How to Prepare for Return to Work
As 2020 progresses and shelter-in-place restrictions are eased or modified across the globe, many in the industry are shifting focus from a temporarily remote workforce to standing up their project sites again. To prepare to return to work, we will have to define what the new normal means for the construction industry.
Answering questions like “How do I successfully social distance on a project site?” or “How has my supply chain been impacted?” to the biggest question of “How can I keep my team safe?” requires both fast and measured answers. Even if your project was deemed essential and work did not stop, COVID-19 will unquestionably impact your organization in some fashion.
To provide return to work guidance for construction, Autodesk and FMI partnered on a recent webinar titled “Project Restart Strategies for Getting Back to Work,” where we have taken steps to define what the new normal might look like and how teams can return to better and not simply return to business as usual.
If you don’t have time to watch the recording, we’ve highlighted some of the key insights related to project restarts below.
Industry Innovation in Response to COVID-19
It’s no surprise that many organizations have either laid off or furloughed employees, although the severity varies by region. With so many projects stalled across the globe, it’s an unfortunate symptom of a greater challenge our society is facing.
According to a survey by the Association of General Contractors, out of 830 respondents more than half of US firms have had projects halted and 53% reported that they had been directed to cancel upcoming projects. In Europe, an industry report by Barbour ABI indicated that roughly 50% of construction companies have closed their project sites. Additionally, the AGC found that 23% of their members are already experiencing supply chain challenges.
On the webinar, we asked attendees “Are you currently dealing with project slowdowns or stoppages?” Out of the 154 that responded, we saw the following:
Innovation Under Pressure
While there are many new challenges impacting projects’ schedules, many teams have started finding innovative ways to bridge the gaps between digital and physical workflows. With newly found encouragement to be creative, people are finding new ways to deal with the current reality.
“Since construction has continued as an essential service for many parts of the globe, this means more than ever, new safety protocols are being implemented and should continue to be top of mind,” noted Allison Scott, Director, Construction Thought Leadership & Customer Marketing at Autodesk.To emphasize how critical this is, she referenced a recent study commissioned by the mayor of Austin, Texas. It found that keeping the city’s jobsites open without additional safety protocols could triple the number of coronavirus related hospitalizations in the general population.
That same study in Texas determined that the risks of spreading coronavirus on a jobsite can be greatly reduced by following increased safety protocols that include:
- Conducting temperature screenings before entering the site
- Extending proper PPE requirements – making gloves and masks mandatory and employing social distancing measures for site work
- Adding proper hand washing stations to site and encouraging hand washing breaks
- Adding more sanitation protocols to housekeeping checklists like disinfecting tools and limiting tool sharing
- Limiting the number of people in the site office or jobsite trailer, and disinfecting major surfaces in the trailer like door handles, meeting rooms, etc.
- Exploring staggering shift work and creating traceable work zones to help manage the number of people on site
Industry leaders across the globe have started finding new ways to collaborate virtually on their critical projects. Noting how virtual collaboration can take many forms, Allison added, “Increased use of cloud collaboration tools for documentation, drawings, data, and model sharing keep stakeholders working on the latest set and moving the phases of design and construction forward.” When checklists, field reports, and daily logs are digitized, project activity progresses and the amount of personnel actually on the jobsite can be minimized.
Cloud Collaboration and a New Digital Environment
The cloud continues to be where construction professionals find their workflows intersecting. Teams have shown an increased use of cloud-based tools for documentation, drawings, project data, and model sharing to keep everyone working off the latest set. The tools and capabilities found in Autodesk Construction Cloud can help construction teams stay connected.
Writing on an actual whiteboard may become a thing of the past when we’re all back to work. Most online video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Skype, and Webex have digital whiteboards, which can be leveraged for live markup sessions.
A Change in Preconstruction
Even though many projects are fully on pause, the preconstruction process still needs to move forward. With the extra time to spend, there is an increased focus on coordinating early design and planning work. Many teams are now moving the bidding and subcontractor selection process entirely online. “Tools inside of BuildingConnected can help teams find trade partners and manage the invitation to bid process online when you can’t be near your whiteboard or rolodex,” shared Allison.
The New Reality of Reality Capture
Reality capture has been a serious tool on many construction projects for a long time, but the use of these platforms has increased substantially during this crisis. This includes 360-degree photography, laser scanning, drones, and more. These tools are helping verify and document work-in-place for sites still operating, while keeping additional laborers off the project site altogether. Allison added, “Site Monitoring cameras like EarthCam, or virtual presence software like OpenSpace or HoloBuilder can also help everyone feel like they are on site, even if from afar.”
Real Examples of Innovation in Action
While the current situation is unprecedented, top construction firms have shown incredible examples of resilience and innovation despite challenges. “Constraints can be a catalyst to innovation,” said Allison. “The current situation is no exception. It’s one of the most significant constraints we’ve ever faced as an industry.”
