If we learn nothing else from this crisis surely we will realise that we are all capable of so much more than we thought
Many years ago, at an interview for my first graduate job, I was asked – “Where do you want to be in 10 years’ time?”. I remember thinking that it was a strange question to ask. My main objective was to get through the next 10 minutes and secure the job – 10 years seemed such an enormous time horizon. Of course, looking back, that 10 years passed in the blink of an eye.
Now, I feel that the whole industry is in that interview. The impact of the coronavirus on us as individuals, on our businesses, on the very fabric of civil society, is huge. All we want is for it to end, to get through it, secure our livelihoods and “get back to normal”. But when it has passed, it will remain as an indelible part of the collective memory of millions of people and it will have a long-term impact on the industry.
And so, even as we are dealing with the day-to-day imperatives of sickness, social distancing, cash-flow crises and isolation, we do need to have one eye on the future. Where do we want to be when this is over, and what can we do now to make sure that it is not an entirely negative chapter?
Four of the key themes that we were facing in January seem particularly pertinent, but perhaps we could have a new perspective on each of them.
For those whose job does not demand them to be on site, the biggest challenge of working from home is their IT systems. For those whose day-to-day currency was already cloud storage, collaboration tools and BIM models, working from home is not that great a problem. Similarly, the sites with the greatest proportion of off-site manufactured components are the ones best able to practice social distancing.
Both contractors and consultants have seen jobs stalled and my feeling is that in the immediate post-covid-19 aftermath this dip in workload will continue, while clients reassess their stalled projects and government tries to re-balance the books and determine the most effective ways to stimulate the economy. The companies that will thrive will be those that have learned lessons from the crisis, increased their flexibility and innovation, and significantly improved their productivity.
A lot of work has been done in the last couple of years to improve working practices, diversity and inclusion and wellness in the construction industry. However, it is clear from current media coverage that there is still a long way to go. It is striking that although thousands of construction workers have been involved in the incredible conversion of conference centres into Nightingale hospitals, the predominant imagery broadcast by the media has been of army personnel, while the portrayal of construction workers has been of unruly queueing at site entrances.
As businesses struggle financially, now is not the time to revert back to old ways, but to re-double our efforts to further modernise both the practices and the image of our industry and to emerge from the crisis as a critical enabler of economic and social re-construction, not the villain of the piece.
The impact of coronavirus is immediate and undeniable. But it is also time-limited. The impact of climate change is long-term, is often denied but if left uncontrolled will have far longer consequences. The last three months has shown us that, when needs must, governments can do things that would have been considered impossible only weeks before. It has also shown that even a small period of industrial inactivity and social immobility has seen a massive improvement in air quality and a fall in CO2 emissions to a 60-year low.
We know that there has been lots of lobbying by numerous interested parties to water down or delay environmental legislation to protect short-term business interests. If we learn nothing else from this crisis we surely must have learned that co-ordinated, scientifically robust and sustained action produces results and we are all capable of much more than we thought we were. Coming out of the crisis we must take the same approach to climate change action – with robust, co-ordinated plans based on science, with strict enforcement.
The date for the UK to complete its transition from the EU remains 31 December 2020. With no press coverage of the state of the negotiations it is impossible for a bystander to tell whether or not a hard Brexit is more or less likely than when we formally left the EU in January.
But, with many borders across Europe effectively closed and free movement of both goods and people severely restricted, we may be getting something of a trial run of how things will be when we are completely outside the EU.
This is testing the resilience of companies and supply chains and some may find that their hitherto short-term, race to the bottom approach will not stand them in the greatest of stead for the post EU, post-covid-19 era.
So, let us try and keep ourselves safe and well in these uncertain times. And let us try and work together as an industry to take the positive lessons learned to come out of this unexpected retrenchment fitter than we went into it.
This article originally appeared on building.co.uk