The pandemic has put unparalleled emphasis on good teamwork and clarity of communication. Lem Bingley investigates the role of digital technology in helping construction firms cope with the crisis
Nobody was fully prepared for the coronavirus as it rolled through the UK in the spring. But as the government launched its sudden lockdown in March, some firms were better equipped to cope than others because digital technologies helped them communicate and collaborate.
Dan Harmer, a project manager at tier-one contractor Interserve, was still adjusting to the novelty of “happily working at home with my wife and kids” when he took a 10am call that would see him join the frantic struggle to turn Birmingham’s NEC into a Nightingale hospital.
“The way to make it work is to make sure other subcontractors utilise it, and the best way to do that is to write it into the contract”
Daniel Harmer, Interserve
By 2pm on the same day, Harmer was on site at the NEC. “Literally overnight we became a 24-hour site […] We did phase one in nine days and in many cases, myself included, we just didn’t go home.”
Keeping on top of what everyone was doing was extraordinarily complex.
“That was a high, very intense working environment with a mass of people and a mass of consultants, all working together and sharing information,” he recalls. “I felt I did three years’ work in nine days.”
Harmer adds: “Ordinarily you’d get date stamps for revisions to drawings that might be weeks or months apart. [But in this case] the date stamps were time stamps, because we were having information updated so fast.”
Under extraordinary pressure, Harmer says it was a godsend that Interserve had previously adopted Autodesk’s PlanGrid software to organise work and distribute information, and that he personally had used it before, while working on the 18-storey Lansdowne project in Birmingham city centre.
“It’s a great tool for the main contractor to use and it’s a great way of recording things, putting in photographs,” Harmer adds. “The way to make it work is to make sure other subcontractors utilise it, and the best way to do that is to write it into the contract.”
That simply wasn’t possible given the timescale of the Nightingale project.
“We kept it just Interserve only, because it was going to be too big a task to get others to buy into it,” Harmer says.
The tool proved vital for tracking the constant stream of updates as work rapidly progressed. “It’s just that simple flow of communication,” Harmer explains. “You can tag in photographs, you’ve got a constant record, it’s all housed in secure clouds and you can get it [anywhere].”
At the Lansdowne project, he explains, he learned the platform could be used “to issue permits from floor 16, for example – it could be signed on the tablet with one of those funky pens.” Supported by this kind of on-the-spot administration, work could proceed more efficiently. “We’ve got proof that the permit’s been issued, to save having to get individuals down in the hoist, which was a good 10-minute round trip,” he adds.
At the Nightingale, such time savings proved vital. “Our office is just around the corner from the NEC but [without PlanGrid] it could easily be 20 minutes to half an hour before you’ve got a drawing, and then 20 minutes later it might be updated […] It really was a valuable time saver.”
Beyond ‘Zoom and Teams’
Rob Frank, customer experience director at fit-out specialist BW, voices similar opinions about the value of consistent communications during the pandemic. BW has around 200 employees and had 2019 revenues of £200m. In 2017, the company adopted Procore software as a mandatory digital platform across all its projects, and found it vital as lockdown required both remote working and new shift patterns.
“I think Zoom and Teams helped, as the whole world knows, but what helped us most was having one platform [for data],” Frank says. “The old days of things being on different drives and different Dropboxes and the likes, we just don’t have. We have everything in one place.”
“I was on a webinar and people were saying they felt like they’d lost control of their business, and it’s very much the other way for us”
Rob Frank, BW
Like Harmer, Frank cites ready access to the latest drawings as a key enabler. “If you’ve got someone on shift work […] they’re going to want to have all the records in one place, they’re going to want to have all the photos, site diaries [and] documentation,” he says. “The biggest thing is latest drawings, and that happened seamlessly. I don’t think we’ve had one issue where there was a wrong drawing used, or a wrong bit of information.”
Frank adds that management insights were equally vital. “In these times, when people are working remotely, you can very easily lose touch,” he notes. “I was on a webinar for the fit-out industry and people were saying they felt like they’d lost control of their business, and it’s very much the other way for us. We’re probably in more control than we’ve ever been.”
Frank explains: “Every Monday morning, [we can see] which projects have got snags, which haven’t, where are they in their journey, which ones have drawings outstanding, which ones have [tasks still] outstanding, how many snag days it’s taken.” Without the discipline enabled by Procore during lockdown “there would have been more workaround faffing – where documents are, and the truth of the documents – than actually doing the work,” he suggests.
The platform also helped support remote working and reduced travel requirements, Frank says: “If you’ve got a contracts manager who’s got four projects, he can be on one project but manage the other three from one location. It doesn’t necessarily mean home working.”
Loaning out iPads
BW has also encouraged its supply chain to adopt Procore. It now has a strategy “to move our 700 suppliers into preferred status”, which among other things requires the platform, Frank says. Around half have so far done so, he says. To make sure access is ubiquitous, BW has even
invested in a stack of iPads that it can loan out to partners who need them on site.
Asked about the cost-benefit balance of such measures, Frank simply says: “When it goes right, you never do a cost analysis. No one ever sits down and says, ‘Hang on, that’s £30k we saved just there’ […] The cost is unimaginable if we didn’t have this technology in place.”
While Procore and PlanGrid are both well-established in the industry, new entrants have also helped firms adjust to the pandemic.
