We had the opportunity to talk to John Waterman, a director and chief operating officer of Willmott Dixon Construction; a £1 billion turnover company working in a variety of sectors.
He was able to give us up-to-the-minute insights into how large construction firms are adapting their operations to help them deliver a service that is aligned with the construction industry’s new working practices.
The biggest changes to on-site working practices
The priority now is reducing the spread of COVID-19 on-site. This means keeping people at a safe distance and looking closely at the whole infrastructure of sites.
This includes the way people move around. Many sites have introduced one-way systems for people, which were previously reserved for transportation. Entry and egress are now strictly controlled. Sites have had to expand their welfare facilities so workers can use canteens and toilets while keeping a safe distance.
Other things include making sure hand sanitising facilities are now available so people can clean their hands coming in and out of the sites. All of these measures contribute to making the environment feel safe in terms of operation.
One of the most significant changes is probably the approach to activities. Construction has very much been driven by numbers of people on-site to drive output. Things are now shifting towards a measured approach to planning activities, considering the optimum number of people needed to do a job while maintaining a safe distance. Not only has this led to safer working environments but a greater focus on productivity.
What are the main concerns of the sub-contractors and on-site teams?
The main concern from everybody, whether they’re customers, partners, supply chain management, is safety.
This is another reason why the measures outlined above are so important - they reassure the team that the business they work for cares about their welfare and helps them to feel safe while doing their job.
How do businesses up-scale activity when the workers return from furlough?
The first thing is to accommodate the changes they see on the sites, such as social distancing and hand sanitising facilities.
It’s key to make sure that all people on-site have an open mindset to the new environment and a respect for other’s safety. Resisting the changes will ultimately cause difficulties for the people around them and the business as a whole.
Second, is looking at activities from a productivity perspective rather than simply a number-of-people mindset. The key consideration is how you can achieve your task in the most optimum way. This means thinking about the fewest number of people required for an activity so social distancing can still be observed.
In particular regarding decorating, there has been a habit of starting activities too early, so workers often end up working on top of each other. Work must follow a tightly ordered sequential model to prevent this and improve efficiency.
What positive long-term effects could come out of this new way of working?
With the greater focus on ordered time plans, it means suppliers can be more productive and cheaper for the main contractor.
It is important that site managers and business leaders appreciate that a sign of a productive site is not how many people are working on top of each other. Instead, it is one that is well-run with all those present being productive.
Ultimately, a better-controlled site is a more efficient site and therefore more profitable for our supply chain.
The future for the construction industry over the next six to twelve months
Over the past couple of months, Willmott Dixon Construction has seen certain projects paused. Particular sectors, such as higher education which no longer have any overseas students coming in, are struggling and are having to immediately cancel work. However, overall, these cancellations have not yet been significant to the overall business.
Other emerging trends are customers expecting to see some benefit to prices in relation to the expected recession, which has led to some challenges on pricing. A more competitive environment is likely to grow from this.
In the longer term, John expects work coming from certain industries will reduce. In particular, projects from commercial office space will likely be downscaled as more businesses realise they don’t need large workplaces as they embrace more remote working practices.
On the other side, industries, such as social housing and healthcare, will maintain work and potentially grow in the future. The message from the Government is that they prefer to invest through this crisis, rather than introducing austerity measures. It is, therefore, more likely we will see a focus on public spending. Those involved in public sector industries are cautiously optimistic about the future as decision-makers resist the option to delay projects but instead opt to push forward and protect jobs.