Wednesday, 31 March 2021
With seemingly some light at the end of the Covid tunnel, I've reflected on what I have learned over the past year. This has resulted in some thoughts on the pandemic's implications on me, our company, and the wider construction industry.
The early challenges of the great Covid unknown...
Our priority, naturally, was our people., most Sites went on some sort of pause with only critical or maintenance projects fully continuing and all office-based staff worked from home. The disparity of over 220 staff in these very different circumstances created the first of many challenges and taught us our first, and possibly most important, lesson.
Lesson 1 - Communication is vital. Engage with people as often as you can!
No one had all the answers! But a combination of site visits, staff feedback, utilising video technology for teamworking, regular company updates, (initially via emails and subsequently through weekly/fortnightly video updates), we managed to keep staff morale relatively high.
Lesson 2 – One size doesn’t fit all...
I gained a significantly more profound appreciation of the differences in people. From introverts to extroverts, from those very calm (even flippant) in the face of an ever-evolving crisis to those at the opposite end of the spectrum, it was clear that one message was never going to satisfy everyone. The best I could do was to communicate as honestly as possible and deal with the intricacies of personalities after that.
Lesson 3 – United We Stand. A shared sense of purpose gets the best out of people.
We were fortunate to be involved in two healthcare projects that were directly helping the NHS in the fight against Covid. The challenges in both projects, although different, were equally daunting. Still it was inspiring to see how the Dowds teams, the clients, main Contractors and our sub-contractors pulled together and delivered despite the enormity of the challenge. This lesson was further reinforced internally through two team-based physical charity fundraising challenges in late Spring and Autumn. The competitions brought a great togetherness and camaraderie (if not some over competitiveness) within our team and all participants really pushed themselves with excellent results.
Lesson 4 – You can always do better!
Although we have a well-established Health Matters committee and numerous qualified Mental Health First Aiders in the company, nothing could have prepared us for the strain that COVID19 would create. The longevity of the pandemic meant that there were huge ups and downs and shifts in mindsets and everchanging rules to comply with. We had to continually question if we got the right message and guidance out and if we ‘checked in’ enough with everyone. We tried and ,for the most part, succeeded. Like everyone else we were learning as we went and there was always something we could have done better. This has forced us to continually look at how we reach out and tailor messages based on where people work, what they do and how they want to be contacted. At this point it would be great to share a perfect strategy but if there is one, we haven’t found it yet! The best we can do is to keep listening to our employees and focus on ways to improve!
Lesson 5 - The Homeworking Conundrum. Just because we can doesn’t always mean we should!
On a personal level, I must make a good and bad admission that being forced to work from home meant I spent more time with my son (now 16 months) than I did with his 3 older sisters at that age and this time although sometimes manic, is something that I’ll always look back on with profound happiness.
But back to work. As a company pre-covid, we had a “relatively” relaxed attitude to working from home but with limited take up, this has obviously changed significantly. Fast forward a year and is to the question that is being asked all the time – is the office dead? In my opinion, absolutely not! I think we have taken a massive step forward in utilising comms technology and we have realised that 60-80% of “management” and back-office work can be done at home. However creative thinking, problem solving, and decision making is best done face to face. The complexities around modern day construction simply cannot all be solved by looking at each other on the screen, although certainly lessons do need to be learnt and some of the spurious meetings just to be seen need to be shelved. I thrive and need the time in the office and site bouncing off people - without it I was at best, plateauing working at home. As a result, we are discovering that that a hybrid model will work best for us moving forward.
The lesson we have learned since coronavirus reared its ugly head has led to another question and one which I believe is the real head scratcher, as we look towards construction post-COVID what about work life balance holistically in the industry?
Construction is a demanding industry, from operatives on the ground travelling and enduring long shifts to input required from management and associated stress levels, it is widely acknowledged that a problem exists which will only be exasperated by skill shortages. As yet, there haven’t been too many solutions, at least in the short term anyway. I appreciate the levels of complexity in this question, but with multiple reports citing the construction as the industry with the worst mental health record and little to no efficiency increases in the 30 years, it is surely something that can’t be ignored any further? On the efficiency side for now it seems that MMC and digitalisation are the way forward, but how ‘the road to zero carbon’ will affect this remains to be seen. One thing I am sure of is that there needs to be a major shift in attitude of how people are treated and the expectations that are placed on them – maybe this is for another day, but I really believe this is currently the biggest challenge we face!
I appreciate there is nothing controversial in this but I hope at least one or two points resonate with some of you and that it is a helpful addition to the conversation on the future of construction. I’d be happy to hear if other companies are thinking the same?