Made in Norway
Dapatchi Group, a business that serves as contractor or developer across more than 20 project sites around the UK, has adopted construction management software from Norwegian tech startup Fonn.
“Our approach has always been very open [to innovation] and trying to find better ways to communicate and collaborate,” says Dapatchi founder and chairman Dan Pattrick. “The good thing about Fonn is that to embed it has been a very simple process.”
“We’ve got very active site managers [but] it was very often not logistically possible for them to walk around with a laptop. That’s where it all started to fall down”
Dan Dattrick, Dapatchi
Dapatchi’s work is widely spread geographically “from Dunfermline to Brighton and from Carmarthen to Sheffield”, Pattrick says. About 70 per cent of its work is made up of contracts worth up to about £5m each, with the company’s own development projects making up the remaining share.
Co-ordinating its diverse work, using Google’s G-Suite of programs with WhatsApp for management-team communication, had become a process “at breaking point”, Pattrick says. “No matter what we put in place in the office, we struggled when it got to a site level,” he adds. “We’ve got very active site managers [but] it was very often not logistically possible for them to walk around with a laptop. That’s where it all started to fall down.”
Fonn’s platform has brought information and communication together in a more accessible format. “All of our sites now are equipped with tablets,” Pattrick says. “A lot of that has been put in place since COVID.”
Once again, a key benefit has been handling of revised drawings. “Because we’ve got our own internal architectural team, we’re very quick to react to problems. We can get things redrawn with speed […] but we were finding our mechanical team were working on a different revision to our electrical team, for example. And then you had issues with rework,” he explains.
“The way Fonn is set up for us, whatever revision of the drawing is the latest is always on top, which has reduced our reworks quite substantially. That’s my biggest win.”
He adds that the software supports a wide range of tasks: “It can be split up into issues, site visits, turned into a check sheet. All of a sudden, you’re taking what is inherently difficult to communicate and making it simple.”
Championing a new approach
Another key outcome has been an improved approach to contract variations. “We do a lot of redeveloping, and it’s difficult to peg it from the start [so] variation work was costing our company a big chunk of potential profit,” Pattrick says. The Fonn platform has let Dapatchi support a customised process.
“Our contract managers and site managers can post variations quickly, clients can agree it, we can quote it, our QS jumps in, it all gets resolved and then it’s stored and it’s there. Rather than going back through emails and trying to find out who agreed to what and when,” he explains.
At the start, however, Dapatchi took a cautious approach to rollout, which began 12 months ago. “We got our ducks in a row, and launched to our new sites with the simplest version,” Pattrick says. “Rather than trying to redefine the whole business, we introduced it site-by-site as we took new schemes on. That was a really big win and actually made it stick.”
‘We redeveloped our model’
When the lockdown hit, the software quickly proved vital. “There were announcements left right and centre and a lack of clarity [from] the government,” he recalls. “We took the option to close the company for about a week, [during which] the senior management team basically redeveloped our operating models, put new safe working practices in place, stocked all sites up with new PPE and new signage.” The company then used Fonn to inform its workforce: “We uploaded video, visual and written content to communicate our approach through to our team [and] then we went back to work.”
When formal site operating procedures emerged subsequently, from the Construction Leadership Council, Dapatchi’s revised processes were more than compliant, Pattrick says.
“It’s not the policy but the implementation that becomes difficult,” he adds. “Fonn helps [by] reinforcing the directives we’re providing.”
Pattrick argues that even without the pandemic, construction remains “one of the hardest industries in the world because there’s so many parts to pull together”. But he adds: “There’s an amazing technological advance that’s happening in the industry and I see a lot of companies that aren’t taking full advantage of it. And in my mind, there’s an opportunity in the industry right now, for companies to get slicker, quicker, faster, and to manage that process very effectively.”
Community outreach in a crisis
During lockdown, the message for construction was to carry on working. Government policy was poorly communicated, resulting in widespread misunderstanding and even hostility. With large numbers of people suddenly at home all day, projects in urban settings soon faced tricky communications challenges.
One such firm was developer JTRE London. Its Triptych Bankside project, on the South Bank of the Thames is a mixed-use scheme comprising three towers of 9, 14 and 18 storeys, about one-third complete.
“Over the last two-three months, a lot of people have been working from home and we’ve had a gallery of people watching,” says JTRE construction director Paul Walker.
With the option to hold face-to-face meetings scuppered, it proved handy that agency TwoBlue Communications, prior to lockdown, had rolled out a community relations app called SitePodium at the project.
Launched in the Netherlands in 2013, SitePodium currently serves around 350 active projects. Residents download the app to their smartphone and select the project they want to follow.
The app allows two-way communication. The project is able to issue alerts around key activities, while residents can raise questions or report issues, uploading pictures to support queries. Requests can be managed by multiple administrators on the project side.
“The content that we’re putting up there will often be about giving notice of some noise happening, or weekend work, or a crane that’s going to block a road,” says TwoBlue director Paul Browne. “But we’re trying to bring the scheme to life.”
He adds: “We’re not trying to hide behind technology, I think we can use technology to facilitate better engagement.”
Work was initially halted in lockdown, and Walker says SitePodium helped to explain “why there were workmen still on site, because it’s impossible to shut down a large site immediately”. As work resumed under CLC guidelines, “there were a lot of residents with spare time on their hands”. Communications via the app soared in April and May, though interaction has now settled “as people gradually go back to work”, he adds.