The push for widespread digital adoption had reached something of a plateau, when suddenly the pandemic ruled out the luxury of leisurely change. At a roundtable hosted by Bluebeam, professionals from across the industry discussed the recent changes – and what happens next
The construction industry has long recognised the potential for digital technology to improve productivity, advance construction techniques and put more emphasis on quality. That said, the journey towards digital transformation has not been a straight or rapid one. The BIM mandate helped, and some players have embraced new technology with enthusiasm, but others have made less headway, slowing the overall progress of the sector. Now the whole situation is suddenly changing, in the wake of a factor the industry could never have anticipated: coronavirus. The pandemic has forced firms to employ different – and for some, wholly unfamiliar – practices, with the working lives of many being altered beyond recognition.
So, what has changed as a result of the pandemic? What lessons have been learned from the experience? Will things ever go back to the way they were?
To discuss these issues Building, together with software experts Bluebeam, gathered together a group of leading professionals from across the industry, embracing construction, consultants, architecture and the legal profession. Building’s technical editor, Thomas Lane, who chaired the discussion, kicked off the online proceedings by asking how prepared people had been for the pandemic in terms of their digital capabilities.
Impact of the pandemic
Businesses have been discussing, designing and implementing digital transformation models for a number of years. Nick Cole, director of engineering consultant Robert Bird Group, said his firm had been doing so specifically in the area of design work for some time, but the pandemic had changed its perspective somewhat.
“It made us appreciate that digital transformation is a wider concept than we had thought. It goes beyond what we normally do as a core business. The past few months have made us more open-minded and think about it in a broader sense,” he said.
[The pandemic] made us appreciate that digital transformation is a wider concept than we had thought
Nick Cole, Robert Bird Group
Cole acknowledged his firm could have been more open to flexible working and how it approached people’s ability to work remotely. “But our IT team did a great job in getting everyone sorted,” he added.
Just as the pandemic has steered some firms towards new working methods, many businesses have been agile for some time, taking flexible approaches to work. Anne-Marie Friel, partner and infrastructure specialist at law outfit Pinsent Mason, said the investment her firm had made in recent years in upgrading its digital marketing platform had greatly enhanced its ability to connect with clients.
“We were already 80% agile in the UK offices and 50% in our wider business. The virus greatly accelerated the migration to MS Teams, and the new environment highlighted the importance of staying connected internally,” she said.
Friel noted another important issue, that of monitoring the wellbeing of staff who, having been accustomed to working in the social environment of an office, were now working at home, sometimes living alone.
This was a point taken up by Paul McNerny, director of UK building at Laing O’Rourke, who said his firm had been working to invest in and embrace a digital approach for the past 10 years: “Overnight we created a separation of our people from the projects they were working on. We had a lot of project-based people working from home and we looked at how to ensure the connectivity across our teams remained effective. We also wanted to ensure the wellbeing and mental health of our people.”
While many firms responded to the pandemic by using digital capabilities already in place, the virus forced businesses to look more broadly at how they worked in the new environment. Especially important was how to maintain the business’ culture, said Oliver Jones, research director at Ryder Architecture. It was this aspect that particularly helped his firm.
Round the virtual table
Mark Beard, chair of Beard Construction and president of the Chartered Institute of Building
James Chambers, regional director of Bluebeam
Nick Cole, director of Robert Bird Group
Anne-Marie Friel, partner and infrastructure lawyer at Pinsent Mason
Oliver Jones, research director at Ryder Architecture
Paul McNerny, director of UK building at Laing O’Rourke
Nelly Twumasi-Mensah, business projects and change lead for UK and Europe at Faithful+Gould
Will Waller, director of Arcadis
Todd Wynne, vice-president of strategy and partnerships at Bluebeam
“What prepared us really well going into the pandemic was very much the human trait, the strength of culture in the business. Everyone knew what they had to do. The culture bound us together.” Jones believes some other firms suffered during lockdown because they had “weak cultures”.
While the threat of covid meant working from home was a necessity for many, there were sometimes limitations due to individual circumstances, said Mark Beard, chair of Beard Construction. “We’ve made incremental steps over the past 15 years to introduce digital platforms across the business and ensure robust cyber security measures. What we weren’t able to test so easily was the ability of each individual to work from home effectively. It often depended on their own broadband situation.”
Before the pandemic, said Beard, there had beeen those who embraced technology readily and those who had said they’d do it tomorrow. “It turned out that ‘tomorrow’ arrived very quickly. People had to embrace it to hold onto their jobs.” And he noted that, come the pandemic: “The so-called ‘laggards’ were often the ones who embraced it quickly.”
Beard added that covid had made contractors “aware of how integrated and complex” some of the supply networks are.
For many, working from home and using new technologies has been a new experience. Across the whole economy, the number of those working remotely rocketed as the lockdown regime kicked in and offices became out of bounds.
In the case of consultant Faithful+Gould this leapt from around a third of its 2,000-plus staff pre-covid to almost 95% during lockdown, according to the firm’s business projects and change lead, Nelly Twumasi-Mensah. But staff were prepared because platforms had already been put in place, she added.
An interesting aspect of the pandemic was the new-found enthusiasm for mechanisms that had been available for some time. Twumasi-Mensah said: “Suddenly you’ve got everyone interested in tools that you’ve been trying to get them to use for years. If you’ve got the right set-up it’s easy to get training programmes up and running.”