- DPR Construction’s Inspection Optics: DPR Construction recently highlighted in a blog post that they were facing delays due to the fire marshall’s inability to conduct in-person inspections of one of their projects. In response to this challenge, their team turned to 360-degree cameras and video walkthroughs to complete the inspection process and turn over the building to the owner on time.
- City of Atlanta’s Planning Department Goes Virtual: In Atlanta, local authorities like building inspectors or the department of planning were facing challenges related to critical construction workflows. With a backlog of building permit and inspection services, or delayed certifications of occupancy, the city then pivoted quickly to virtual tools including a digital permitting process and video inspections of projects. With these new processes in place, they were able to keep things moving forward and kept the critical milestones on target.
- Consigli Construction Breaks Ground…Virtually: Traditionally, ground breaking ceremonies aren’t events that included social distancing, but Consigli Construction shared a recent virtual groundbreaking ceremony for the new Ferland Engineering Education and Design Center at The University of Maine. Through a creative combination of live streaming presentations, pre-recorded video, and 4D animation, they created a social distancing-friendly shovel ceremony.
- Mace Leads Change in the UK: Tier 1 Contractor Mace is a part of the UK’s Construction Leadership Council and helped to draft a report outlining the UK’s site operating procedures that contractors are now using during the COVID-19 period. Based on these recommendations, Mace has adjusted their site operation procedures including:
- – Creating COVID-19 daily checklists for teams to use in BIM 360 and PlanGrid during daily safety briefings.
- – Using BIM360 Plan to create bi-weekly scheduling plans, maintain safe work practices, and facilitate logistics on site amongst their crews.
- – Using a combination of video calls, photography, as well as document and plan sharing on BIM 360, they have enabled a project in Harwell to work with the Local Authority and complete inspections virtually.
FMI’s Project Mitigation and Restart Strategies
In addition to thinking through immediate back to work measures, it’s important for firms to think through long term project impacts. Most of the focus right now has been in response to shelter in place orders causing project shutdowns, but the new thinking needs to be around project restart strategies and business continuity.
FMI’s Countermeasures & Emergency Response Framework
For the vast majority of construction projects forced to shut down production in the short term, careful consideration should be given to the critical project restart. In fact, the best approach is to view this restart as a second chance at enhanced preconstruction planning.
Now is the time for contractors to review contract documents and maintain proactive and current dialogue on force majeure and other work stoppage guidelines. They should examine the restart meeting agenda to ensure that discussions are forward-thinking and focused on identifying potential rocks in the road, while developing realistic solutions to problem areas. Deliberate plans should be established with firm wide consistency on all projects in the “work in progress” category.
FMI’s Countermeasures Checklist
Short term considerations may include how to get productively restarted, labor shortages, short term supply chain issues, transportation, COVID-19 resurgence, compliance monitoring, and PPE availability.
Long term considerations may include long-term project viability, owner and contractor liquidity, trade/vendor partner tolerance, supply chain issues, inspection delays, customer budget challenges, contractual obligations, and legal challenges.
The Critical Nature of the Restart
When the “starting gun goes off” worldwide, the restart of construction work will be frenetic and resemble a marathon. While some think this will be a seamless restart, it requires a great deal of energy and focus to do it correctly. COVID-19 has impacted all aspects of society including and not limited to worker psyche, supply chains, work sequencing, life safety supplies, and much more. How a firm conducts its project restarts will be critical to the long-term success of that firm.
Make sure your organization is focusing on the right aspects of project continuity. It is important to note that for many in the construction world, there was no shutdown. However, refocusing and strategizing must be paramount in the construction industry.
The decision tree below can help with developing the steps necessary for a successful project restart.
FMI’s Project Restart Strategy
The Project Restart Meeting
The project restart meeting will be one of the most critical meetings you hold as restrictions begin to ease and teams are allowed to return to work. These meetings will be similar in nature to a preconstruction planning meeting, with an emphasis on tough challenges like labor projections, supply chain impacts, critical path schedule impacts, revised owner requirements, and third party impacts such as inspections.
Consider asking questions about the short and long-term impacts to the facility due to the COVID-19 crisis. As an example, if this is a school or public assembly area, will the client wish to modify any aspects of the design?
It will be important to discuss the long-term ramifications to the project schedule, workload, and finish date. By holding a critical restart meeting, the contractor or trade partner can eloquently describe the overall impact to the critical path and propose a realistic mitigation plan.
Finally, this is the time to draft proactive safety plans and communicate new site hygiene protocols. Keep in mind, standards will continue to shift in light of the “moving target” status of this pandemic.
