Canadian construction leaders discuss what’s next in the wake of COVID-19

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Special to Ontario Construction News

Unlike no other time in recent history, the global pandemic’s economic impact has forced businesses to quickly adapt to working through COVID-19. The construction industry, which is no stranger to unexpected challenges, has come out a strong and steady leader in the wake of this pandemic.

Procore’s Canadian vice-president Jas Saraw recently sat down with industry leaders during a Canadian Construction Association (CCA) webinar to talk about how they’re working through the pandemic and what they expect is next for construction.

The panelists included Bryan Kaplan, principal, at Reliance Construction Group, Terry Olynyk president and managing director at Multiplex Canada, and John Bockstael, president of Bockstael Construction

Here were some of the key insights brought up during the discussion.

  1. Adaptability is key

While established players in the industry had contingency plans in place in case of labour and supply shortages, they quickly discovered the plans were inadequate for the scale of disruption the pandemic imposed. The learning curve was steep, but with the help of technological tools that they had already started introducing, work could continue.

Understanding that things can still change, possibly quickly and in unforeseeable ways, Bryan Kaplan says the focus going forward will be building in the capacity to deal with new challenges on the fly.

“We are set up for the next shutdown, whether it be a small outbreak within the office or a couple of cases to just a government-mandated shut down of the office, whatever the case may be,” Kaplan says. “The intent is to remain fully functional to service our clients and to continue working in any way shape or form.”

Likewise, John Bockstael says when everything changed so quickly the ability to think fast and pull from the expertise of others made all the difference in upending operations at the CCA, where he acts as chair.

“It was really about quick thinking on your feet, lots of brainstorming as an organization. Fortune would have it that we could draw upon construction associations both locally and across Canada,” he says. “You’ve got to remain humble and keep thinking about what’s next, where to go next.”

Much disruption came from having fewer available employees in office settings and on worksites. While school is resuming in the fall and employees are eager to get back to a normal routine, employers are being realistic about the fact that many children may wind up back at home sooner than expected, and they’ll need to be adaptable to employees’ needs on an ongoing basis.

“We’ve got a flexible workspace right now and we’re going to keep maintaining it with no hard and fast rules about attendance but just supporting working from home and accepting any productivity hits we might have to take, but adjusting accordingly,” Bockstael says.

  1. New tools have led to better communication

Most companies were already making the transition to using tech to simplify and streamline daily operations before 2020. The arrival of the pandemic made it necessary to speed up the migration as distanced workers made communication an immediate need.

Bockstael says his company’s switch to tech solutions like Procore began a couple of years ago, which made the transition to distanced work smoother.

“It allowed us to interface with clients and consultants in a more ready way. It’s helped us adapt quite well to these new circumstances, says Bockstael. “We’re into Procore in a very big way now. This urgency pressed it into use on even more projects. It is a great networking tool with everybody working from home and scattered.”

Additionally, having to operate with a workforce that weren’t always physically present made it necessary to move far more than just meetings online. Tools like Procore have helped companies through tendering, pre-construction, and project management, and have actually organized companies to strengthen their operations moving forward.

“The pandemic accelerated a lot of adoption of technology where people weren’t quite ready to buy-in,” Terry Olynyk says. “I think it showed us that we can remain flexible as a workplace to allow this second wave to come and go. The technology is there for us. We just need to embrace it.”

Employees are also working on establishing new boundaries for the use of technology at home. What some are finding is it could become invasive, when there is no clear working hours and 24/7 access to work.

“There’s an element of burnout there,” Bockstael says.

While his company hasn’t created a policy on virtual meeting hours just yet, he says it might be something they have to consider. In the meantime, tacit agreements about appropriate work hours will help to mitigate negative effects while maintaining technology’s inherent flexibility.

  1. Analytics and predictability

As construction embraces technology as a means of communicating, tracking work hours and equipment usage, and a multitude of other uses, the panelists agreed that additional benefits are coming to the fore.

“Once upon a time if you’d ask a project manager how much time they spent reporting, they would tell you a week out of their month was spent on preparing the forecast, getting ready for the owner’s report so on and so forth,” Olynyk recalls.

Today, paring down the number of steps it takes to assess a project’s progress, easily comparing how well it’s going compared to target measures, and disseminating the information to all stakeholders streamlines operations.

“It has really allowed us to drill down and understand what we need and how to prepare ourselves moving forward,” Olynyk says.

Kaplan adds that because all stakeholders can view the project’s progression in the moment, the health of the project can be assessed from multiple perspectives simultaneously, and steps can be taken to avoid problems and improve efficiency without waiting for a weekly meeting or for communication on each KPI.

“Before Procore, in our staff meetings that we typically meet on weekly, there were always lots of data-driven questions that came up,” Kaplan says. “This stuff is all available now in the dashboard to us, to any manager where we don’t necessarily need to wait for the meeting to have that.”

  1. Technological innovation improves outcomes

Technology is being used to improve not only the efficiency and accuracy with which buildings are constructed, but also to rethink how construction is happening.

Companies are using innovations in modular building and prefabrication to buffer projects against the possibility of supplier shutdowns.

“What we see right now is the procurement and lead times and trying to protect against shutdowns,” Kaplan says. “There’s a lot of pre-purchasing or getting ready in advance and pre-fabrication.”

As so much of a project can be pre-made to spec and stored in advance, it can proceed with fewer delays.

Concerns with health and safety of the people who use buildings may change building goals in a post-pandemic world.

“The current push right now on multi-family housing is probably going to be curtailed and see a dip in the next coming months,” Bockstael says, and the push to reduce the floor plate in office buildings may be reversed to keep workers socially distanced.

  1. Uncertainty will continue into 2021

When the pandemic erupted, construction worked through projects that had already been green-lighted and designed at the administrative levels. As that work is completed and new work waits to make it through the administrative backlog, there could be a lag time that will affect the industry, as lack of supply resources already has.

“One certainly has to anticipate there’s going to be some slow-down in construction,” Bockstael says. “There’s so much that gets done in this country that is government-funded or government resourced and at all levels, we have to be concerned with how well those funds are going to continue to flow.”

Between these concerns and supply chain hiccups, construction could be looking at some ongoing challenges to navigate. The availability of labour could be impacted, and restrictions on workplaces could be enacted at any time. Stakeholders are searching for stability where they can find it. Kaplan says the current climate is one of increased risk.

“Everything we’re doing now is precautionary and somewhat protectionist and it has some level of insurance to try and just stave off any potential elements that might be coming,” he says.

A feeling of optimism

Among the panel of industry leaders, there was a definite sense of optimism for construction’s future.

“It’s an industry of vast opportunity and it is really crucial to the development of Canada,” Bockstael says.

Construction may have a rocky road ahead, just like the rest of the global economy. Still, technological advances that will help companies weather the pandemic and its fallout will also strengthen them for the long haul.

This article originally was published in Jobsite, powered by Procore.

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