Remote working on a construction project, how is that even possible?

Although building sites were never officially closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction industry was thrown into crisis and forced to rethink ways of working overnight. Social distancing requirements placed restrictions on the number of people that could safely be together on a building site, which gave rise to all manner of tactics to prevent work from coming to a complete halt.

Joanne Higginson EMBA 2020 shares her perspective on how tech is helping the construction industry adapt.  Oculo is an LBS Incubator startup founded by Tom Kotecki EMBA 2019 and Wojtek Szymczak MBA 2019. 

Construction projects are costed based on how long a job takes and on how long different trades need to be onsite, with significant penalties levied by clients when projects overrun. Given this backdrop, anything that could keep building sites operating at even half speed was desperately needed.  

So, how did COVID-19 push the construction industry to innovate?

Adoption of digital technologies

People have been toying with the idea of digitizing construction for years, but it has never gained significant momentum. The government has recently tried to accelerate digitization by pushing BIM (Building Information Models) which tackles this from one angle, but there are countless other opportunities to use data, artificial intelligence and other technologies to increase building project efficiencies and boost productivity.

Construction could, in some senses, be viewed as the last bastion of labour intensive, manual work and so the million-dollar question is whether the digital tools and innovation adopted in haste – such as those created by startup Oculo – will survive beyond the necessity of lockdown.

Oculo is one of the start-ups in the LBS Incubator and it uses 360 video and artificial intelligence to track construction project progress. The software effectively creates a Google Streetview of a building site that allows the user to move from room to room virtually so they can see how work has progressed via an online platform. This has been vital for keeping projects moving during the pandemic when half of the professionals involved can’t be on site in person.

Four months of enforced adoption should be long enough for new practices to become as routine and habitual as the old ways they replace, but long-held resistance can also be hard to overcome.

Creating new habits

Amongst the larger main contractors Oculo works with, there is the grim realization that social distancing requirements will exist long after the lockdown has eased and so they are proactively implementing new ways of working, using everything from generic collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, to construction-specific SaaS products, such as Oculo. They are taking the view that, where it is possible, remote working needs to become the norm, rather than a temporary crisis management strategy.

Many are still feeling their way with this and so review boards have emerged at both the industry level and within companies as a result. These seek to evaluate the new tools and innovations that are being trialed by members, as well as to share best practice, so they provide a great platform for start-ups to reach a broader audience who need to solve a very pressing problem.

All of this is motivated by a strong desire to get back to “business as usual” and, with hundreds of businesses hitting the wall because of the pandemic, who can blame them. But we do also detect a strong sense of corporate social responsibility and a desire to look after employees this is particularly true of those contractors working on public sector projects, where company values and reputation factor highly in the tendering process.

Putting both of these factors together, it’s likely that large contractors will continue to carry out a broad range of tasks and activities remotely even when they no longer need to.  Furthermore, we also expect them to start experimenting with new technologies and innovation more as they come to realize that resilience is partially aided by flexibility.

Flexibility reaps rewards

At the opposite end of the scale are smaller companies who take a much more pragmatic view focused on getting the immediate job done. For them, adopting new technology is not about pilots and large-scale roll-out programmes, they simply try something and if they see a benefit, they stick with it. 

Many started using Oculo for the sole reason that they needed a temporary way to view their sites remotely, but having now settled into it, they see a broader range of benefits and opportunities. Primary amongst these are the time and cost savings made by not having to travel to site as often. 

For this reason then, we expect smaller construction companies particularly, to move to a hybrid way of working whereby they carry out site audits and trouble shoot issues collaboratively online using remote site view tools like Oculo, not because they have to or because it is the socially responsible thing to do, but because it is simply more practical and more efficient. 

The pandemic’s silver linings

All in all, remote work is becoming much more commonplace in construction and we are optimistic that this will be a catalyst for wider digitization and technology adoption across the industry as a whole. There aren’t going to be many silver linings coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic but we hope this will be one.

About the author

Joanne Higginson EMBA 2020 is Oculo’s Marketing Director. The Oculo team is currently fundraising.

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