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Scaling back up: How contractors can adapt to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

The second Dulux Decorator Centre webinar focused on practical guidance from contractors on how they have adapted to face the challenges of COVID-19.

Our panellists included Craig Bell, CEO of Bell Group, the UK's largest commercial painting and decorating contractors, Ben Doherty, managing director of Cousins Group, who provide painting and decorating to a wide range of public, private and main contractor clients. Alongside these two industry guests, we were also joined by John Henderson, managing director of Dulux Decorator Centre.

Below we’ve summarised the key learnings they all had for contractors currently scaling back up...

What are the key factors for businesses to consider as you scale work back up?

It’s important that we should all know and follow Government guidance for scaling back up. However, the panellists all felt that they know their businesses better than anyone and they can’t just rely on the Government to tell them all the details.

When Bell Group was making its decisions about how to scale activity, it applied the Government information to its plans. For instance, the two metre distancing regulations will not work in the office environment and as such they continued to follow a home working model for its office staff. On site, it was different; work was deemed to continue if the appropriate measures were introduced.

Health and safety management as well as the risk assessment process have long been a vital part of the construction sector and the new dangers associated with Coronavirus fall into this. For all tasks on site, workers are responsible for assessing if it safe to do so while maintaining social distancing. This must become another tier of the health and safety practices for the foreseeable future.

Many new measures have been brought into construction sites. This includes one-way systems for people, stricter controls for entry and egress, temperature checks for workers, changes to facilities such as canteens and toilets, as well as multiple hand sanitising facilities. Underpinning this is a shared ethos and understanding among all workers so they make the right decisions and feel supported in everything they do.

For Cousins Group, staff have been encouraged to consider COVID-19 working practices in the way they would previously have approached any other health & safety practices. For example, where you were previously encouraged to stop and talk with a colleague if you spotted a HSE breach, the same now applies to distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines. Cousins is ensuring the team never feel they can walk on by and ignore the guidelines.

Supporting the industry

Many aspects of the construction industry have been hard hit by the pandemic and the damage to the UK economy is likely to have a long-term impact on the scale of work going forward. It’s likely to be most vulnerable who will be hit hardest, such as the new apprentices coming out of college without employment opportunities. It is both the job of individual businesses and the country as a whole to support these people.

Thinking about the long-term health of the industry, there are positive long-term effects that could come out of this new way of working. The new social distancing measures, which limit the number of people possible on site at once, mean a greater focus on efficiency. Whereas previously, construction has very much been driven by numbers of people on site to drive output, the focus has switched to the optimum number people required at any one moment. This approach doesn’t mean less people on site, but more decorators working across multiple sites.

Craig outlined that Bell Group has established “work bubbles” with two or three decorators who always work together on a project, and who travel together to sites as well. Where more than three decorators are needed on a project the teams will be on site in their bubbles at the appropriate points. This is designed to mitigate the risks associated with the business suffering its own second peak just as work resumes.

Ben added that likewise improvements with cleaner facilities and working environments mean sites become nicer places to work and businesses can attract more people into the industry.

During the webinar, attendees asked about whether the panellist anticipated negative pricing pressures, particularly from main contractors. Value engineering has been a key ask from main contractors, particularly in the past few years, and it will continue to be so with many looking for savings and efficiencies throughout their supply chain. One anticipated addition to this as a result of COVID-19 will be this ask to also improve efficiency, while cost is a barrier moving forwards, so will time and HSE measures on sites and this needs to be factored in at the start of a project.

Finally, John Henderson outlined that Dulux Decorator Centre is launching a Workfinder to connect decorators to firms with jobs they need to fill. The lack of available labour is an issue for many of customers, while many sole traders who would normally work within people’s home have not been able to operate at all. By linking these two together, Dulux Decorator Centre hopes to create a partnership that benefits both parties.

In summary, as the situation now starts to improve, all the panellists highlighted they are now seeing what positives they can take from the time and use this moment to reflect on how they can improve as a business and overcome some of the bad habits of the industry.