Taking a lead from high-hit COVID-19 areas: UK construction offices will help recover the sector in 2021

Why all construction workers in the UK must eventually return to the site and how this can be achieved safely.

Construction workers continue to face adversity through the pandemic. The initial lockdown and social distancing restrictions hit the sector in terms of output. The decrease in output has led to the biggest drop since records began in 2010. Scotland and England have allowed construction to continue since the first lockdown, spelling a recovery for the sector. However, while workers such as labourers and site managers have returned to the site, other roles continue to work from home. Roles which require an office base, such as engineers, architects, and surveyors, can continue to complete work remotely.

But as the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight, some industry leaders worry that the remote working abilities of many in construction industries may withhold an efficient recovery for the sector.

The suitability of remote working in construction

According to one employee experience index, 49% of people working in UK construction and engineering had no experience of working from home before the pandemic. Furthermore, 91% of those who have remote working experience would usually work from home for only one day or less per week.

Add this to the fact that only 32% of home-workers have a dedicated working space at home, the evidence creates a clear determination: the construction industry is not suitable for remote working conditions.

While the construction industry evaded the compulsory closing of non-essential businesses during the second and third national lockdown in England, social distancing regulations and expectations of who can work on-site remain. The guidance prioritises those who cannot work from home. In construction and engineering, this may be limited to labourers and infrequent visits from engineers when on-site reviews must be completed.

However, while working from home has been possible during the pandemic, there is little motivation to maintain this culture. Construction must remain focussed on safety and quality, which can only be achieved through in-person assessment.

Making space a priority

Despite the vaccine rollout, experts agree that social distancing will continue for the majority of 2021. However, as construction workers continue to return to sites, these regulations must be adhered to. As a consequence, additional working space is essential.

While this space can be employed as a temporary measure, site managers may look for a storage container to create a portable and easy shelter for workers. As an office, the space is versatile, allowing engineers to review plans and make appropriate amendments in the vicinity of the construction work. Office spaces are valuable for collaboration, and with a variety of roles on construction, office space is central in curating innovative decisions which can help improve the quality of work, regulate safety on site, and help reduce costs.

Working from home prevents this collaborative effort. While objectives such as CAD and steel detailing may be compatible with remote working, doing this in isolation prevents co-workers and other departments from contributing to the planning stage.

Recovering the work

There is a consensus among construction workers that normal working circumstances should return as soon as possible to help the sector recover. The Office for National Statistics states that while construction output has achieved a seventh consecutive month of growth and has finally recovered to meet pre-pandemic levels, aspects of the sector such as new work still 3.1% below output in February 2020. This represents £282 million of output in the sector. New public housing construction, which requires efficient processes, is still 22.1% below its pre-pandemic level. There is a clear need for normal work processes to resume.

Continuing into 2021, a clear majority of construction businesses do not intend to maintain remote working capabilities. According to the ONS, only 5.5% of construction businesses want a permanent increase of home working, as opposed to 83.5% who do not want remote working to increase after the pandemic. Some 11% of businesses were not sure.

While the construction sector makes it clear that remote working should be avoided in the future, only one in five businesses show any real desire to increase these capabilities. Business leaders have proved that attending the workplace is best for productivity and output.

While all industries have taken a hit during the past year, confidence in construction is at risk of not returning to its full potential unless appropriate action is taken. Resuming normal working conditions is essential and doing this while adhering to social distancing and health guidelines is important. Accommodating as many workers back into construction sites and offices may be the saving factor for the sector.