Ashwini Bakshi, managing director of Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa at Project Management Institute, discusses how professionals can re-think their project management principles to foster a sustainable culture in their organisations and lead the path to net zero in construction

When it comes to achieving net zero in construction, the industry is feeling the heat. With the built environment – of which construction is a protagonist – currently contributing 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions, the nation’s progress towards its net zero ambitions will be heavily influenced by how effectively, and quickly, the construction sector can go green.

From a glass half full approach, the journey toward net zero in construction is well underway. The sector has made significant progress in the last 30 years. The concrete and cement industry, for example, has delivered a 53% reduction in absolute CO2 emissions since 1990, faster than the UK economy as a whole.

Yet, with a demand for 300,000 new houses to be built annually in the UK, the sector faces the balancing act of maintaining productivity, meeting targets, and staying within budgets, all while navigating the monumental challenge of becoming more sustainable.

Ultimately, the complexity of the net zero challenge means there is no silver bullet to fire the construction sector towards a greener tomorrow. While the sustainability agenda often gravitates towards materials, technology, waste management and the use of brownfield land, construction leaders would be remiss to undervalue the role that project management can play in their organisation’s progress. In the UK, there are over 75,000 construction project managers that can all impact the net zero journey if they add a sustainability lens to how they compile and manage their project teams.

Delivering net zero in construction requires net zero skills

You cannot achieve net zero ambitions without net zero skills. While this may sound statement, it is a significant threat to the UK’s wider progress towards a greener economy. Just last year, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warned the government that the construction sector “recognises it does not yet have the skills it will need” to contribute to net zero ambitions.

In the face of this challenge, the construction sector must take the opportunity to re-think its approach to learning and build a more sustainable workforce – with a modernised skillset – to navigate the net zero journey. With 750,000 construction professionals set to retire in next 15 years, the pipeline of new talent entering the industry should have a sustainability mindset embedded into the foundations of their skillset. By ensuring green skills form a core part of formative training, the sector’s next-gen leaders can operate with the ‘sustainability-first’ approach required to ensure projects are positively contributing to the wider net zero mission.

Alongside the development of green skills, businesses can also benefit from re-configuring how they value existing qualities that their employees may possess. The construction industry has traditionally been a hard skills-first sector but, while they remain important, the needle is shifting towards a demand for soft skills. Such is the value of these skills – which include adaptability, collaborative leadership and an innovative mindset – in modern project management, we have re-labelled them ‘power skills’. Those that wrap their hard skillset around a competent set of power skills will be those best placed to adapt to evolving challenges within the construction sector – net zero included – and cultivate agility in their organisation.     

How to cultivate agility to tackle evolving challenges

Placing an increased onus on developing power skills is a key characteristic of an agile organisation. Our research found that over half (54%) of agile enterprises were prioritising power skills over hard skills, versus just 42% of their more traditional counter-parts. The last 24 months have shone a spotlight onto the need for organisations to adopt agile principles to navigate the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (or VUCA) that typifies the modern construction landscape.

Becoming agile is also a critical process for organisations looking to navigate complex change. Few challenges have typified this more than the transition to a net zero economy. It is a journey unlike any other taken by UK professionals. The answers to its questions remain clouded in the unknown and processes trusted by experienced construction professionals are unlikely to deliver the necessary outcomes to meet targets at speed.

Only by adopting a hyper-agile, open-minded approach to net zero will organisations set themselves up to achieve climate goals. In practise, this requires business leaders and project managers to first pass systematically through the problem set, identify stages where they may have any gaps in expertise or technologies, and build cross-functional project teams with the skillset to get the job done. The focus must be on outcomes – and taking whichever approach, new or old, required to get there – rather than exclusively following processes that have worked in the past.

Traditionally, taking an agile approach has been a challenge for the construction sector. Our Pulse of the Profession survey found that the quantity of construction organisations using agile approaches (14%) was 11 percentage points lower than the average across all businesses (25%) in Europe. The concept of taking time to make incremental changes to a strategy to address an issue – which often requires taking one step back to take two forward – often clashed with tight timelines, limited budgets, and stakeholder pressure that construction firms operate under.

Yet, in the case of net zero, this approach is non-negotiable. The level of complexity presented by this challenge means that adopting agile operating methods will save time long term – even if it feels like a slower process in the present – as project managers will avoid investing too much time in a strategy that isn’t producing the desired outcomes.

Why must climate goals be embedded into organisational strategy?

For any organisation aspiring to make net zero progress, the development of green skills and agility must be underpinned by an explicit, universal recognition that its long-term health is dependent on the health of the environmental and social system they are part of. Only once this has been established can organisations begin to embed sustainability into their structure and wider strategy.

One way construction businesses can embed climate goals into organisational strategy is to adapt their corporate structure. By introducing a chief sustainability officer to the leadership team – with a view to integrating sustainability into each of their pillars and processes – mitigating climate change and reducing emissions immediately becomes a c-suite priority. A positive example of this is Wilmott Dixon, who reached carbon neutrality less than a year after hiring Julia Barrett as its chief sustainability officer, in 2012, and is now working towards its bold Now or Never sustainability strategy for 2030. 

While elevating climate change into the c-suite should be a priority, it is also important that different business functions own the execution of a company’s net zero strategy – as opposed to placing responsibility in silos – so that it’s part of every process and decision, and every upstream and downstream interaction. To bring this to life, organisations can break down the ways in which different business areas can contribute to the wider sustainability ambitions – with their own tailored goals – through a clear strategy and roadmap.

This model of collaboration can also be performed on an industry-wide scale, as exemplified by VELUX’s Build for Life initiative. The manufacturer’s commitment provides a “compass” for built environment professionals – from builders and site managers to architects and interior designers – on how they can address some of the industry’s most pressing sustainability issues. This is an archetype of how the industry should come together to re-think its legacy building strategies and tackle the net zero challenge in unity. Every organisation ultimately possesses unique expertise and skillsets that others can benefit from and bring into their own project teams to facilitate more sustainable practises.

Finally, an issue we frequently hear from business leaders is how they quantify the environmental impact of their ESG strategy. We want to encourage a landscape in which businesses can proactively celebrate their progress towards climate goals, rather than scrambling last minute to meet deadlines set by third parties.

Constructors can follow the lead of the Construction Leadership Council, which published a CO2nstructZero Performance Framework last year to measure progress on achieving net zero across the industry. The report’s data and metrics will be published in quarterly reports to monitor and encourage ESG principles in the construction industry. While this is a sector-wide initiative, it could be replicated internally to track the progress of different business areas and keep project team members engaged and accountable for the organisation’s wider progress towards net zero, regardless of their role.

Ultimately, the construction sector should see net zero as an opportunity to re-think its project principles, skills, and structure, future-proof itself against complex challenges, and build a greener future for the communities in which it operates.

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