Truth be told, I expected our organisation’s transition to remote working to be more challenging than it turned out to be. While the relevant technology and processes were in place well before COVID-19, the default behaviour and culture within construction was that you had to be on site, or in the office.
I was genuinely stunned when, presented with the challenge of remote working, our people put aside their historical behaviours – just like that – and adopted a new way of working within three days. I’ve been involved with IT Transformations for about 17 years now, with seven of those in the construction sector, and without doubt it’s the fastest successful transformation programme I’ve ever seen, with minimal business disruption. Not because of the technology, the processes, or the people in isolation of each other, but the right combination, at the right time.
As we start to reopen fully, we need to think about how remote working could reshape the future of the construction industry. We have a real opportunity to be bold and pursue changes that can allow us to lead from the front:
For enabling functions like HR, IT, Legal or Communications, work is very much a thing we do not a place we need to be, so there’s a real opportunity for this segment of the workforce to find a better working balance between the office and home. We’d already made a conscious decision to ensure our systems are cloud based, so people can connect, communicate and collaborate wherever they are, on whatever device. The main challenge with this balance will always be a social one: no matter how seasoned we are at remote working, at some point we all crave face to face interaction. And, as I’ve found out, working at home every day with a toddler and another child on the way, it’s a lot more effort to achieve the same results.
For effective remote working, we need to enable people a little differently than we would in the office, and we need to understand how best to help them set up in their homes. Some will need improved connectivity solutions depending on where they live, some will need additional hardware and furniture. The good news is that we can provide everything to replicate or improve on what was available within the office. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams are well embedded into our organisation and we provide ongoing training to exploit all available features.
For teams that split their time between site and office, we need a better way than traditional field-based information and insights. This is where there’s an opportunity to really transform.
Cloud based systems mean we can access content from disparate systems regardless of location. Through our systems and data integration capability, we provide useful transactional information to help us derive new insights. For example, it’s now entirely possible for us to put vehicle movements, people movement, plant movement, instrumentation data and environmental data onto a single a geographical map, to enable real time insight into site operations. Across 80km, this provides a completely different lens on all the moving pieces of a construction operation, from anywhere.
For some things though, our people will still need to see what’s happening on site, and this is where Computer Vision could really come into its own. Quite simply it’s about training cameras to alert us to things that could be of interest, rather than having to look at a constant video feed. We’re already trialling this with CCTV – training cameras to be our ‘eyes on the ground ‘for security. This technology could be used in multiple settings across environmental, construction, earthworks, health and safety, and logistics, to allow people in those teams to see what’s happening on site without needing to be there physically.
All this visual and transactional information also paves the way for new skillsets to be introduced to our industry. Data science and analytics roles aren’t traditionally seen within construction but could be important in shaping the future efficiency of operations without stepping foot on site. We need to be bold and think about how we can harness all the available data to better inform our intermediary teams and enable them to adopt new working models.
Just two years ago, many couldn’t see the application for augmented reality, but we were looking at how we could set up virtual control rooms and live monitor operations. Imagine being able to setup a virtual control room with multiple screens and information feeds within minutes, at home, to bring the worksite to life. And it’s just data, that we’re capturing already, visualised in a different way.
For our site teams, based permanently in the field, our focus will continue to be using technology to complete tasks remotely. There are numerous applications already, from the use of remote control and semi-autonomous plant for earthworks, the use of drones to perform site wide surveying, to the use of IoT (Internet of Things) devices to help us remotely monitor activities. And as before, the technology is there to help us already. We just need to know what problem we’re trying to fix and I’m sure we can prototype anything this industry throws at us.
There is a wealth of opportunities for real transformation in the construction sector to embrace remote working, and we’re fortunate to not only have demand for change from the business, but also so many industry suppliers/partners who can help accelerate our journey for change. It feels like we’re at the right point in time, considering everything happening around us, to bring people, processes and technology together and shape the transformation of our industry.