Take a step back and consider the hygiene protocols that you had on site six months ago. Now compare those to what will be required when your team steps onto the project site tomorrow. What are you doing differently relative to project cleanliness, hygiene, and relevant communication to deal with our new normal? Fortunately there are steps you can take to keep your team safe, including:
- Establish protocol and procedures for personnel as well as their tools/materials
- Review labor agreements and understand what is allowed under HIPAA
- Focus not only on the right hygiene but the right messaging and communication
Example project site signage/communication
Take this opportunity to consider how projects are leveraging technology for communication as well as truly becoming paperless. Removing paper from the site will be one less thing for your project teams to carry around or touch as they go about their work.
Supply Chain Impacts
The first question contractors should be asking themselves about supply chain challenges is how will you address specific productivity impacts (e.g. spacing, delays, phasing, etc)? Consider leveraging labor histograms to look for peaks and valleys in your labor force. They are great visualization tools from a project standpoint as well as firm wide.
It is also important to understand that simply dropping more people on the jobsite will not create better productivity. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the days of social distancing, it is especially true that more is not necessarily better.
Avoiding Weak Project Restarts
Do not forget to account for how the work stoppage will impact your subcontractors – trade contractor mobilization takes time and there is no instant ‘on’ switch to flip.
Revisiting the critical path of a schedule is key to manage this process. Teams may need to create new work breakdowns and phasing to manage the following:
- Work area overpopulation
- Workflow and sequencing challenges
- Revised inspection schedules
Now is the time to find innovative ways to manage the new normal of a project site. Is there opportunity for prefabrication and modularization to avoid unnecessary stacking of trades and will keep more people off the project site? As you navigate the restart, don’t forget that crew stacking has long been associated with negative impacts to productivity.
Schedules, Cash Flow, and Billings
Now is a great time to take a look at your submittal logs. Evaluate what the outstanding items are that require submission, what are feasible and reasonable project alternates for materials, and how will these delays affect the overall procurement process. Some important considerations to evaluate when revising the critical path schedule include:
- Delays that may result from inspections and municipalities
- Consumable material and PPE shortage affecting critical activities
- Critical path materials (domestic sourcing – transportation delays)
- Critical path materials (international sourcing – port delays)
- Adversely impacted trade partners and defaulted vendors
- Claims and change orders (pre-COVID-19)
- Claims and change orders (post-COVID-19)
- Utility start-ups
- Owner FFE (furniture, fixtures and equipment)
- Crew stacking and labor shortages
In addition to being a best practice regardless of the state of the world, rolling cash flow curves illustrate where the money will come from. It is also important to include the costs associated with extending the project timeline if that ends up being a result of work stoppages.
For all projects, it is important to generate a 12-month projection. This should illustrate the cash flow as well as potential impacts due to overtime, shipping and supply chain costs, and any additional expenditures like rentals, trailers, temporary utilities, etc.
Other financial considerations that must be evaluated include bonding, insurance costs, builder’s risk policies, and the state of unapproved change orders. Finally, it is important to evaluate how each customer has been impacted. If possible, try to gather information about their state of liquidity and ability to make progress payments in the long-term.
Are You Done-Done?
Having a well thought out close-out strategy has become more important than ever before. Many contractors may have a laundry list of items to complete when they consider themselves ‘done’ with a project, but in the era of COVID-19 you need to truly be DONE-DONE.
Be sure to adhere stringently to the established project exit strategy plans. Things to consider as you hold these exit strategy meetings include:
- Punch lists and close-outs may have a “new normal” as it relates to cleaning and hygiene
- The close-out process with the prime contractor, trade partners, and customers is critical
- Consider the restart meeting as “preconstruction planning” for the last 10% of the job
- Once the project is complete, do not forget to catalog all of the lessons learned
After the initial shock of these restarts, the projects themselves will assume their normal trajectories. Careful monitoring of the schedule and budget adherence will be critical and complacency is dangerous with any project. Don’t let these new challenges go to waste and take the opportunity to learn from this.
The Return to Better
This is truly an opportunity for our industry to step beyond what was once considered normal and define a new, better reality for ourselves. What this looks like may vary by region or by company, but some examples of returning to better might include:
- A continued commitment to safety, health, and wellbeing. Construction is a business of people and protecting them should continue to be the first and foremost goal of all firms.
- A focus on diversity. As the way we get work done in construction changes to meet the new normal, those that serve that path are more diverse than ever. This is an opportunity to attract non-traditional professional and digital natives that will drive innovation across all phases of work.
- Industrialized construction will grow. Methods such as prefab, offsite, modular, robotics, automation, and more will become more viable as teams explore ways to control who needs to be on site and when.
- Data, dashboards, and predictive analytics will become more important. These tools not only track construction progress, but will also accelerate new indicators for health and safety, quality, and productivity focused KPIs.
- Digital workflows, information exchanges, and lean methodologies will rise. As resources, supplies, workforces, and budgets are constrained, the way work is done will benefit from additional planning and agile approaches to common practices.
Resources from FMI and Autodesk
To learn more about how your team can start planning for project restarts, check out the following FMI and Autodesk resources: