The unthinkable has already happened and here we are now grappling with a situation that we have not been designed or trained to handle (yes, a disruption of this scale has not happened in living memory of most of us) as no empirical models or case-studies are available.
Coming from the limited perspective of construction industry in India & Asia Pacific to some extent, I believe the following imperatives are a given henceforth and we are better off prepared for it. Some of these may have already happened and this lock-down state will only hasten and some others may just be round the corner.
1. Knowledge work & Work From Home (WFH)
Much against the common belief, a lot of work in the industry get done behind the scenes or away from site – be it design (architectural, structural, MEP or any other), engineering, CNC aided & IoT enabled remote manufacturing / fabrication, quantity surveying & pre-contract activities (preparation of bills of quantities, tender documentation, correspondence) and co-ordination (between designers, consultants, contractors, suppliers & developers) as well as lot of post contract closure documentation.
All of this, save for routine need based in-person meetings or discussions, can be handled outside of the conventional office that we are so used. Concerns regarding security, intellectual property and confidentiality are already addressed by our peers from other industries like Information Technology & Business Process Outsourcing who have shown remarkable agility in solving the challenges of Work From Home (WFH). Taking a leaf out of their learnings, perhaps our industry will also adopt best practices that, besides the usual direct savings in office space, bandwidth & infrastructure, will lead to better work-life balance (a record that our industry is not too proud of), less travel & less stress and perhaps better productivity. After all, many other industries besides the above, have also proven that output by a knowledge worker may not be impacted by location. Besides, current communication tools like zoom, google hangout, share and others are already well established. Most of the software that we currently work on like AutoCAD, MS Office Suite, almost all Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems as well as specialized software like StaadPro, SAP & Primavera have proven & tested Enterprise solutions that can aid or facilitate such collaboration in real-time thereby reducing the need for fixed location working for sizeable number of professionals.
2. Non-invasive & impersonal quality assessment
The current over reliance on front line & micro-level supervision of work processes done by contractors at site is another area that is being questioned. The industry as a whole need to re-look and question the efficacy & relevance of the current doer-checker-approver model that relies heavily on visual & in-process validation of work in light of current advancements in proof method of quality assessment using technology and doer being held more accountable to the commitments made by him towards delivering quality.
There are challenges to remote working as we have come to know now like bandwidth & connectivity issues, net clogging with too many people logging in, hardware & software challenges but I reckon these will be addressed over a period of time. There is a strong case for improving in-process checks by contractors themselves which will obviate the need for more people at construction sites and these supervisory staff can be utilized for carrying out value-added works like design & contract administration duties of which there is a huge shortage in the industry and which as I mentioned earlier are not location centric jobs and can be a good candidate for WFH.
3. Reality of migrant construction workers
Migration for socio-economic considerations has been in vogue for centuries and of most recent origin being that of professionals moving to developed countries like US & Europe in the sixties & seventies to the large-scale temporary migration of skilled workers to middle east & east Asian countries in the eighties onwards. The intra—country migration of skilled workers & professionals is a recent phenomenon in India starting from late 90s to early part of this century. This being a given today where large sections of our population are working in other states, a better approach than mobilizing & demobilizing these workers at will (who are life-blood of any cityscape doing everything from construction work to security guard to hotel helpers & office assistants to civic workers) in times of unfavorable conditions and treating them as dispensable will not speak good of any society or industry.
We are now coming to terms with this reality of having to co-exist with them and make them part of our society just like everyone else. They are the weakest link in the chain since most of them live in very densely populated and oftentimes in bad conditions. Some long-term view of them by the employers would perhaps reduce the disruption to business activities by eliminating large scale migration of the kind seen in current period. One question that remains in my mind is whether all the workers who have gone back to their native would return back & resume work as if nothing has happened or would they choose to do otherwise?
4. Housing of construction workers
Several countries in Middle East & Asia Pacific who employ large numbers of construction workers (most notably Dubai & Singapore) have effectively defined and enforced construction worker housing policies. This is something that is severely lacking in India exposing our workers to grave danger in terms of calamities as well as sub-standard living & unhygienic conditions that also cause other social problems to the society as such like increased crime rates, low morale etc which can be addressed by having a comprehensive housing policy that is effectively enforced across all major cities by making the employer responsible.
My understanding is that several laws exist but do not give full coverage to the issue and where it exists, it lacks proper enforcement. Designated construction worker accommodation areas & rules for dormitories as is done in above countries would go a long way in orderly transport, behavior & control of the workforce which are essential to construction industry.
Hope all of you are staying home & safe!
Part 2 coming soon.
Working From Home,