In late 2019, Dodge Data & Analytics published their quarterly report and gave the US commercial construction industry a ranking of 71 out of 100 on its Commercial Construction Index (CCI). This was a dip from earlier in the year, which the report attributed to “the decline of all of the key drivers of confidence” such as revenue forecasts, new business opportunities, and backlog levels. By the following quarter, all three of these areas had improved and the CCI rebounded to 74. But then calamity struck in the form of a global pandemic that nobody could have anticipated and few were prepared to deal with. As the construction industry was rocked to its foundations, the CCI plunged to 56 in Q2 2020, with confidence in new business and revenue expectations plummeting 26 points. Covid’s impact was immense and far-reaching.
A year later, construction has rallied a little, rebounding to 59 in the Q4 2020 CCI. The easing of jobsite restrictions in certain areas, financial provisions in the COVID-19 Relief Package 2.0, and stabilized home prices have started to yield some green shoots, and the next CCI score should be somewhere in the 60s. On the flipside, the industry has not returned to the way things were before COVID-19, and nobody fully knows what a “new normal” looks like yet. In this post, we’ll look at some of the ways that construction has changed over the past year and glance ahead to how such challenges might be solved moving forward.
The Onsite-Offsite Disconnect
While construction workers plying practical trades were deemed to be essential soon after COVID-19 struck, project managers, site supervisors, and other roles were not. This meant that while tradespeople could continue tackling tasks onsite, the people assigning these and monitoring their progress now had to do so while working remotely. This inevitably created a disconnect between what was actually happening and what supervisory staff thought was going on and made it difficult for those supposed to be overseeing projects to bring any level of accountability to bear on their subcontractors.
Once used to a combination of offsite planning and onsite interaction, anyone in a project management role has been detached from the crews actually performing the physical work. This makes it more difficult to evaluate progress on micro and macro scales and to know how daily tasks are contributing to overall timelines.
The disconnect between remote and onsite workers goes both ways. As the writer of an article for EHS Today put it, “construction workers require access to company data to provide timely decision-making and reporting ability while working in the field.” Yet all too often, they don’t know which app to find such details in, and even if they locate the information they need, it might be out of date or incomplete.
Communication Challenges Between the Field and Office
The inability for project management staff to be onsite during the pandemic has increased the necessity of clear and current communication between those essential construction workers who are onsite and those attempting to manage them remotely. During troubled times such as the pandemic, the tendency is for people to retreat back into their silos, which keeps data and expertise within certain specialties, hinders broader information sharing, and makes it difficult for diverse teams to collaborate effectively and meet project deadlines.
As a report by consulting firm McKinsey states, “Communication among stakeholders is critical to keeping these schedules tight and optimized.” As foremen, site supervisors, and other personnel can’t communicate in-person and face-to-face with their crews, they’ve been forced to rely on digital tools more than ever before. This has been a challenging transition, as according to JBKnowledge’s annual Construction Technology Report, the typical construction worker uses six or more apps daily and very few of these integrate with each other, leading to more manual data entry for everyone involved. And just because the apps have been installed doesn’t mean they’re being used to their full potential, if at all.
Dated technologies such as email and texting are insufficient because they’re sporadic and updates to and from onsite workers to their remote colleagues can be missed. Platforms on the other end of the continuum tend to be too limited (point solutions that target a narrow audience) or overly complicated (enterprise software) for workers who aren’t tech savvy. Apps fitting into either category are unlikely to be implemented effectively or widely adopted.
To start remedying some of these challenges, the McKinsey report referenced earlier recommends that project managers commit to “setting up new lines of digital communication to help information flow among all involved in the project.” Adopting a single platform that consolidates up-to-date job details and enables real-time communication between employees in the field and those in the office would be a solid starting point as the construction industry gets back on its feet and looks to a post-pandemic future.