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New ways of working

A shift to blended working

In what is described as a snapshot on the impact of COVID on construction The University of Loughborough (COVID-19 and construction: Early lessons for a new normal? Loughborough University August 2020) interviewed a range of professionals about their COVID experiences, they included construction directors, construction managers, sub-contractors and health and safety professionals. The increase in working from home for those in suitable roles was identified as a generally positive trend, with potential for long term use, but with some potential downsides. The positives were thought to be;

  • Improved productivity and reduced distraction were reported (these factors were also reported by those who remained working in the offices, which now have fewer occupants)

  • Reduced travelling, improved work-home balance

  • Reduced costs (for individuals and projects)

However, the negative aspects were identified as;

  • Social isolation and poorer well being/mental health for some

  • Risk of over-working for some

  • Lost benefits of ‘grapevine’ interactions

Several interviewees who had previously been highly suspicious that working from home equated to watching daytime TV were now strongly in favour and would seek to embed its use on future projects provided it was actively managed, for example;

  • Suitable workspace and equipment will be essential e.g., not working on laptops at the kitchen table

  • Regular ‘site days’ will be essential to maintain relationships, ensure employees stay up to date and maintain team cohesion to avoid any ‘us and them’ mentality

  • Clear expectations are needed regarding expectations and working hours; hours might be variable and flexible but must still be constrained

The biggest change in technology use was the increase in remote meetings. This is another area where the changes made in response to COVID-19 may well become permanent. Many commented on how effective remote meetings had been and were amazed at how they and their colleagues had adjusted, even those with relatively low IT literacy. In addition to reducing time needed for travel, remote meetings were seen as being more efficient (e.g., one hour rather than two or three), with less time wasted getting cups of tea or having toilet breaks, and less chit chat. The fact that there were fewer meetings overall was also identified overall as a benefit – many meetings now just do not happen, involve far fewer people or have been replaced by site-based discussions.

Many leading quantity firms have been the industry’s keenest advocates for new ways of working, with some firms stating they want to cut down the number of desks by as much as 40% with staff expected to come into the office two to three days a week. One large quantity surveying practice added: “It’s about how we develop meeting space, communal space rather than the factory of 9-5. That thinking has gone.” In a major study by consultancy Timewise ( ) in 2022 involving four firms – Skanska, BAM Construct, BAM Nuttall and Willmott Dixon all adopting new models of working on a range of sites across the country. The goal was to identify if it was possible to achieve without budgets or deadlines being affected, across a range of sites and projects. The study took place in a range of locations, from a HS2 site in London through to a substation build near Weston-Super-Mare and with teams of between 14 and 120 workers. None of the firms reported negative impacts on budgets or time frames and some suggested there may have been productivity gains with the proportion of workers who said their working hours gave them enough time to look after their own health and well being increased from 48% to 84%. A year on, all four contractors have chosen to continue with their flexible practices, and all have reported a drop in illness rates among their employees, bucking the post-pandemic industry trend. At the start of the project, nearly half of all participants felt guilty if they started later or finished earlier than others onsite. This portion decreased to a third. Trust in colleagues working remotely increased with the number querying whether colleagues working away from site were working as hard as those on jobs falling from 48% to 33%.

Education and training

Anecdotally, most universities and colleges are bucking the trend for blending working and returning, we are told because of demand from students, to face to face teaching. Is this really the way forward, I would have thought that many students would welcome a more flexible approach to learning ?

Remote working and ethics

The increased use of remote working since the recent pandemic can pose problems. It is estimated that in 2020, 70% of work forces work remotely at least once a week The problem is; how does a company create a sense of connection to its purpose and values with new employees who have never met any of their colleagues in person? Are there unique risks that need to be addressed when a company has a large remote workforce or supply chain, following the pandemic of 2020/21? Remote working is becoming an established addition to working practices. One thing is for sure remote working is here to stay. In a recent industry survey, 56% of compliance professionals reported the transition to remote working had gone better than expected, SCCE, (2020) Compliance and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics). This complements 39% of survey respondents who indicated their risk assessment program did not change as they shifted to remote work. A majority of respondents to the survey also said risk owners had not changed (59%) and the process for remediating risks had remained the same (52%).

Issues such as working patterns and many other challenges facing construction are discussed in detail in the 5th Edition of New Aspects of Quantity Surveying to be published in Spring 2023.

Duncan Cartlidge

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