The UK’s exit of the European Union and Covid-19 have been battling for headlines and headspace these past months, dominating the news agenda and industry outlooks. Tim Whiteley, co-founder of Inevitech discusses what this means for the construction industry
Currently, we’ve felt the impact of the latter, as we anticipate the potential challenges and opportunities of the former. Now, with the Brexit transition period ending on the 31 December and uncertainty remaining over the terms that we will leave with, businesses and individuals are being campaigned by the Government to prepare for whatever the outcome.
So, what does this mean for construction? What can the industry learn from this past year of turmoil, as it looks ahead to the pandemic and Brexit materially overlapping? Ambiguity remains, yet the industry can take forward learnings from its response to Covid-19 to help navigate the uncertainty. Below are some of the key points to consider.
Embrace an evolved, dispersed talent pool
A large percentage of construction labour comes from Europe. Take London as an example, where, according to ONS figures, non-UK nationals accounted for 40% of workers in building construction in the capital. And my personal experience, working with organisations in the AEC sector, is that top talent tends to be drawn by the big names and the attractions of London.
There are a lot of Europeans working in architectural and engineering firms in the capital. What happens when the industry cannot draw on that talent so readily, especially when compounded by Covid factors meaning people may well be less likely to want to inhabit densely populated areas?
The long-term solution will require significant government investment in education and training – to broaden the domestic talent pool across the country and reverse the skills shortage the construction industry already faces. That’s easier said than done. In the short-term, firms must find ways to connect and incorporate international talent through technology, rather than geographical proximity.
The industry has made progressive steps in this since March – onsite workers have clearly still required a physical presence, yet the broader ecosystem of talent has been able to shift from working within the four walls of the organisation’s or clients’ offices to their homes.
There is no reason that this approach can’t be extended across borders, providing firms equip staff with the right tools and undertake due diligence when it comes to managing risk.
Plan for the ‘unknown’ in projects
Unfortunately, almost a third (30%) of construction professionals in the UK and Ireland have acknowledged that the pandemic has disrupted projects, with delays and cancellations causing some of the firms they work with to go out of business.
A no-deal Brexit has the potential to complicate matters further, for example; detrimentally impacting the cost, timeliness and supply of imported materials, potentially muddying industry and regulatory standards to adhere to, and compromising future, ongoing funding and appetite for infrastructure and building projects.
However, this year the industry has shown admirable resilience in the face of unknowns and difficulties, with organisations transforming processes and adopting new technologies almost overnight to keep as many projects moving in the face of lockdown measures. It’s therefore essential to prepare for – rather than have to respond to – a range of potential shocks that are financial, resource-led and operational.
Generally, that should entail building in agility now, looking at how overheads can be reduced, and how work can be delivered more efficiently. For Brexit specifically, it’s worth referring to the UK Government’s recently published guidance for the construction industry that also includes a transition self-checker.
Focus on delivery without sacrificing quality
Over the course of the year, the government has sought to inject some momentum and provide a sense of certainty to the construction industry. ‘Build Back Better’ is now a slogan engrained in our minds. In August, the government announced a £1.3bn investment fund for the development of tens of thousands of new homes and other vital infrastructure projects; undoubtedly the government will continue to introduce measures to try and stimulate the industry.
Yet the world in which these projects are delivered will be significantly different to that pre-pandemic; from the way in which offices and cities are used to how people utilise public transport.
The challenge for the industry will be delivering projects fit for the new world in a very real sense. Construction firms must work to ensure that quality, environmental concerns and affordable housing aren’t sacrificed in the pursuit of continuity at all costs. At the same time, it’s a balancing act; the successful delivery of projects must continue – quality, responsiveness and meeting or exceeding customer expectations will remain essential.
Balance tactical execution with a bigger picture digital strategy
A silver-lining of the pandemic is that it’s ultimately fast-forwarded much-needed change in construction. As Accenture puts it: the crisis offered the opportunity to ‘solve some of the industry’s historical challenges and prepare for a more digital future.’ So, while Brexit’s impact on the construction industry is very much uncertain, it’s my belief the firms that successfully laid down technology foundations in response to the pandemic have the best platform to navigate the inevitable challenges leaving the European Union will create.
Implementing new technologies should help cement certainty long into the future, secure an edge over competitors and generate a significant return on investment. This shouldn’t be viewed as a complete overhaul of processes, but a long-term phased strategy designed to flex to constantly changing macro factors. Decisions must be underpinned by a strategic vision that has the overall goals and objectives of the business at its heart.
Take the decision to retain and update or abandon dedicated office space as an example, one relevant to a post-Brexit existence where the need to cater for an international talent pool compounds increasingly progressive remote working practices.
The once ‘technical’ considerations behind this – for example, whether to transfer your entire infrastructure to the cloud, replacing physical attributes of the office such as workstations and server rooms – should now be as much on the agenda for the company’s founder as the IT team.
Then there are tactical considerations. The average homeworking set-up won’t include powerful workstations and fast network speeds needed to work on complex BIM files, for example. However, there are a growing range of technologies available to enable dispersed working and which support the sector’s high performing demands.
Many of these are either eye wateringly expensive or limited in scope, but there are also progressive solutions appearing which prize both performance and budget and which will certainly open up the possibilities of future agile working for much more of the construction industry.
These technologies will connect people throughout the UK and Europe to work – in many important ways – as though they were still sitting in the same office.
Furthermore, a dispersed workforce makes a business more vulnerable, with the likes of Zaha Hadid Architects suffering a cyber-attack during lockdown. It’s therefore essential that leaders protect their networks, services, and data end-to-end by centralising operations, building in resiliency on multiple levels, and introducing multi-factor systems.
We are now in what’s been coined the ‘countdown to Brexit’ and what will no doubt be one of the most testing periods for the construction industry and the UK.
No one would have wished the Coronavirus pandemic on the world, but it has certainly taught us lessons that we can take into 2021: focus on quality delivery, anticipate change to build in resilience, keep employees connected and productive from wherever they are, and design digital strategies with long-term goals in mind.