Up until very recently, construction had been one of the less affected sectors in the global pandemic crisis. As sites now close and work grinds to a halt across the country, the industry is understandably too busy right now to look beyond the immediate crisis, but when restrictions do eventually ease how will the sector recover?
This is a sector that, even before the devastating impact of the virus, was already in the emergency room waiting for a new treatment. Twenty two firms entered administration in January, with a 158 in stages of liquidation and a further 67 in meetings with creditors. At that time, before any impact of coronavirus was considered, the estimate was that around 4,000 construction firms would cease trading in 2020. As the economic impact of government restrictions tighten over the next few weeks, the sad reality is that many more businesses than ever imagined will be forced to close.
How quickly the sector can recover when the crisis subsides will depend on a number of factors. Supply chain capacity is likely to be severely limited as a result of the disruption. The health of the banking sector will have a significant impact on recovery, dictating how willing the banks are to allow delayed payments to support business liquidity.
Perhaps though, when faint light appears at what currently feels like a pretty long tunnel, the time will have come to make some of the changes that the industry has been talking about for years. Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” and while this crisis will have a devasting effect on in the sector, it may also be the opportunity for a reset. Short term change in working practices for a few weeks may not last, but we are all in this for the long haul and many will realise that their new approaches to deal with the crisis need not be temporary.
Government and public organisations are using emergency powers to streamline as much bureaucracy as possible in areas like procurement. Businesses are thinking more creatively to rapidly innovate new solutions using different processes. Technology is already playing a major part in changing how businesses operate and survive the crisis. The Farmer Report’s mantra of ‘modernise or die’ could not be more relevant than it is today.
Artificial Intelligence, digital engineering and offsite construction all have a major role to play in driving productivity and quality across the sector. However, their benefits have too often been overlooked in preference for doing things the ‘way we always have’.
Einstein also said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”, which is what construction in the UK has been doing for years.
When this is over the construction sector will recover, hopefully quickly, but it needs to ensure that the crisis does not mask the problems that already existed, and in doing so, create the opportunity to reset and change for long term success.