has introduced.
Using dispute consultants who would normally be involved in construction claims, they have turned the process on its head and directed them to look at the design and delivery process and highlight what is likely to end up as a dispute. They have thus been able to build corrective measures into the project from the beginning and therefore, by default, much of the bad news never happens.
It is a similar picture with environmental issues: while we still have a way to go to address key concerns affecting our sector, environmental considerations are now mainstream, both to gain planning consent and in clients’ performance demands.
At RLB we have committed to being net carbon zero by 2025 and already have made mammoth steps towards meeting this target. This is being driven by a community of staff and is focused by a demand for change from staff and customers alike. We are seeing similar cast-iron commitments across our industry every month, so momentum is really building.
We are in this together, so let’s talk about the future openly, be transparent, honest and forward-thinking. Let’s put right the bad bits, celebrate the good guys, share our successes and put our energy into producing the best solutions for our country at a time when it needs us to help lift it out of the economic downturn that we face.
In doing this, we will also change the way people feel and think about our industry.
Ann Bentley is a global board director of Rider Levett Bucknall, a member of the government’s Construction Leadership Council and also a member of the CBI’s construction council