What everyone accepts is that while preparedness has been key, by default the pandemic has proved to be a massive accelerator in terms of expanding the adoption of new technologies and new processes. James Chambers, regional director at Bluebeam, wondered what would be the next step.
He said: “We as individuals, as companies, have our own plans and ambitions around technology, but how will the adoption of the digital journey spill over into working with other projects, with team members, subcontractors and third parties? That’s yet to be answered.”
That the industry will return to its old ways of doing business is now almost inconceivable, given so much has been learned about how things can be done more effectively. Everything from design to drawing up contracts, from material supplies to activity on site will have been impacted. The question is to what extent these learnings will be used.
Todd Wynne, vice-president of strategy and partnerships at Bluebeam, said a key factor to emerge from the pandemic was that a “just-in-time” economy was simply no longer good enough. “We also need in place a ‘just-in-case’ economy. We need to see the supply chain getting to grips with how it goes about withstanding future shocks to the system.”
From a legal perspective, Anne‑Marie Friel had concerns around the complexities in the correct virtual execution of construction contracts, “a huge number of which since March I have absolutely no doubt have been executed incorrectly”. Collaboration has always been important, she said, but in the post-covid era there needs to be a reality check around what contracts actually say.
“We need to ensure everything is working together and reflecting outcomes that, frankly, are going to be in everyone’s interest if they are done correctly,” she said.
Not every company was up to speed with technology before the pandemic struck. Faithful+Gould’s Twumasi-Mensah highlighted the degree to which some firms had not progressed with digital technology as well as they might have done. “Where companies are and what’s going on within the client organisation as regards technology, these things matter. They have an impact on what we can do for them. Some haven’t invested before and don’t know what to invest in now.
“Those behind that curve will find things more challenging in the future. We should also allow ourselves to experiment more with new tools and technologies and be comfortable with that experience,” she said.
Laing O’Rourke’s McNerny noted the pandemic had forced the industry into places “we wouldn’t normally have gone to. We’ve seen how a lot of what we do can be done on these platforms, not least because in the current situation they have to be done that way. Whether it should continue that way going forward is the big debate. There’s a place for enabling technology. It should be used where it can drive out inefficiency and drive up value in a process.”
McNerny said the virus had also shown him that with a large number of staff able to work remotely and not be on site five or six days a week, not only can savings can be made but the work-life balance can be much more effective. “It’s also taught us that it would be a crime to settle back into any other way of working,” he added.
Another effect of the pandemic has been how technology has been used to aid collaboration and communication, and this can only be advanced further post-covid, believes Ryder’s Jones. “It has and can further simplify and make more effective the way we engage with communities at the co-design stage of a scheme. It also makes things like design reviews more democratic, allowing younger colleagues to have more of a voice,” he said.
And while many people adjust to new ways of working remotely in the longer term, for some there will inevitably be a drift back to office-based activity. This will present its own set of challenges, according to Robert Bird’s Cole. “People are going back to an office environment in what you might call a mixed mode; doing meetings in a room with some people face-to-face, while others dial into that meeting. My concern is that break in the interaction.
“It works either with everyone in the room or everyone being remote. We have to learn how to integrate these mixed-mode meetings so that it becomes the new normal. We cannot afford to lose what we’ve learned over the last six months.”
What’s at stake for the industry is perhaps neatly summed up by Arcadis director Will Waller. “All things considered, and with what we’ve all faced, the industry has worked pretty well throughout the pandemic. Yes, people have missed the social interaction, and the knowledge-sharing that comes with working alongside people. This is ultimately a collaborative industry. The challenge for us is how to keep people connected while using digital tools to add value.”
What is your one big takeaway from covid-19?
Mark Beard, Beard Construction: We can all do it if we have to do it. We’ve got more ability to embrace the new ways of working than we gave ourselves credit for beforehand.
James Chambers, Bluebeam: I’d say it’s the development of transparency, holistically, across the industry. As a sector we’re perceived to be behind the curve with new technology, but I’ve seen us as an industry that’s ready to adopt and adapt. We’re resilient and we have amazing opportunities ahead.
Nick Cole, Robert Bird Group: We have the perfect opportunity to take what we’ve learned since March and rewrite the rule book. We can tailor the experience of work to suit the individual and the work they are doing.
Anne-Marie Friel, Pinsent Masons: We don’t need to be in the office every day. We knew that already. We have a great opportunity to do things better than we did before.
Oliver Jones, Ryder: Everything we thought was on the horizon and would be here in a little while will be here a lot quicker than we thought. And now we know we are digitally proficient everything will come a lot quicker as well. Get on board now!
Paul McNerny, Laing O’Rourke: Let’s not miss the opportunity for this episode to accelerate the uptake of modern methods and the digitisation of our industry.
Nelly Twumasi-Mensah, Faithful+Gould: We should be cutting red tape around adoption or experimenting with new technology, whether that is at an organisational or individual level. We should have “sand boxes” where we let people play with new tools, where they can learn how to use them in their working lives.
Will Waller, Arcadis: From a construction industry perspective, the sector is more resilient and agile than perhaps people gave it credit for. We’ve got to hang onto the good stuff that has come out of the challenges we’ve faced in recent months and carry this forward.
Todd Wynne, Bluebeam: Things can be done quickly when there’s motivation and pressure. This pandemic has acted as a turbocharger, and the speed race is on. Let’s continue to accelerate.
To find out more about Bluebeam, contact the team at bluebeam.co.uk