Throughout 2019 and even in early 2020, discussions about new technologies and the future of construction work have been framed as something to keep an out for in the 5 or 10 years. Pre-pandemic, the future of construction was seen as something that lives… well, in the future, and therefore wasn’t something to be concerned about today.
But COVID-19 shook up the industry and accelerated the need to adopt new solutions like automation, robotics, and advanced analytics. The pandemic also shed light on the importance of humans in construction projects, and how people’s roles need to shift in the new normal.
Simply put, there’s a new sense of urgency for construction firms to change and adapt. This means, to plan for the future of construction — particularly as it relates to the workforce — tomorrow’s concerns need to be addressed today.
Let’s explore how all of this plays out in the construction industry and what you can do to prepare.
Human beings and technology are often pitted against each other. There’s this “us versus them” mentality around people and tech, and many are quick to think that new gadgets or software will replace people.
And while it’s true that technology (e.g. automation, artificial intelligence, etc.) can start doing things that were previously assigned to people, that doesn’t mean humans won’t have roles to play going forward.
Sure, you can use analytics to crunch the numbers, but you still need someone to analyze the data and surface meaningful insights. Drones can play a role in site inspections, but it still takes skilled workers to operate the technology; not to mention, there are numerous tasks that require the presence of field workers.
In many cases, technology creates new opportunities for people while helping them be more productive and creative at the same time. And let’s not forget that construction is still a people-centric field. Your construction clients are humans, not robots. And for the most part, we construct buildings or renovate spaces for people, which means humans will always have a prominent role behind the scenes and on the jobsite.
The key is to figure out which roles people should own, and how they can work with technology. As Deloitte puts it:
“Organizations should evolve their thinking about technology from taking a purely substitution view (replacing humans with technology) to using technology as an augmentation or collaboration strategy. The latter view can allow organizations to not only streamline costs, but to also create value and ultimately, provide meaning to the workforce as a whole.”
We can see this in action the robot SAM (Semi-Automated Mason), whose purpose is to install bricks. SAM isn’t there to replace humans; it’s there to make their jobs easier and safer. The robot does the heavy lifting, but human masons are responsible for setting up and operating the system, as well as striking the joints and ensuring wall quality.
Scott L. Peters, the co-founder of Construction Robotics explains that SAM enables workers to continue using their knowledge and skills without having the demand on their bodies that they may have had previously.
Aim for that level of thinking and action when you’re adopting new technologies and hiring workers. As you move forward with new solutions or practices, see to it that you’re seeing the relationship between people and technology as symbiotic, rather than combative.
When discussing COVID-19, many people express the desire to “go back to normal.” Nonetheless, things will never completely go back to the way things were; the only path is forward. The sooner firms embrace a new mentality, the more effectively they can prepare for the future of construction work.
Rather than waiting for things to “return to normal,” construction firms must forge ahead. The path likely won’t be easy and there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, which is why it’s important to build an adaptable and resilient workforce.
To thrive, employees must be able to quickly roll with unexpected situations and they should be in a position to move and change course when necessary. A big part of doing that means arming your team with the right tools — i.e., hardware and software that allow them to work and collaborate from anywhere.
It’s also important to instill the right mindsets and skills in your workers. Train them on research and critical thinking. Introduce new thought processes — ones that push them to be agile and flexible. Mindfulness exercises that encourage employees to be more aware and present may help as well. The Harvard Business Review points out that mindfulness improves cognitive flexibility, judgment accuracy, and insight-related problem-solving.
To maximize your success, incorporate these things into your construction culture. Foster an environment of collaboration and focus on continuous learning through initiatives like mentorships and upskilling. When employees are encouraged to work together and are regularly stimulated, they’ll be more agile and adaptable.
Finally, make sure you’re recruiting the right people. Expand your hiring strategies and bring in candidates from diverse technical backgrounds — even if they’re not strictly construction-focused. A diverse and well-rounded workforce gives you access to a variety of talents and skills, which are valuable when dealing with an uncertain and fast-changing environment.
The things we discussed thus far (i.e., using people and tech effectively, and increasingly adaptability) will only be possible with accurate data and streamlined workflows.
In order for your operations to be productive, safe, and effective, all of your firm’s components — from your people and processes to your data and tech — should be connected. Information must flow smoothly across multiple teams and areas of the business.
How do you accomplish that?
Start with using a central construction management system powered by the cloud. Rather than giving different teams separate tools or solutions, have your staff collaborate on one platform, when possible. If you need to rely on multiple solutions, ensure you have solid data and technology integrations that can create a connected tech stack. Doing so helps you unlock several benefits including:
Automated workflows. A tightly integrated system reduces the need for manual entry, which paves the way for automated and streamlined workflows. Teams work faster and are more productive — and this critical, particularly with today’s new safety protocols and the limited number of people onsite.
Better access to insights. You get better visibility into your data. Rather than trying to retrieve information from siloed systems, the data you need lives in one place, making it easy to uncover trends and insights that can inform project decisions.
Improved collaboration. Having connected construction data and workflows keeps team members on the same page, which allows them to collaborate more effectively.
Artificial intelligence and predictive analytics are already doing wonders for the construction industry. These technologies are helping firms plan projects, optimize schedules, and manage tasks, among other things.
And in the age of COVID-19, AI, predictive analytics, and machine learning are playing an increasingly important role: keeping jobsites and workers safe.
Needless to say, health and safety should be a priority when you’re gearing up for the future of construction work, and we highly recommend tapping into these solutions.
We can already see applications of how AI helps reduce COVID-19 risk in the workplace. The contractor Barton Malow, for instance, uses AI technologies from Smartvid.io and Autodesk BIM 360 to keep jobsites safe during the pandemic. Barton Malow uses an AI solution named Vinnie which can identify safety issues in photos. Vinnie can recognize when there's a lack of PPE or when individuals aren't standing six feet apart.
It’s important to note that the objective here isn’t to “catch” people who aren’t complying with guidelines. Rather, Vinnie's goal is to assess risk and help teams take action or direct resources where they're needed.
Aside from helping you enforce safety measures, AI can also enable you to make smarter decisions around health and safety. A BIM 360 IQ project with Autodesk found that AI algorithms were able to understand risk, which means it could figure out which problems to prioritize and what could happen if certain concerns weren’t addressed.
That can be incredibly useful when operating amidst a pandemic. You need to constantly assess the risk of spreading the virus and make quick decisions accordingly. With AI, you don’t have to go in blind. The technology can assist you with data and recommendations so you can make decisions that keep your workforce safe.
Preparing for the future is always something to keep in mind, but COVID-19 has undoubtedly brought more urgency to this task. It’s high time to prepare your workforce for the future, and doing that requires you to level up in terms of technology, adaptability, efficiency, and safety. It’s time to start building a strong construction workforce today… and for the advancement of construction’s future.