Contractors face an industry that has been drastically changed by the both public health and economic effects of the pandemic.
From a renewed emphasis on jobsite safety to longer project delivery times and the increased influence of organized labor, the virus has upended many facets of the industry. Companies that try to return to a business-as-usual mentality will face a harsh new reality.
Here are eight ways that COVID-19 has altered the construction industry for the near future and beyond.
Jobsites will be cleaner and safer
The virus put a spotlight on the importance of worker health and safety, and U.S. contractors responded by implementing new jobsite policies such as staggered shifts, employee temperature checks and top-to-bottom disinfections of jobsites, tools and machinery.
Many construction companies have implemented a variety of protocols to promote social distancing and employee health, including a ban on carpooling, a 100% mask and glove policy and well-stocked handwashing stations. This emphasis on cleaner, less crowded work areas is one that won’t recede after the virus does.
The new normal will be reinforced by state, local and federal regulations, such as the ones recently proposed in Washington and Pennsylvania, and in the near future, OSHA could require employers to develop written infectious disease preparedness and response plans, said attorney Michael Rubin, chair of Goldberg Segalla’s national OSHA and Worksite Safety practice group.
Medical experts' belief that outbreaks across the world will come in waves for months or even years to come make safety plans important now and into the future.
- Distancing will be the norm, via technology
The current emphasis on social distancing on jobsites will likely continue even after the current health threat passes. We can expect to see less group activities and more clearly defined procedures and protocols for even some of the most routine work tasks.
Even as the current outbreak subsides in many areas, state and local officials are putting measures in place to mitigate risk on construction sites going forward. For instance, new guidance in Washington state requires that jobsite employees keep 6 feet away from each other and non-compliance could lead to a project shutdown.
The need for social distancing has also changed how contractors interact with project teams and with customers and companies have developed unique solutions to stay in touch. Los Angeles-based AECOM has launched an interactive web-based tool that allows clients to hold virtual public meetings, a crucial component in the process of creating public projects such as town halls, stadiums and concert venues. The platform allows AECOM employees and customers to engage with the public about the impact and benefits of proposed projects without leaving their homes.
In addition, in some areas of the country, building departments are implementing remote technology for inspections, a trend that will continue after the health crisis is over.
The industry is going to come up with some really efficient ways of doing business. And because people are also very aware of what's going on in the news, so they're more willing to accept change right now, and this is the perfect time to do it.
- Projects will take longer
Many of the major safety changes on construction sites will add to the time it takes to complete projects. While crucial to keeping workers healthy, techniques such suiting up with PPE, only allowing one trade on a site at a time and staggering work shifts will slow down progress and the days of fast-tracking a project may be over — at least for now, experts say.
Contractors should consider time constraints when bidding out new jobs to make sure the contract reflects a reasonable construction schedule. The entire project team needs to understand that at least in the near term, projects will take longer than before.
- Telework will become more common
The coronavirus has also brought major changes to construction’s back offices. Forced to stay at home, many office employees have kept business operations running via remote work, relying on technology like videoconferencing, emailing and texting to stay in touch.
This nationwide experiment in telework will likely cause many leaders to think about making the practice permanent. A recent study found that 74% of American companies will move at least 5% of their office workforce to permanently remote and nearly a quarter of respondents said they will move at least 20% to permanently remote positions.
- Union influence will grow
Since World War II, the percentage of the U.S. construction industry involved in union memberships has steadily declined, from about 87% of the workforce in 1947 to 12.8% in 2018. Nevertheless, since the pandemic began, trade unions have taken on renewed influence in many areas of the country by advocating for members’ best interests in keeping sites operational and safe.
Trade unions in New York state were instrumental last month in persuading government officials to shut down projects that were previously allowed to continue, and in Massachusetts, two unions staged walkouts earlier this month in protest of what they deemed to be unsanitary working conditions.
Other unions have wielded their influence to keep members on the job. Last month, North America's Building Trade Unions teamed up with the Associated General Contractors of America to ask government officials at all levels to make construction an essential service and exempt it from regional, state and local shutdowns.
During the crisis, unions have provided a voice for workers who are struggling to decide whether they should stay home or go to work, said Mark Erlich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program. Unions also help laborers find new work after a layoff.
The appeal of unions will be stronger than ever going forward...a trend that will likely come into conflict with cost-cutting measures that construction employers will inevitably be considering once they reckon with the financial losses from the crisis.
To get ready for this trend, general contractors should be prepared to collaborate with unions and ensure they create work environments that meet their high standards for jobsite health and safety, even if they operate in traditionally open shop states.
- Demand for project types will change
The coronavirus outbreak has reshaped the types of projects that will be built this year and for many years to come. Hospitality, retail and entertainment projects are likely to be in less demand while healthcare construction and healthcare-related manufacturing projects could see more activity.
In addition, demand for distribution and warehouse space may likely increase as U.S. companies favor higher inventory levels and emphasize supply chain resiliency over efficiency.
Less reliance on Chinese-made building products will create a surge of new manufacturing- and supply chain-related construction projects such as factories and warehouses.
- Supply chains will recalibrate
Even before the outbreak hit the U.S., the coronavirus created major global supply chain disruptions, especially of goods from China, the source of about 30% of U.S. building materials last year. Government containment efforts and quarantines in China slowed or shut down factories in dozens of cities and provinces, leading to a falloff in production of everything from cars to smartphones. U.S. builders have noted delays and shortages in items like steel, surfacing and case goods.
With so many sourcing challenges on the horizon, many American construction firms will be hesitant to resume orders from Chinese suppliers. Going forward there is expected to be a lot of reshoring back in the U.S., where there will be an increase in manufacturing ability here as well as heading into Mexico.
- Modular adoption will increase
An enhanced focus on worker safety will help accelerate the industry’s move to offsite construction methods. While many contractors have relied on prefabrication for years, the coronavirus pandemic will motivate more firms to investigate the benefits of offsite building.
The assembly-line efficiency and climate-controlled environment of factory production can save on labor costs and shorten project schedules, but other advantages will take center stage in post-pandemic construction, including increased site safety and reduced congestion.